Monday, October 31, 2011

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

Super grateful to for publishing my (yes, f-bomb-laden) piece on why yoga's not a workout.

And thank you, yoga, for teaching me how to be real.

This was one of those pieces that I couldn't have written five years ago, and definitely not ten, but because of the yoga, because of the practice itself, because of the way it teaches us how to unravel, to undo, to peel off the layers of what we are not and just be, quite simply, what we are, I could today.

There's a fair amount of hyperbole and a decent amount of swearing in there, for sure. And some folks have read that as anger: the unacceptable, inelegant, certainly un-yoga-teacherly kind.

But again: the realness. Yoga that's sugar-coated and bliss-soaked and talks of fairies and unicorns and manifesting shakti reascending doesn't do it for me. Yoga that's real, that's grounded, that's honest, that's yes, sometimes full of quite human emotions? Now that's what I'm talking about.

We start from a place of humanity. The practice teaches us how to sit with that, and watch it, and move from it with compassion into stillness, and to take that stillness into the world.

Now THAT I can get behind. Thanks for reading.

Why Yoga's Not a Workout (elephantjournal)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Raw, adjective: 11. unprocessed or unevaluated: raw data.

Fired up to announce a few schedule updates:

Flying Yoga in Temescal, well, quite simply rocks. And I'm so happy to be there now 4 days a week. In addition to the usual T/Th/Sat eves, please join me Sunday mornings for a solid, sweaty power flow at 10:45. It's a good time. And a great way to start your day.

And you know Urban Flow, of course — also known as hOMe. I'll be staying on there Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30, so as the days grow shorter, please continue to join me for a sweaty sunset vinyasa, a few great jams and a whole lotta heart.

I love this practice. Thank you for being a part of it.

Raw, adjective: 2. not having undergone processes of preparing, dressing, finishing, refining, or manufacture: raw cotton.

So much of what we do on the yoga mat is just learning to sit with things. And by "things," I mean pain, struggle, self-doubt, boundaries, difficulty, failure, you know, the usual.

Tough shit.

I see it on people's faces when they head wearily into Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (big toe hold, trying not to fall over) or Hanumanasana (full splits, baby) or Supta Virasana (reclining Hero pose, on your knees): it's a certain dread, already this expectant feeling of dis-ease, of resistance. And learning to sit with those feelings, in those poses — along with the simultaneous joy and release and relief and exhilaration that sometimes come up — is really one of the most remarkable projects in a yoga practice.

Sometimes it's even harder to sit in the grey spaces, though; you know, those in-between moments on (or off) the mat when life swims in just so much uncertainty, when nothing feels quite black or white, light or dark, but rather when events, or relationships, or experiences are in flux, in transition, undefined, unable to be easily cast.

Pema Chodron wrote a powerful piece for Tricycle on that very feeling. And it highlights an advanced ability to be consciously, presently uncertain, quite grey, quite unfixed and fluid and malleable, that strikes me as the utmost in yoga, in advanced being-in-a-body that does not cling or grasp, but simply is:
The secret of Zen is just three words: not always so.
—Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

It takes some training to equate complete letting go with comfort. But in fact, "nothing to hold on to" is the root of happiness. There's a sense of freedom when we accept that we're not in control. Pointing ourselves toward what we would most like to avoid makes our barriers and shields permeable.

This may lead to a don't-know-what-to-do kind of feeling, a sense of being caught in-between. On the one hand, we're completely fed up with seeking comfort from what we can eat, drink, smoke, or couple with. We're also fed up with beliefs, ideas, and "isms" of all kinds. But on the other hand, we wish it were true that outer comfort could bring lasting happiness.

This in-between state is where the warrior spends a lot of time growing up.....
We are told about the pain of chasing after pleasure and the futility of running from pain. We hear also about the joy of awakening, of realizing our interconnectedness, of trusting the openness of our hearts and minds. But we aren't told all that much about this state of being in-between, no longer able to get our old comfort from the our side but not yet dwelling in a continual sense of equanimity and warmth.

Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It's the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than buy into struggle and complaint. The challenge is to let it soften us rather than make us more rigid and afraid. Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts mote tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously. By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what's happening, we begin to access our inner strength. ....

It's important to hear about this in-between state. Otherwise we think the warrior's journey is one way or the other; either we're all caught up or we're free. The fact is that we spend a long time in the middle. This juicy spot is a fruitful place to be. Resting here completely — steadfastly experiencing the clarity of the present moment — is called enlightenment.
Read the whole thing here. That Zen saying that sets the piece off — "not necessarily so" — is one of my all-time favorites. What a gift and a grace it has been in so many moments of my life to step back and say to myself: Hey, ok now, cool it, kid, just wait. Not necessarily so. Those simple three words can be a lasso and a damper and a balm for the monkey mind that tends to run away with its own automatic presuppositions, assumptions and expectations.

Let yourself be grey, right there in the mushy middle. There's enlightenment there, somewhere, rolling around in the murk.

The In-Between State (Tricycle)

Raw, adjective: 8. brutally harsh or unfair: a raw deal

Oakwood Athletic Club is hosting a really beautiful benefit tomorrow morning for beloved local yoga teacher Charles Holman, who is fighting cancer. It's open to the public and all donations go toward his treatment. Details below.

We are all cells in the body of the unified whole.

Oakwood Athletic Club
4000 Mount Diablo Blvd
Lafayette CA 94549
(925) 283-4000

Anyone interested can call the club, ask for the Activities Desk, and put their name on the list. All donations are accepted, in cash, check or credit card. We are waiving the guest fee for non-members (normally $15).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Raw, adjective: 4. painfully open, as a sore or wound.

The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

— Rumi

(And that would be Dorothea Lange at left, one of
my favorite chroniclers of wounded beauty.)

Raw, adjective: 2. not having undergone processes of preparing, dressing, finishing, refining, or manufacture: raw cotton.

Happy Diwali.

Can't think of a better way to honor this Hindu festival of lights than by watching a 92-year-old Pete Seeger holler out "This Little Light of Mine" late at night on behalf of Occupy Wall Street.

We sang that old folk-song-turned-Civil-Rights-movement-anthem a lot as kids growing up in post-1970s Lutheran campus ministry. It's a keeper, that one.

Be light.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Raw, adjective: 11. unprocessed or unevaluated: raw data.

some women wait for themselves around the next corner and call the empty spot peace but the opposite of living is only not living and the stars do not care

― Audre Lorde

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

RANT: Yoga is not a workout.

Yoga is not "abs."
Yoga is not mindless push-ups.
Yoga is not "cardio."

Fuck that shit.

Yoga is a moving meditation. Period. Amen.

Yoga means unraveling. Yoga means letting go. Yoga means undoing. Yoga means getting out of your goddamned chattering head for even a few seconds and letting your mind take a break. Yoga means stopping giving a shit what the lady in front of you is wearing or what the dude behind you thinks of your ass or what your colleague said on the phone over lunch that really rankled you, because you are so lost in your breath and your body and your present moment that all of those thoughts fly out the window, and you are reminded that you are alive.

This body will be a corpse.

You will not find 72,000 stomach crunches in my class. You can do crunches at the gym. Crunches do not equal vinyasa. For reals.

I love teaching, love it so much, but I've always had a hard time instructing core work that feels mindful. Forcing folks to huff and puff through endless rounds of ab exercises always makes me feel dirty, like a two-bit Jane Fonda pushing people through awkward 1980s exercise video routines that they don't want to do in the first place and passing them off as a meditation, as yoga, as something graceful and elegant and wise.

Standing up there barking out instructions, I'm rushed back to memories of bad legwarmers and a made-up, perfectly-coiffed Jane urging us on through perpetual core work in deja vu Groundhog Day-style nightmares of the old video I used to do in high school, day after day, barefoot — because the sneakers were too heavy to lift, you know — as an anorexic 16-year-old with wobbly Bambi legs who was convinced that her 98-pound, 5'5" body was obese.

And it makes me wonder: who else in that room hasn't eaten in two days?

