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I apologize to those waiting for our soul challenge this past week. Hopefully, you have found some time for your soul, in whatever ways that resonate with you, over the last week. Our soul challenge (and that which you can use for the next week) for week 5 is:

Take time for your intuition.

This challenge, for me, came at an opportune time. My intuition has always been a piece of me that I deeply respect but so often a piece with which I feel disconnected. My intuition sputters – sometimes I’m on, I’m connected, and I’m making some amazing decisions through life. And then, like writer’s block, something starts to clog up the tap, I start over-thinking, and I’m faced with indecisiveness, uncertainty, and a lack of trust in myself.

Intuition is the product, in my opinion, of life experience, learned knowledge, personal wisdom, and, most importantly, that mystical “universal consciousness”. And, contrary to what my rational mind tells me, intuition has a deeply important place in health, in medicine, in business, in relationships, and in any other sector of life that requires decision-making (I even use it when choosing oranges at the grocery store). The key to tapping into one’s intuition – to taking time for intuition – is space.

We use only 3% of our brains in conscious life. That 3% certainly gets crowded through the day – deadlines, worrying, planning, goals, expectations.  With so much running through our conscious minds, how can we hear the subtler messages? How can we expect our minds to retrieve information and lessons from our past, if so caught up with the future? And how can we open the lines to something bigger – a universal knowledge – if our worrying minds are overcrowding the switchboard?

My beautiful friend and naturopathic doctor describes the mind (and the parts of the mind) as muscles: just like muscles, some get used more than others, some areas bulk up faster than others, and some can atrophy and become weak if not used. Are you training your intuitive mind? How often do you take time to step away from the mental workout of “when? why? how?” and breathe into the space of now? Are you listening to the messages that can only be heard in the silence of breath alone?

Good luck with your next week.

(By the way, my week 4 scores…

My total: 28 (out of a potential 35) (again!)
Feeling a little more connected to spirit, a little more congruent in body, mind and spirit… May I suggest that everyone go out and get a massage, bodywork, hydrotherapy, or any other therapy to connect your body, mind and spirit? Sometimes we all need a reminder…)

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Apparently, doing nothing is a good theme for me. I achieved my highest score yet, this past week…

My total: 28 (out of a potential 35)

On analyzing this week’s successes (and challenges), it becomes clear that it is no coincidence that we Canadians celebrated our last long weekend (until the winter/Christmas holidays). Thanksgiving. A time for nourishing our souls, our tummies, our relationships.  The waning of the moon further contributed to the feeling of yin: peace, settling, the exhale. And an excellent time to practice “doing nothing“.

Thanksgiving for my husband and I was a little different this year: because we are currently on our fall cleanse, we were unable to participate in the voracious gorging at a couple of family Thanksgiving dinners. We brought our own delicious, detox friendly food to one, and on thanksgiving itself, ended up making our very first Thanksgiving for two. A gluten-, dairy-, soy-, processed-, alcohol-free thanksgiving, full of delicious autumn foods done perfectly: home-cooked and extremely nourishing. And, they lasted for meals after. 🙂 Score for taking time for body.

The energy of the weekend – gratitude – was quite dominant and palpable, everywhere I turned. And when that feeling is so overwhelming, it is difficult NOT to sit with it a little… bathing in this happiness. We found ourselves in peaceful quietude more often than not, breathing in the air, doing walking meditations, and feeling soothed from deep within. Emotions ran high and flowed with a cleansing feeling. In fact, I even wrote a poem. Now how is that for taking time for the mind?

Doing Nothing was also soul-soothing. We did not touch our work all weekend. As I mentioned, the quiet moments were many. this past’s week’s challenge to “take time to do nothing” was a nice change, and, as I mentioned in my last blog post, made me rethink my definition of productivity. This week, I feel refreshed and more ready to take on what the days have in store. I did take time for soul this past week, and I can feel the difference.

(And lastly, it is hard to avoid taking time for others during this thankful holiday. Perfect score there!)

What is our theme this week?

Take time for your spirit.

Vague, yes. But ask yourself this question: how do you nourish your spirit? Spirituality is a word that can garner quite opposite reactions. When approaching the subject in yoga classes, there can be undesirable reactions: mental (or physical) fleeing, reading “religion” from “spirituality”. But spirit is universal. Spirit is removed from religion – religion is just one of many ways some human beings nourish their spirit. Spirit is whatever you want it to be: it is that “je-ne-sais-quoi” that flickers deep inside, that moves you and gives you purpose. And this week, I want you to fan those flames, feed that fire, and remember your spirit.

