I was at a funeral recently. It was a beautiful service where so many people gathered together to celebrate and honor the life of a remarkable woman. As members of her family and friends got up to speak about her, they all echoed similar sentiments. That she was incredibly kind and selfless. She was always quick to lend a smile, a helping hand or share a meal. That Marilyn was always willing to be of service to others.
They talked about her deep and sincere Christian faith and her passionate but not pushy love of God. How she spent so much of her time devoted to supporting and guiding others. The one thing that came through for me again and again as each person shared their memories - is that they all believed that she truly "walked the walk". She strived in her thoughts, words and actions to emulate the teachings of her compassionate Beloved - which for Marilyn was Jesus.
You see, Marilyn didn't just go through the motions. She actually lived her faith. She didn't just read the Bible - so she could memorize and later quote scripture at people. She didn't just learn all the beautiful hymns of her church to show off her musical ability - she used them like mantras - singing them quietly even as her body was giving out and falling away. She kept God in her thoughts, in her encouraging words and in the good deeds of her hands.
Marilyn didn't keep her spiritual knowledge just on the level of her mind - she let it drop down into her heart - where she could embody her beliefs and live from a place of love. She let Spirit flow through all aspects of her life not just when she was in church. This is what real spiritual practice requires of us: Discipline, Dedication, Determination and Devotion. Marilyn had these qualities in spades. The way she lived her everyday life was her spiritual practice. Her life, like Gandhi, was her message.
This got me to thinking about Yoga. About what it means to "walk the walk" as a yogi and how we choose to show up in our own daily life and practice. These days, it's super easy to get confused about what "Yoga" even is. Now that yoga has become a "billion dollar industry" - people everywhere are trying to get in on the big yoga deal. Even companies like McDonald's are using yoga images to try and sell people their crappy food. It's getting over-the-top ridiculous.
This ancient practice, which is meant to help turn our focus inward - so we can experience spiritual integration - meet our true selves and unite with the Divine - is now being practiced in yoga studios equipped with disco balls and black lights. Is now being taught at yoga festivals packed with thousands of people - that feel more like frat parties than sacred pathways to the Beloved.
With the skewed cultural representation of yoga and the current trend of classes morphing into fad-style hybrids like: Salsa Yoga, Yoga & Wine Tasting & Karaoke Yoga - yes, you read that right - KARAOKE YOGA - (just writing that makes me want to bang my face off my keyboard) - it's easy to understand why people don't get the bigger picture of what Yoga really is. Or why so many people think that "yoga" is just a bunch of stretchy exercises done by skinny, white women in $100 yoga pants (or in the case of "Naked Yoga" - no pants at all.)
So what does it really mean to practice Yoga? What does it mean to "walk the walk" as a yogi? Well, I'm certainly not the authority on all things yoga and there are probably plenty of people that would disagree with me (and I'm OK with that) - but what I can share with you is what I've been telling my students for years:
"You know, if you can do Crow pose or balance on your hands or stick your feet behind your head - that's fine, enjoy that. But just know, when you leave my class - if you go out into the world and you act like an asshole - then you're not practicing Yoga."
Here's the thing, "mastering" fancy poses is not the bottom line. Our practice might start there, but hopefully it doesn't end there. We're not just trying to open up our tight hips, we're also aiming to open our hearts and our minds. If we stop at the level of the physical and only concern ourselves with being an awesome "yoga poser" - we're kind of missing the point. Trust me, I've met more than my fair share of super flexible and super mean "yogis".
We also can't stop at the level of the mind. Which means that memorizing a few sanskrit chants or zen-like quotes that you can regurgitate at will, doesn't cut it either. When life happens and a friend is suffering - they don't need you to recite some clever bullshit - they need you to be able to sit with them - hold their hand - help them breathe, or laugh or cry until they can cross over to the other side of their pain. People need us to be both willing to be vulnerable and strong enough to hold the compassionate space. We need to be able to face the dark and access the light of our hearts. This is where the real yoga practice comes in.
This is also ultimately one of the reasons why (in my opinion) we even do the yoga asanas in the first place. The postures don't just help us to build our physical muscles, they also strengthen our spiritual muscles. They prepare us for what happens once we step off the mat.
What the poses offer us, is a chance to put ourselves in positions - where we experience (over and over again) some sort of sensation. Maybe a bit of discomfort, a grip of contraction or a feeling of fear. And in that moment - we're given an opportunity to make a conscious choice. We get to decide - "Am I going to use my breath to meet this discomfort in the pose (or in my relationship or in my life) with an expanded awareness, with openness and with love or am I going to meet it with my habitual conditioned response?"
Am I going to run, bury my head in the sand and ignore what I'm currently feeling or am I willing to stay and breathe and see what's beyond this un-comfy pose or this awkward moment? What if instead of doing what we always do, we were to meet each pose, or person with curiosity, non-judgment or friendliness? How might things be different if we learned to quiet our frantic mind and could approach life with steadiness and ease?