And, as a teacher, am I shepherding those students well, am I really doing my job — ahimsa, baby — if I pummel them with some robotic core workout routine that's devoid of purpose beyond sculpting a six-pack, that fails to connect the breath or slow their minds or bring them more deeply into their bodies?

Because, guess what? Your six-pack will pass. One day it'll be there. The next day, it won't. Things change. Bodies change. You'll eat Cheetos. You'll find a new lover and stay in bed and skip yoga. You'll have a baby. You'll get old — if you're lucky.

Skin stretches. Skin roughens. Skin slips away.

This body will be a corpse.

Your breath stays. Your breath rises. It falls. That's yoga. Nothing else.

I — like so many I know — spent too many years starving myself, too many years driving my weak, underfed body into the ground, too many years being that empty vessel with the big dead eyes and chiseled chin and delicate size 2 frame, trading my life, my spirit, my fire, my prana, my very being for that "perfect body" — that "perfect body" that just wanted to die, that wanted to throw in the towel, that wanted to quit the fuck-all project of being alive and just disappear.

And in that perfect body, I did a lot of sit-ups. A lot of them.

50 crunches at 5 a.m. before going out the door; 50 crunches before and after dance practice; 50 crunches before and after musical rehearsal; 50 crunches at 2 a.m. before going to bed. Toes tucked under the armoire to keep myself from cheating. Living on an apple and 2 cups of coffee all day. Functioning on 3 hours of sleep because the hunger kept me from actually ever sleeping.

You can't sleep when you're starving. Though it gives you more time to work on your abs.

I don't live that way any more.

And I do not believe that yoga would have us live that way, either.

And as a teacher, I will not facilitate that faux "yoga."

I can guesstimate how very many — half, two-thirds? — of the other bodies in the yoga classes I take, and teach, have been in that same place at some point in their lives. Have starved themselves for days, living on water and Diet Coke; have feared that they'd pass out in Tree Pose because they hadn't eaten a meal in a week; have wound up lying on the bathroom linoleum, faint, heart thudding, wondering how long it'd take for someone to find them if they died there. And they're in class for the abs, for the workout, for the cardio, for the bullshit. I know, because I've been that person.

And I won't be a part of it. Even though, more and more, that's where I see the "yoga industry" going.

90 minutes of abs do not a yoga practice make. 90 minutes of watching the breath rise and fall, maybe with a twist or a balance or an arm to the sky to help us do so, does. And if we are lucky enough to live until we're old and decrepit (65-75% of us will be disabled at some point in our lives, you know this, yes?), someday we'll look down at our sweet, tired, wrinkly, bent, well-lived-in bodies, and we likely won't be able to do a forearm plank and we most certainly won't be able to do 3 backbends in a row and we definitely won't be able to do 200 sets of crunches.

But we'll be able to breathe. We'll be able to watch the chest rise with the inhale, and fall with the exhale. And therein will lie the practice that has followed us, anchored us, strengthened us, softened us, all these years.

So you can take your crunches and shove 'em. You won't find them in my class. I'm not here to give you the "perfect body" or the "ultimate core workout" or even a general ass-kicking. I'm here to get you out of your head. To slow down that monkey mind for even one breath, or two, or — imagine that! — maybe even three. To help you remember that in spite of all numbness, you are alive. For a flash, just this tiny little flash, you are alive.

This body will be a corpse.

Knowing that — we practice this little death every day in Savasana, don't we? — why the hell would you waste your few precious breaths in this one wild and precious life on getting really sweet ab muscles? Fuck the abs. Yep, I'll say it again, once more for good measure: fuck the abs.

They won't make you happy. I promise. You'll just have a nice belly. And the same old racing mind, and the same old unsettled, hungry heart.

Yoga is so much more than body-sculpting. Don't let this ancient, beautiful, soft, strong, serene practice turn into yet one more fancy gym exercise. Be in it. Let your heart stop its racing. Let your mind slow for even a second.

The abs will come. And go. (Trust me, they'll go.) And what's left?

The breath. That one wild and precious life. Yours.


