it feels that good

The rain clarifies things. Haze in the air dissipates. The dust rises, then gets pounded back into the ground. Seeds planted too shallow will rise to the surface, and those deep enough get brought into full contact with the moist soil. The mist rises, but it’s different from the heated haze before the rain.good sky

I am collecting my thoughts for a workshop I’m giving this weekend at the Crazy Owl Retreat, just downstream on Long Hungry Creek Farm. It’s been another busy week here and my thoughts keep falling into furrows of freshly turned ground. We had unexpected but delightful company, and they helped us do some big jobs that really needed doing, like mulching the tomatoes. My personal practices have been short and sweet. There hasn’t been time for reflection on much besides the garden and meals.

Times like this bring to mind one of the first of the Yoga Sutras that I learned. Chapter 2, Sadhanapada, translated by some as “Method” or “Practice”, is written for busy people, like most of us.

This is the practical stuff. The first sutra goes like this:

tapah svadhyaya isvarapranidhanani kriya yoga

Kriya translates as activity, or action.

Kriya Yoga is yoga for busy people. To be more precise – for people with busy minds. Personally, I find it hard to have much less than a busy mind when I’m involved in three small family businesses and spend the majority of my daylight hours in the company of an eight and three year old. Their thoughts alone, passing freely from their minds to the mouths, carry me swinging through the (mostly delightful) trees in the grand jungles of the Monkey Mind.lulah garden

But even outside of the chattering of children, most of us have a hard time keeping our minds still. Modern life is anything but contemplative. All that interesting deep philosophy is great, but to be honest, we don’t always have time to soak it in and digest it, and make it usable. Patanjali wrote Chapter 2 for us.

He describes three pillars of a personal yoga practice. As I’ve rolled them around in my head these sweaty, busy, past couple days, they’ve picked up some garden soil and sprouted some metaphors.

The first pillar is Tapas – this is heat, fervor, discipline, austerities, the hard work of repeated practice, and the purification that accompanies that work. In the modern Western yoga world, this usually refers to asana practice – physical work. In the garden, this is breaking ground, making beds, planting, tending, and especially weeding. As in, “Oh man, we’ve been doing some heavy tapas in the garden this week.”tapas

One thing that must needs be said about tapas is that it isn’t supposed to be easy. If I spend my yoga practice doing only the things that feel good to my body – what good is that really? People with flexible bodies may be able to do all the far out postures with ease, but that would be besides the point. It might feel good, but it will not necessarily lead the yoga practitioner to grow. Make no mistake – yoga is the organic garden of humanity – it’s about deep growing. This is not to say we should do practice that hurts us! It is just to say that doing what is good for us isn’t always the most fun, and that’s OK.

Svadhyaya is next – I was taught to view svadhyaya in terms of self-reflection. It refers to study. Studying books, studying with teachers, and mostly studying ourselves. Practically, this means that I reflect enough recognize if my practice isn’t serving my goals, and make adjustments. So, if you have knee injuries, or back pain, you will adapt your practice so that those conditions are at least not aggravated, and at best ameliorated. In the garden, svadhyaya happens when we get soil tests and balance our amendments, and when we read books and talk to each other and gain inspiration. But it is especially true that we are practicing svadhyaya when we are observant of the garden. There are no books that can teach as much as simple observation.rice seedlings

Isvara pranidhana – is the pillar with a gold lining. Isvara, as explained to me, is akin to the concept of one’s personal Lord and Savior. Pranidhana is one’s devoted and loving connection to that power. The Yoga Sutra is not a theological text, and Patanjali does not presume to tell us who our personal Lord is or should be. But by using this phrase, he suggests that devotion to a Higher Power is a piece of the action. Built into the text is the inference that this is a deeply personal connection, and that by surrendering into that, however it translates in your own experience, you will develop an attitude of acceptance and grow into a healthy detachment from the results of your practice. It won’t be just about you anymore. In Christian churches, the prayer is “Thy will be done.” Buddhist practitioners dedicate the merit of a practice to the “benefit of all beings.” Each of us is a vessel, a vehicle perhaps, and none of us exists in a vacuum. Whether we acknowledge it or not, what we do, what we practice, impacts our world. By taking responsibility for that larger relationship, we are strengthened, and hopefully, our impact can be magnified for the better.

clouds In the garden, this is the harvest. It’s the time when we take up the fruits of our labors and share them, with friends, family, or shareholders. The perfect watermelon will not stand in the field forever. Something will eat it. Maybe you. Maybe your customers. Maybe a deer, or maybe happy flies and worms as it slowly disintegrates, but it will be eaten. Hopefully, it will be enjoyed, and that enjoyment will radiate goodness into the summer air.

Tonight, the mists have risen into a light fog and the darkening air is cool after the soaking rain. I practice yoga because it feels like this for me. Like the settling of a rain on a dry garden after some long work, knowing we’ve done what we could, and received in return. I teach with the aspiration that others might experience that sensation as well. Because it feels that good to grow.planted

the right tools

There’s nothing like a mid-winter recuperation for a good long think.   Lest you come away from last week’s post with the mistaken notion that my thoughts are a continuum of good cheer, I would like to clarify.   I advocate positivity, yes.  And I practice it as much as possible, because it works, and because that practice is in my toolbox.