Express yourself.

Make art.

Dance.

Enjoy your own rituals – religious or not.

Write (another) poem.

Just put your ear down next to your soul and listen hard. ~Anne Sexton

A day later again… I must have been practicing this week’s mantra:

Take Time to do Nothing.

Can’t blame me, I was busy doing nothing.


Before we get into this week’s soul challenge, I suppose I have to report my results of Week 2. Week 2 was regrettably a little worse than Week 1. Yes, I should have learned some lessons from Week 1. Yes, I should have been able to pull myself out of those patterns I identified last week. However, I did not. But, you know what? That’s okay. This is a learning process, and each week I am more mindful of my daily “health practices” and my obstacles.

My total: 25 (out of a potential 35)

As I look to where I did not earn points this past week, a pattern does begin to emerge. The days that I am in the office are definitely the days I do not always get in all aspects of our challenge. The days that I am in the office, I wake up panicked from the beginning – planning, over-thinking, and shuffling my own health off to the side in order to worry some more. And these days, in the office, are also the days I tend to sleep-in in the mornings (and miss my morning meditation) since I started the planning, over-thinking, and worrying the night before.

(Warning: Attempt to (over-) simplify some pretty complicated theories below…) 

In traditional Chinese Medicine, the Liver is the organ of “planning” (next to many other things). When one is “stuck” in a pattern of over-planning, especially in bed at night, we look to the Liver. In the body, the Liver is responsible for orchestrating the smooth flow of Qi (vital energy) around the body. It also stores blood, controls our tendons and sinews, and houses the “Ethereal Soul” – the Hun. If this smooth flow of Qi is not optimized, things get stuck, stagnant… including our Hun. The Hun gives us the drive, the direction, and the purpose for, well, our lives. Of course it does – it is the conductor, the overseer of plans. Thus, if Qi is not flowing as it should, we not only experience physical symptoms of “stuckness”, but also, emotional symptoms of “stuckness”. Some people are constitutionally more prone to imbalances in the Liver. And, through the years, I  have discovered that I am certainly one of these people.

So, the more I plan, over-plan, and re-plan… the more stuck I get. It’s an ironic concept. That phenomenon which I am trying to prevent by “over-planning” (wasted time, inefficiency, lack of productivity, unpreparedness) is actually WORSENED as I think myself into a loop. (Yes, there are physiological reasons and treatments as well, but emotions are often a large part of root cause.)

And so, we come back to our “soul” challenge of this week:

Take Time to do Nothing.

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering. ~ A.A. Milne

Okay. Some people may not like this. If you start searching for quotes about “nothing”, you start to come up with things like “If you want to be nothing, do nothing” or “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing”. However, I don’t mean do NOTHING nothing. I mean: take a little time out each day for silence. Take time for something that is not conventionally “productive” (though, according to me, it is much more productive in the bigger picture). Take time out to be present with LIFE – imagine being an infant again. Observing, watching, taking in… seemingly doing nothing productive, yet growing by the minute. It is when we allow ourselves to stop that we can let our bodies talk. When we stop over-thinking things, ideas emerge. When we clear our heads, we make space for more.

Ideas on how to do nothing:

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky is by no means a waste of time. ~ J. Lubbock

More ideas here: http://amolife.com/character/the-art-of-doing-nothing.html

Oops.

Tuesday marked the end of our first week of the “take time challenge”… and I was afraid to tally up my results. As a teacher, a naturopath, and a potential role model, I am acutely aware of the importance of “walking the talk“. Authenticity is for what I strive every day – and, when there is a disconnect between what I believe/teach and what I do, there is a deeply unsettling feeling. A mixture of anxiety, shame, guilt, and the other emotion that has no name that comes around from my core knowledge that those are all life-sucking emotions to feel.

This, unfortunately, was the feeling I walked around with over the last week.

This, alone, is an unfortunate turn in my own “Take Time Challenge”. However, on adding up my own results, the clouds cleared. Things aren’t that bad.