With great thanks to The Interdependence Project for
their inspired, subversive t-shirt design.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

We don't need to learn to let go. We just need to recognize what is already gone.

— Suzuki Roshi

Raw, adjective: 6. ignorant, inexperienced, or untrained: a raw recruit.

Taught through my first earthquake last night. That was fun.

Talk about an experience in being present. All the big yoga clich√©s came to mind in that instant: finding steadiness and ease in moments of uncertainty, feeling the ground beneath us in very new ways, learning to lasso the mind — truly, to "yoke" it, as in "yuj," the roots of the word "yoga" — and bring it back to this breath, this body, instead of letting it run to all possible future realities.

(Ohmygod, what if there's another huge earthquake and the Bart shuts down and I'm stuck here in Oakland because the epicenter is just north of here in Berkeley and ohmygod then I wouldn't be able to get home and where would I stay and what about my things and I don't even have a pair of socks on me and what about my disaster survival kit that I haven't ever bothered creating and damn, if I just had a minute I'd do that right now but it's probably too late because here I am in the midst of earth-shaking Oakland trying to shepherd 20 people through the beginnings of Surya Namaskara A and look at the light fixtures and damn, how they'll swing if there's another aftershock, and wow, can you believe my music kept playing and the heater kept going and why does my body feel strangely seasick and oh shit, where were we again, oh yes, Down Dog, right leg in the sky, breathe, Child's Pose now, hmmm?)

There's your clip of that moment in my mind after the 3.8 aftershock jolted through at 8:16pm, just as we were building heat in the vinyasa. You learn to choose: to let your mind run away with hypothetical potential realities, or to watch your thoughts, and to come back to the breath, and slow down, and ground, and know that if you stay in that breath, step by step, inhalation by exhalation, you will get through whatever comes in the next one.

It was actually quite a remarkable exercise in meditation, and I am surprised by (and proud of) how the calm yogi in me was able to step into that moment and let it all be fine. It felt like a far stretch from the tornado-fearing prairie kid who'd crawl under the heavy wooden desk in the basement office with a jar of peanut butter and a weather radio at the first sight of a big black bank of clouds rolling across that great wide sky.

That simple contrast in selves, well, it speaks to the quite literal, quite down-to-earth power of this practice to transform. To very tangibly change us such that the way we choose to behave in situations of uncertainty, wherein the lack of control is oh-so-clear, shifts completely.

Now that's powerful.

(And on that note, skipping asana practice this morning to catch up on my lists and to get that article in on deadline. Just in case the Heyward Fault decides it's not quite done yet, I wanna make sure I'm caught up on my inbox, you know?)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Raw, adjective: 8. brutally harsh or unfair: a raw deal

Nothing sets my heart aflutter like a little smart talk about radical theology and American capitalism. Here's a gem from David Loy, who cites Michael Stone's recent call for change in Shambhala Sun.

We've seen a lot of strong (and not-so-strong) commentary on the Occupy Wall Street movement, but this is one of the pieces that has really stuck out for me. It's a sharp blend of political understanding, theologically-motivated activism, and self-awareness. Here are a few tidbits from my highlight reel:
We should appreciate the general, unfocused dissatisfaction that so many people feel, because it reflects a general, unfocused realization that the roots of the crisis are very deep and require a more radical (literally, “going to the root”) transformation.

Wall Street is the most concentrated and visible part of a much larger nightmare: the collective delusion that our present economic system – globalizing, consumerist, corporate capitalism – is not only the best possible system but the only viable one. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “There is no alternative.” The events of the last few years have undermined that confidence. The events of the past few weeks are a response to the widespread realization that our economic system is rigged to benefit the wealthy (the “1%”) at the expense of the middle class (shrinking fast) and the poor (increasing fast). And, of course, at the expense of many ecosystems, which will have enormous consequences for the lives of our grandchildren and their children. What we are waking up to is the fact that this unfair system is breaking down, and that it should break down, in order for better alternatives to develop. ....