We all have our moments.  Family life, living in a body, with mind and emotions in their constant fluctuation, all life is full of ups and downs.  And walking a life path that is not mainstream has its share of razor’s edge experiences as well.  There are times when our hearts darken.  Pain in the body distracts, and our minds become doubtful, worried, anxious, 2

It happens to the best of us.  That’s when it’s good to have some tools.

The first tool in my box when I cannot set my mind at ease is the concept that I am not my mind.  And you aren’t your mind, either.  The same thing goes for the emotions,and the body.   Of course, all three of those elements are integral to the person we consider ourselves to be…

So, if we are not our bodies, our thoughts, or our feelings – who are we?!

Good question.  Each of us can work on that answer for ourselves.

As for me, I’m just grateful to be know that I am not ONLY my thoughts and feelings.  What a relief.

However, it won’t do to just discount our minds.  The mind, when used well, is one of our very best tools.  Using it well is big trick.  There are so many pitfalls.

My grandmother was bi-polar (may she rest in peace). At her best, she was a brilliant, effusive, energetic, affectionate and creative woman. She made my mother’s homecoming queen dress by hand. She designed the house that she and her husband occupied for 50 years, as well as the office where they worked. She kept a nearly photographic memory of the medical history of innumerable members of the small town she and my grandfather served in their family practice. But her downturns were so treacherous and sad. It was as if she was incapable of generating a positive thought. And most of her negativity was turned towards herself.

Most of us are blessed to avoid the mental and emotional extremes that my Nana weathered in her life, but I think we can also all relate.

There are times when it’s hard to make our thoughts and feelings behave appropriately. There’s a new baby in the house, and we wanted the baby and longed for it and we’re so excited it’s here, but still we are in tears. What gives? It’s this kind of stuff that leads us to confuse our ultimate identity with the workings of that heart/mind. The works of our minds and emotions are powerful.

Just think how powerful they could be if we were actually able to direct them with

The second tool I like to use on dark winter days comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I’ve quoted them here before. Therein lies a wonderful road map of the mental/emotional system of humanity.

In the second chapter of the Sutras – Patanjali lays out the eight limbs of yoga practice (astangha – and I’m not referring to the strenuous flow sequence practiced widely in the west today). He discusses the sort of inner development that comes from refining our lives, the principles of positive actions, and all sorts of great stuff.  And then he allows for the fact that we all hit log jams from time to time.

And here’s the tool:

II:33 vitarkabadhane pratipaksabhavanam – When harassed by doubt, cultivate the opposite mental attitude.

This doesn’t mean suppressing the negative thought. It’s more about creating an option. We don’t have to buy into that thought. Think twice.  Like this…

If my negative thinking around our illness says: “Oh this sickness and lying around is a terrible waste of time.” (It sucks to be sick, it’s awful to see my kids sick, I’m tired…)

I can reverse my mental attitude by creating a different thought: “This healing process is a wonderful opportunity.” (How rare it is that we all get to lie around together, read, watch a movie, let the world go by while we heal…)

Sometimes the reversed “mental attitudes” can seem absurd at first, but I don’t even have to believe the thought right away for it to begin to affect me.  It opens up a question.  Instead of wallowing in self-pity or fear or whatever the prevalent negative thought/feeling was, I am suddenly involved in an inquiry, and my attitude changes to one of curiosity and exploration, which is much more helpful than doubt and fear.  Maybe I can choose to believe that second statement for a little while, at least, and see what happens.  It’s an exercise – a tool for the mind.

In the next sutra, Patanjali explains how this exercise can help us get to the root of our discomfort and dysfunction and move on from there to a place of greater positivity and effectiveness, rather than just glossing over our thoughts and feelings until they come back, as they do, again and again.

If it hadn’t worked for me, I wouldn’t write about it.  This is a good tool.snowscape

The third good tool may also be the first.  When the storms of life rage – go outside.  There’s nothing like a little hard labor in the garden to adjust the workings of the mind.  Even when there’s not so much hard labor to do, in the thick of winter weather, just a little walk, a little time with animals, domesticate and wild, makes a shift.  What are my worries in the snood of a tom turkey, a rooster’s crow?  A cardinal lights on an empty branch, then flies off with my fear on his tail.  It doesn’t weigh him down at all.  On those days when the sky is clear brilliant blue, it lifts the wrinkles from my forehead.  It doesn’t take long.

As sure as there is Winter, there will be shadows on the mind and heart, frozen mud and icy paths.  But with thick socks and the right tools, rest assured Spring will come again, and we will find ourselves living in love with the green world, outside, and within.spring shoots

Please don’t look to me for deep context of the Yoga Sutras.  I’m only reporting what has helped me, and my understanding is far from complete.  There’s much more to it than I am capable of expressing in a blog post.  Others have done it much better.  The resources I lean on for Sutra quotes and commentary are Bernard Bouanchaud’s The Essence of Yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, In Introduction, by T.K.V. Desikachar, and my training with Gary Kraftsow and the American Viniyoga Institute.  I hope what I write can be of some service.