For these are the magical moments when we can start to transform. When amidst the fear, the death, the betrayal, the diagnosis, the divorce - we find the courage to face our stuff and each other with a sense of calm and a sense of humor. When we learn to navigate the frailty of our Humanity with the power of our Divinity - miracles can happen.
My meditation teacher Easwaran puts it simply like this: "The Bhagavad Gita, says that 'Yoga is evenness of mind'. When you can keep your mind on an even keel in good fortune and bad, in pleasure and pain, when you can be kind to those who like you and to those who do not, then you have reached the state of yoga: You Are Free."
Trust me, this is not always easy to do - but this is what the practice prepares us for - how to live! Sure, we'll screw up again and again but by the grace of God, with enough fortitude, forgiveness and faith - we get better at aligning ourselves not just physically but also spiritually - so that we can access the place within us where God and Goodness already dwells. So that our thoughts, words and actions start to reflect the truth of who we really are. So that we can respond to both yoga postures and our life from a compassionate place of Love - instead of a reactionary place of Fear.
Yoga asks us to move beyond the poses and tap into the entire spectrum of this ancient art, philosophy and science. Yes, we still encounter the physical (through postures & breathing, etc.) but we also work with the mind (by withdrawing the senses away from the external world, cultivating one pointed concentration & stilling the mind through meditation) - so that we can gradually transcend the ego-self and realize a profound connection with the Divine.
The whole foundation of Yoga is built upon sound ethical standards and spiritual observances that help us to make mindful choices on how we conduct ourselves in our daily life. Suggestions from the wise beings that have come before us, the Yamas & Niyamas of Yoga are rooted in beliefs like: non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, moderation and non-greed. They guide us to practice cleanliness and contentment, to study spiritual texts and ourselves, to surrender to the God (of your own understanding). When we "walk the walk" of Yoga - hopefully we're moving in the direction of selfless service and inner peace. If you're current practice is not helping you to become more authentic and loving - it's not working. Perhaps it's time to try a new approach?
So let's set an intention for 2014 to work on our own Discipline, Dedication, Determination and Devotion. Let's commit with joy and enthusiasm to diving into the full depth and breadth of this amazing practice. Let's move beyond the limited body and awaken to living with an unlimited Spirit. Let's explore what it means to live our Yoga and discover what being a yogi really means to you!
(*Photo credit - Thanks to Recovering Yogi for the super funny picture!)
Can I just tell you how much I absolutely LOVE this quote?! I was first introduced to it by my meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran. When I read it - it went through my eyes, into my mind and then dropped straight into my heart. What echoed back was a resounding YES!
It reminds me of what the Sufi poet Rumi tells us in his beautiful poem The Guest House. He wildly encourages us to greet each day with open arms and gratitude. Knowing that whatever comes, even the stuff we don't like, has been sent as a gift (and a guide) from the Universe.
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
It takes courage to welcome EVERYTHING. I know that it can be so hard in the midst of sickness, heartbreak, disappointment and loss to muster up our courage. It's not always easy to remember, when we see and experience so much suffering, that we're children of the Divine and that we're made from the all that is good, beautiful and holy. It can be hard to find our footing, stand our ground and face our fears when we feel lost or abandoned and we've momentarily forgotten to whom we truly belong.
What I've found, is that cultivating courage for life takes willingness, faith and deep trust. In order to access my courage, I must look beyond my limited human capacity and call upon the unlimited power of Spirit. That force of love and light which is eternal, that casts out darkness and already exists within me.
I don't know what the exact answer is for you - in terms of tapping into your own courage - but I can share what has worked for me. I can say with the utmost confidence that it has been my consistent, daily practice that has saved my ass time and time again. Making a commitment each day to move my body (devotion in motion) AND carving out quiet time for the mystical and the sacred. Some of my personal practices include: Yoga, A Course In Miracles, Prayer, Passage Meditation, Mantra, writing, reading, spending time with my furry kids, etc.
What all these practices do, in their own unique way, is help remove "the interferences to the awareness of love's presence" and remind me of this one simple truth, as stated in A Course In Miracles:
"God is with me. I cannot be deceived."
It can be kind of hard to go within, call upon the Eternal and develop a solid relationship with your true Self, when your mind and hands are so busy with the temporary distractions of your iPhone, iPod, iPad, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. Make a conscious choice to put the devices down and consider instead - taking a comfortable seat and plugging in to your breath and your Beloved.
Knowing that I don't have to figure it all out and face it all on my own, knowing that God/Universe/Spirit/Higher Power/Love/Insert Your Own Word - has got my back and is guiding me from beyond - allows me to release my fear and muster up the courage I need for whatever comes in my life. I know that if I can do this, then you can too!