Most importantly, a corporation cannot love. Love is realizing our interconnectedness with others and living our concern for their well-being. Love is not an emotion but an engagement with others that includes responsibility for them, a responsibility that transcends our individual self-interest. Corporations cannot experience such love or act according to it. Any CEOs who try to subordinate their company’s profitability to their love for the world will lose their position, for they are not fulfilling their primary – that is, financial — responsibility to its owners, the shareholders.

Buddhist enlightenment includes realizing that my sense of being a self separate from the world is a delusion that causes suffering on both sides. To realize that I am the world – that “I” am one of the many ways the world manifests – is the cognitive side of the love that an awakened person feels for the world and its creatures. The realization (wisdom) and the love (compassion) are two sides of the same coin, which is why Buddhist teachers so often emphasize that genuine awakening is accompanied by spontaneous concern for all other sentient beings.
Love. That's the bottom line. Yes.

Waking Up From the Nightmare: Buddhist Reflections on Occupy Wall Street (Shambhala Sun)

Raw, adjective: 9. disagreeably damp and chilly, as the weather or air: a raw, foggy day at the beach.

A foggy Thursday morning with my boys Pradeep and Tom, ready to get our asana on.

I teach a 7am class every Thursday at the top of a skyscraper down in the Financial District, and when I hop on the cable car to head up and over Nob Hill in the still-dark dawn, it's always one of those moments wherein I think to myself: how did this strange foggy urban yoga-tinted life of mine ever come to be?

And then I yawn. A lot.

And then I chug some more coffee, and we do a little Downward Dog, and once 8am rolls around, I hop back on the Muni toward Mission and Van Ness for my own dose of ass-kicking, courtesy of my Urban Flow family-of-choice.

Teaching there this afternoon at 4:30. It's donation-based, dears. That means yoga for everyone: yer mom, yer dog, yer annoying little brother, that irritable clerk at Walgreens who always looks like he's about to cry. But especially for him.

Come home.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Raw, adjective: 2. not having undergone processes of preparing, dressing, finishing, refining, or manufacture: raw cotton.

My regular Wednesday morning walk through a drowsy Chinatown to teach at Glow is such a practice in being present.

Sometimes I can't believe this is my life.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Raw, noun: 13. unrefined sugar, oil, etc.

I've had a few requests for the cake from last weekend's Bhakti Kitchen workshop. Here's the recipe — vegan and gluten-free, crazy, right? — with a final pic to follow. The beauty of this recipe is that you can switch it up in myriad ways: by adding fresh fruit or candied ginger, nuts, raisins, or chocolate chips, liqueurs like Chambord, Kahlua or Grand Marnier, or even simple almond or hazelnut milks. Just play with it.

You can find gluten-free flour and xanthan gum at any local Whole Foods or similar somewhat-progressive grocery store. Coconut milk usually hangs out in the aisle with the Thai foods. Happy baking.



1 c freshly brewed coffee
3/4 c coconut milk
2/3 c unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 1/2 c granulated sugar
1/3 c canola oil
1/3 c applesauce
1/4 c cornstarch
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut extract
2 c Bob's Red Mill gluten-free flour
1 tsp Xanthan gum
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup flaked coconut

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees; grease and flour your bundt pan. Heat the coffee in a saucepan over medium heat until it comes to a simmer. Turn the heat down to low and whisk in coconut milk and cocoa powder until it has dissolved. Remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside to bring to room temperature.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar, oil, applesauce, and cornstarch until the sugar and cornstarch dissolve, about 2 minutes. Mix in the extracts. Once the chocolate mixture has cooled a bit, stir that in as well. Sift the flour, xanthan gum, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Beat until the batter is relatively smooth. Fold in flaked coconut.

Pour the batter into a prepared pan and bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake's center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 20 minutes. then invert the cake onto a serving plate and cool completely.

Vegan cakes can often be grainy and dry, so keep an eye on the oven to make sure you don't overbake it. The coconut I've added to this recipe will really help to keep it moist, too.