My total: 27 (out of a potential 35)

Where I earned points: A Wednesday night chamomile bath with a book, a fairly regular meditation practice, small breaks for sunshine even if I didn’t have time for a full “workout”, lots of connection with people

Where I lost points: A lunch skipped, a few days of not leaving my work for anything, forgetting our theme some days, procrastination

I can learn to celebrate the little achievements, and now I am conscious of my “learning objectives”.

  1. Work can often overpower my need for nourishment – in body, mind, and soul. However, to be the best that I can be in my work, I must be nourished. I must feel complete. I must be present and awake and balanced.
  2. Though it is important to walk my talk – it is more important to move forward without shame or guilt or those other unnamed feelings. Kindness and compassion towards one’s self are the answers. If the path to optimal health and balance in boy, mind and soul were simple, then we would all be there. There will be obstacles – celebrate not only when you have crossed them, but also when they become visible. This is the first step to formulating your way over, under, around and through.

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” ― Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

So, let us introduce the theme for week 2 (sorry I am a day late!)…

TAKE TIME FOR THE HERE AND NOW.

“Whatever I’m doing at the moment is the biggest thing in life — whether it is conducting a symphony or peeling an orange.” – Arturo Toscanini

Ideas for how to do this daily:

  • This is an easy one, if you read the quote. The key is presence. Mindful action. Being here, now. Going a little slower to take time and “smell the roses”. Noticing the details, and delighting in them.
  • Be Here, Now.
  • Another quote for some hints:

“If you can see it, hear it, feel it, taste it, touch it, or smell it, you can be present with it. It is of the present moment, and so it brings to you the opportunity to be present with it.” – Leonard Jacobson

Enjoy!

In yoga class, we often hear the expression “to let go”. Besides all of the blissful images of yogic perfection that it may bring (floating down rivers, melting deeper into Hanumanasana), this is a concept that is really not as easy as yogis make it out to be. Then, to make it more confusing, you will also hear cues through class to “bring the mind back to the breath”, “regulate the inhalations and exhalations”, “use your abdominals to control your descent”, etcetera, etcetera. This brings a dilemma to the practicing yogi: is it control that I want over my mind and body, or freedom from control?

It is obvious that most people like to feel “in control” at most times. The expression “out of control” brings to mind disorganized flurries of deadlines and paperwork, traffic jams, impromptu and unexpected phone calls that keep us from our agendas, stress, and sometimes illness. Yet, it isn’t uncommon that the perceptually free and easy life of someone who just “goes with the flow” attracts most of us at some time. Who hasn’t wanted to pick up and follow their heart’s true desire at some point in life? To “let the river of life take us where we are destined”? As romantic as this concept appears to be, control is actually a very necessary and life-sustaining concept in our lives, whether we like it or not.

How does yoga help us to understand this dichotomy, this inner battle between our need to control (ourselves, our environment, ‘sometimes’ our closest friends and family) and our longing to be free? We know that control in yoga practice, just as in life, is also necessary. Sometimes, our inner control freak may even convince us that there may not even be a yoga practice if we just gave up control completely (I believe that we should give our selves more credit). Control keeps us safe in life and on the mat: it is the muscular energy that keeps our limbs integrated into their joint sockets, the slow movement that keeps us stable and present coming out of headstand. Yet, we also know that without surrender to flow (aka succumbing to the out of control aspects from time to time) there is no spontaneity, no surprises, and, in some cases, no progress. We have also all had at least one experience of “struggling upstream” for the longest time… and it wasn’t until we “let go” of our end vision a little (or our ego, our narrow minded view, our hard intentions) that we finally find what we’re looking for. On the mat, as in life, we learn (sometimes the hard way) that life is inherently out of control at the best of times. It is the flexibility and surrender that we practice by softening to the possibilities of each asana, each movement on our mat, that helps us to develop a softer attitude when faced with something we cannot control.

In our yoga practice, it is the merging of these two concepts (control and non-control) that launches us into our own optimized state of functioning. We open our minds and our hearts to the possibilities of our practice, we yield to the “limitations” of today’s body, we immerse ourselves into the flow. At the same time, we contain ourselves and stay safe by harnessing our strength, drawing inwards, and resisting temptation to wander off (in body, breath, and mind). And this, just as in all our other yogic lessons, can be extended to include our practice of life off the mat as well.

Remember this inner conversation, especially during this holiday season – a time during which chaos seems to prevail – and find a balance. Draw on your resources, your strengths, and your to-do lists for structure… but if a friend asks you out for an impromptu hot chocolate amidst the craziness, it won’t hurt to yield a little.