Last month I had the opportunity to watch a live stream video event that was taking place at The Omega Institute. It was called "Find Your Own Strength" and it featured a conversation with three women that I totally dig: Brené Brown, Joan Halifax Roshi & Elizabeth Lesser.
There were some brilliant insights shared that night but this one thing that Brené Brown said really struck me. I wanted to share it with all of you because I think it might be helpful especially as the Holidays draw near.
For many people, the Holiday season means getting together with family. Depending on the kind of relationships that you've had with your folks, your siblings and the rest of your extended kin, this can either be a super fun or super challenging time - especially in cases where there may have been an abusive, addictive, neglectful, combative, or competitive history.
Being with family sweetly puts us face to face with those we love - but it also often places us in close proximity to those we regard as our biggest PITA (pain in the ass). Even though PITAs are ultimately our greatest teachers and a gift on our spiritual journey - sometimes we just want to get through a meal without feeling bad about ourselves and without throwing insults or in some cases, plates of food.
What Brené said that night - can definitely help us to navigate the awkward, irritating and annoying situations that might come up. She told us about an encounter she'd had with a woman who always ruffles her feathers. A bona fide button-pusher who'd mastered the art of asking seemingly innocent questions that were not so secretly disguised as personal digs.
Brené said that she could feel herself about to react to this woman's latest poke at her mothering skills but she caught herself. She paused and what happened next is what A Course in Miracles would call, well, a miracle. Brené didn't use ACIM language to describe her experience but from what she shared - I could clearly hear that there was a shift in her mind from fear to love.
Before uttering a word back to her antagonist PITA, Brené started to silently repeat her authenticity mantra over and over again: "Don't shrink. Don't puff up. Just stand on your sacred ground that God gave you."
She said that doing this helped her to diffuse the situation and kept her from reacting in an equally unkind way. This was friggen' brilliant! It totally summarized and brought together many of the ACIM teachings that are already so near and dear to my heart.
Let's break this awesome message down:
#1 - Don't Shrink:
A Course in Miracles - Lesson 153 tells us - "Be not afraid nor timid."
My spiritual mom Marianne Williamson is known for her famous quote that starts: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond all measure..." In that quote she goes on to say - "Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you."
# 2 - Don't Puff Up:
It's kind of a natural animal instinct that when we feel threatened or attacked, we either try to make ourselves small (shrink) - or big (puff up). Even if the threat is a mental one and not a physical one - we either cower, run or come out swinging. (Which one do you do? I think it's important to know this stuff about ourselves.)
However, A Course in Miracles - Lesson #153 teaches us - "In my defenselessness my safety lies."
To paraphrase, it says - "This world gives rise to defensiveness. For threat brings anger, anger makes attack seem reasonable and righteous in the name of self-defense. Yet defensiveness is a double threat. For it attests to your perceived weakness. Defenses are the costliest of all the prices that the ego mind would have you pay.
Defenselessness on the other hand is strength. It testifies to recognition of the Christ/God/Goodness/Love in you. Defenselessness can never be attacked, because it recognizes strength so great - that attack is folly, or a silly game a tired child might play, when he becomes too sleepy to remember what he wants. We will not play such childish games today for our true purpose is to save/serve the world and we would not exchange for foolishness the endless joy our true function offers us."
#3 - Stand on Your Sacred Ground that God Gave You:
OK - still kind of paraphrasing here - but Lesson 153 continues, "We recognize that we need no defense because we are created unassailable. We cannot fear, for we have left all fearful thoughts behind. And in defenselessness we stand secure, serenely certain of our safety now, sure of salvation; sure we will fulfill our chosen purpose. Be still a moment, and in silence think how holy is your purpose, how secure you rest, untouchable within its light.
In time, with practice, you will never cease to think of God, and hear His loving Voice guiding your footsteps into quiet ways, where you will walk in true defenselessness. For you will know that Heaven goes with you.
We rise up strong in the Beloved, and let our weakness disappear, as we remember that Spirit's strength abides in us. We will remind ourselves that God remains beside us through the day, and never leaves our weakness unsupported by His strength. We call upon this strength each time we feel the threat of our defenses undermine our certainty of purpose. We will pause a moment, as He tells us, "I am here."
So, if we've been created "unassailable" - knowing that we cannot be attacked or defeated. If we know that God remains beside us through the day and that Heaven goes with us everywhere. Then what could we possibly have to defend, attack or fear? When we find ourselves faced with a person that is not acting their best out of their own fear - we don't have to react, we don't have to shrink or puff up - we just have to take a few deep breaths, use our spiritual tools and practices and stand on our sacred ground of Love.
When my ego mind gets triggered out of Fear - it's of great comfort for me to remember that I can always choose again. I can always choose Love. I can make a conscious decision to Forgive My Humanity and Stand in My Divinity.