Being the frosting whore that I am, I wanted to work up something rich. So I found this excellent basic recipe for a vegan chocolate frosting, and just modified it a bit:

1/2 cup vegan margarine (Earth Balance, etc.)
2 cups vegan powdered sugar
2 teas coconut extract
1 teas vanilla extract
2 Tbsp vegan soymilk
1/3 cup cocoa powder (or more)
A dash of salt

Optional: add 1 tbsp coconut milk to give the icing more of a coconut cream feel. Or just substitute coconut milk for the soymilk, to begin with.

Soften the vegan margarine. (This would be a good step to do while baking the cake). Using an electric mixer, cream the sugar into the softened margarine. (Don't do it too early and piss off the neighbors. I learned this the last time around.) Then add the coconut and vanilla extracts, soymilk, cocoa powder, and salt. Mix well. If it is too thick, add a very small amount of soymilk, and if it is too thin, add more powdered sugar. Continue to mix until the frosting is light and fluffy.

I often find it helps to heat the frosting at a low level a bit on the stovetop as you whisk it.

Drizzle that action all over the cooled cake, and let it sit for a bit before you add the flowers. If you're short on time (or blooms), just sprinkle fresh coconut over the top for a nice contrast.

And there she is. A bhaktilicious baking project for a seriously bhaktilicious crew. Big love.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.

~ Mary Oliver,
Evidence: Poems

Raw, adjective: 6. ignorant, inexperienced, or untrained: a raw recruit.

Do you spend much time alone?

I do — or, at least, I used to. I was always a Lone Ranger type, even as a kid, generally quite content to be under a tree in the backyard with a book instead of schmoozing with the neighbor lady. I remember so clearly even in my teens, in full-on high school-overachiever-cheerleader-theater-kid mode, reading enviously about Henry David Thoreau's solo escape to Walden and wishing I could just ditch everything in that prescribed suburban Nebraska world and do the same.

Folks can get weirded out by people who are super comfortable being alone. Have you noticed this? (Jonathan Rauch did, and for that, I will always love him.) I remember being about 19 on a semester abroad in London; per usual, I stuck with my standard M.O., flying solo, hitting the theater by myself, heading to the British Museum on my own, zipping out early and heading home late, what have you. And I'll never forget how shocked, how struck I was by how very offended a few friends were by that quite unconscious ability to just do my own thing. They took it personally. But for me, it was just easier, more instinctive, more comfortable, more natural, this solitude, I suppose. A few years later, when I moved to Europe by myself as a recent college grad, I remember thinking to myself: "Holy god, yes. I can finally be alone." And it was true.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and life as I know it now is a constant march of being social. That quiet London theater student with her nose in a book wouldn't recognize this teaching, martini-shaking, stranger-greeting creature whose social calendar is booked out three weeks ahead of time. We change, yes, and we introverts learn by necessity how to be a little more professionally extroverted. But, of late, and perhaps because of that very shift, I've been so hungry for silence, realizing how contingent upon it is my ability to write, to breathe, to think, to craft any kind of creative anything. So as I look ahead to solo time in Thailand next month, I know that's where my heart needs to be for a bit of refueling, the same way you'd charge an electric car or your battery-drained iPhone at night.

SO this morning when I woke up to find Tricycle's daily featured article on The Power of Solitude, I had to smile. Dr. Reggie Ray writes about the importance of solitary retreat, the power of learning to sit with your racing neurotic mind and really remove yourself from the social stimulants that keep you from touching ground with that very heart of things. And I was grateful.

Ray writes:
We are a very extroverted society. Even though within the Western tradition the practice of seclusion and retreat are very much a part of our own spiritual culture — the contemplative practices of Roman Catholicism, for example — most people are not aware that they are part of our heritage.

I think the other reason is that not only has the typical Western person spent little or no time alone, but many of us have an underlying fear of solitude. Possibly driving some of the misunderstanding of retreat is a deep-seated fear of being alone without distraction, without entertainment, without “work,” without other people around to constantly confirm our sense of self. We live in a culture driven by consumerism. Many of us feel, perhaps without realizing it, that unless we are “producing” in some sort of external, materialistic way, our legitimacy as a human being is somehow in question. We don’t really see where retreat fits in....