P.S. I apologize for the long wait between posts. I will be trying to update as frequently as possible, both about yogic thoughts and about asana, even though I have currently taken a break from teaching. (If you’re curious to know what I do with most of my time, see my other blog here for some explanation.)

In keeping with our theme from last week, this week we further explore yoga’s ability to still our mind. Yet, this week we remember that silence is not to be forced or pushed. Stillness is our primordial nature, it is something into which yoga helps us expand, to which yoga helps us return.

And why silence? As the old adage goes, there is strength in silence. In today’s world, power and expression tend to rule. We are trapped within excessive  fifth chakras (and third chakras) in politics and in popular media. Our culture often speaks to be heard, to create controversy, to get reactions. However, excessive speech is often compensation for deficient love- both from others and from self- thus, deficient heart chakras. Just bring to mind the picture of a childhood bully– all talk, all words, to compensate for the turmoil within. To become comfortable with silence- both within ourselves and in interactions with others- is to be comfortable with love, with peace, with compassion. It is to be in tune with the speech of the heart.

“We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us to see their own images and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even a fiercer life because of our silence.” ~ William Butler Yeats

If we can sit with ourselves in silence and learn to listen to our hearts, we are more apt to sit with others in silence from time to time and just BE together. Many of us have experienced a relationship (close or random) at some point in which we were able to simply BE together without many words, and we could understand the other. As Catherine Ingram says in her Yoga Journal article, “In awakened awareness we don’t need to pretend that we are only a conglomeration of stories, an aggregate of accomplishments, or a survivor of miseries. We are willing to gaze into the eyes of another person without fear or desire—without stories about who I am or who she is—and sense only the light of existence shining in a particular pair of eyes.” We can “twinkle” with another person for a short while. This is not to say that language is wrong– we must all agree that language is necessary and useful. However, we also must honour the fact that silence is equally necessary and useful. Our yoga practice helps us to settle into the silence within our hearts so that we can more easily go out and appreciate the silence in others.

What better way to understand our practice of yoga than to go back thousands of years and understand it from the very beginning? This is what part of deepening our practice is: studentship. We come to a point when we understand the basic structures of poses, we (somewhat) recognize the names of poses (something-asana?), and we are beginning to see the benefits of yoga and meditation for our minds and souls. At this point, questions start to arise, naturally. Questions about the intricacies of poses. Questions about the subtle body. Questions about the nature of meditation. And finally, questions about the history of yoga.

Dont worry, I won’t be going into a long history lesson this week. We will be reading 2 simple phrases (yes, just two) from the “Yoga Bible”– the first written document about yoga and all it’s glorious details: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. And trust me, the answer to many of our questions can lie right here, in the first two phrases (or sutras) of this book. Especially this one: Why do we practice yoga?

atha yoganusasanam

yogah cittavrtti nirodhah

How these two small verses are translated can take up books in itself. However, the consensus lies in something like: “Now we begin to explore the sacred art of yoga with it’s guidelines and instructions .” (That’s number 1) “Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.” (Number 2) On first glance, these two verses seems only introductory, simple; yet, it is looking at them in context that brings their importance to light.

First of all, these two loaded verses were written over 2000 years ago. Yet, as we think of how relevant these are today, we understand the beauty of this writing. When we start to question, “Where am I headed with yoga? Am I on the right path?” the second verse can bring simple answers. Yoga is the cessation of the movements of the mind. Yoga’s purpose is to still this ever-chattering mind we have. Nowhere does it say that yoga is looking great (although it may be one of many benefits). It does not say that attaining yoga occurs when your every limb can bend in a different direction simultaneously. Yoga is not attaining the most difficult physical pose. Stillness will be yoga. (Yoga also meaning this integration between all layers of Self that we seek.) The practice of yoga will bring us yoga. Yoga is a means and an end.

What I find so beautiful is that something that seers and yogis realized thousands of years ago applies more than ever to our society. We practice yoga to clam these fluctuations in the mind, the wavering between concentration on mind, on self, on ego, on intelligence. What do these fluctuations cause? In my opinion, the “un-stillness” within in which we so often find ourselves causes many diseases and psychological unrest. Why does our society suffer so much from anxiety, depression, image disorders, and emotional lability? In addition, (although my thoughts on this may be slightly controversial) perhaps the root of conditions such as cancer, autoimmune disease, and neurological illness is psychological unrest, suppression of emotions, and unresolved pasts. We are ungrounded, and yoga is here to help us bring back some grounding (especially in the mind). I think we can all attest to this: by focusing for an hour on our body’s movement, on opening up channels of energy, on consciously breathing, we find a sort of peace of mind that is pretty difficult to get otherwise. And this is the first step. If we can stop our mind chatter for just moments at a time, simply by bringing more awareness to the integration of every layer of our body, we can train ourselves to do this for longer periods of time, in more situations. If a minute fraction of that awareness goes into your everyday life, just imagine how in tune you can become. Imagine how peaceful life might be. That peace is health. That peace is yoga.

“Yoga is the teacher of yoga; yoga is to be understood through yoga. So live in yoga to realize yoga; comprehend yoga through yoga; he who is free from distractions enjoys yoga through yoga.” ~ Sri Vyasa

“Deepening one’s practice” seems to be a contradictory phrase when speaking about yoga. How could we possibly define “progress” in a “holistic” practice that tells us to abandon judgement and expectation? We could twist and turn this to mean anything. For example, it could mean:

  1. Attaining poses that are more challenging, require more strength/flexibility/both.
  2. Finding a deeper meaning to one’s yoga practice.
  3. Discovering a connection to one’s body and breath that was not there before.
  4. Practicing longer as one’s experience progresses.
  5. Increasing the frequency of one’s practice.
  6. Being able to still the mind for longer.
  7. Deepening one’s understanding of yoga philosophy and history.
  8. Employing daily yogic cleansing practices.
  9. Becoming vegetarian.
  10. Incorporating the lessons learned in a yoga practice into more aspects of life.
  11. Taking more yoga training and workshops.
  12. Attaining enlightenment…

…to name a few interpretations. None of the above are completely wrong or completely right. The best interpretation is a combination of all of the above, fitted to your individual needs and practice. How will you know you are deepening your practice? You will know. Because the ultimate effect of practicing yoga will feel closer and closer: presence.

“Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry… all forms of fear… are caused by too much future and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, not enough presence.” ~Eckhart Tolle

And what does presence bring us? Presence brings us acceptance, peace within, and the ability to react thoughtfully, to understand our emotions and our motivations and better interact with the world. If we were all present, would there be war? Would there be violence? Pollution? Oil spills? Big question: would there be disease?

“I sometimes ask my yoga students if they think the world might be a better place if everyone practiced Savasana every day. The unanimous answer is always yes.” ~Judith Hanson Lasater

So where is there room for “progress” in yoga if it is such a practice of presence? Enhancing one’s practice is to cultivate more presence and awareness of self. Presence is a cause and an effect. Presence helps us to understand our bodies and discern what goals are appropriate. As we grow deeper in this practice, we enhance the connection to our bodies and minds, and between them. And then, as we move into more “advanced” forms of poses mindfully, we can extend these lessons to help us learn how to react to the more difficult situations in life. When your yoga practice is affecting more than one realm of your life, that is deepening your practice.

“A man ceases to be a beginner in any given science and becomes a master in that science when he has learned that he is going to be a beginner all his life.” ~ Robin G. Collingwood (Philosopher)

Here we go again! Another 10-week session to explore and deepen our practice together. And that is the overarching theme this time around: deepening one’s practice. It doesn’t matter where we find ourselves on the spectrum of “mastery” in yoga– we deepen our practice each time we step on the mat. And, though it may sound paradoxical, the first step to progressing one’s practice is to always invoke that Beginner’s Mind.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki (Japanese Zen Priest)

To approach each pose this class with a beginner’s mind means a few things:

  1. Letting go of preconceived notions about the pose and letting it take a new shape in your body and mind.
  2. Letting go of past experience with the pose and letting it develop into it’s own expression today.
  3. Letting go of expectations. Every day is different: if we can’t expect our hair to do the same thing everyday, how can we expect our entire body to make the exact same pose each time it is approached?
  4. Bringing your attention to something new in the pose: your breath, the position of your fingers, your toes, the emotions it brings up, the relaxation in your face. Bring something new into the pose, even though you have done it many times before.
  5. Bring back the wonder in the pose. Explore. Soften the face and the mind and enjoy the lines of energy that run through your body.

“The true delight is in the finding out rather than in the knowing.” ~Isaac Asimov

Just me…

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