One of the things [people] often discover when they get into those situations is that they’ve brought their whole world with them. Their anxiety, their disturbing emotions, their mental speed, their mental preoccupations are just as present in solitude as they are in ordinary life. In fact, they may be even more prevalent. The problem is that they don’t know what to do with their mind.

Retreat combines solitude and the practice of meditation, where you begin to actually explore your own mind. What you find is that, through intensive meditation in retreat, you begin to attend to your mind in a direct and unmediated way: Your mind begins to slow down, your sense perceptions open up, you find yourself increasingly present to your life, and you begin to experience solitude in a deep and genuine way.

The environment is solitude, but the essential ingredient is meditation practice — what you actually do with your mind when you are alone.....
[This] takes a lifetime of practice to develop. But I’ve discovered that if you do the practice, the results manifest themselves. Now that’s huge. This is not wishful thinking. Real, undeniable, and lasting transformation is what’s at stake. That’s what I try to communicate to my students. Number one: it takes work. Number two: it gets you to a place in your own life where maybe you really want to be more than anywhere else. So it’s definitely worth doing.
Amen, brother. How can you fit a wee bit more solitude into your own routine? Even if it's just five minutes alone on the bus, or ten minutes under a tree before you head into that cocktail party? Give it a try. Your mind — and your heart — will thank you.

Caring For Your Introvert (Atlantic Monthly)
The Power of Solitude (Tricycle)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Raw, adjective: 9. disagreeably damp and chilly, as the weather or air: a raw, foggy day at the beach.

Sunday morning back at the ranch. A quiet one, an unfamiliar few hours of stillness after several days' of maelstrom. Good yoga-shaped, Osha Thai-shaped, Bryan Kest-shaped maelstrom, but maelstrom, nonetheless.

Was due for an adventure in Point Reyes with my dear friend S this morn, but woke feeling the impact of a week's worth of flu-denial making itself doggedly known. So this stubborn one finally listened to that bodily cry for rest, and the morning has instead offered a measure of literary quiet that I didn't realize how much I needed.

Sunday mornings once (well, for years, really) looked like [pastor's kid-mandated] church, and then for awhile turned into hours lost over the Grey Lady and the Sunday Chron, and of late have been mostly asana-shaped. But this under-the-weather one marked a return to the NYT and all her glory, and in it I've found an unexpected urge 1) to chuck it all and move to Vermont to live as an artist in a house with a bridge to my beloved offering me plenty of the space I crave, alongside a 2) sudden need to haul ass to London and conduct a few European symphony orchestras, or even just to 3) saunter around as an opera-loving socialite divorceé in 1980s New York City.

You have those moments, too, no? When you look at your life and all other possible lives and go Awwww, fuck, I should've stuck with the physicist option or the musician option or the artist-in-rural-New England option? Sometimes the variety of possibilities for right turns and left can become overwhelming. And I want to do it all at once, every bit, every potential reality, here, now, yes.

And then you remember that it's short, and geographically-limited, and might end soon, so you sure as hell'd better be in it now, whichever variation that might mean. And that's when my morning of NYT Arts- and Style-section inspired alterna-lives turned to Joan Didion, a creature who's been popping into my consciousness more and more of late. I've made mention of her often here, she who is such a model of brisk intelligence and sharp writerly iconoclasm, and I've been returning to her work again, remembering, admiring, wanting to reflect even the tiniest approximation of her great light.

I revisited Shambhala Sun's 2008 piece on the Zen of Joan Didion this morning, and in it was reminded of the rawness of Didion's writing on grief. Seeing Mary Oliver in person the other night reminded me how important (and how admirable) it is to be unapologetically your own; she's a hermit of a brilliant writer, the kind who protects her space with great care, and who'd rather be alone in nature than accompanied by the legions of admirers who'd gladly follow her around. I adored her: her simplicity, her humor, her self-deprecation. And was comforted by her iconoclasm, her matter-of-fact self-knowing, her own shared sense of intrinsic need for solitude.

Read Joan. Remind yourself that this life is short and only ever what we make of it: artists, conductors, poets, all. So we may as well be in it all the way, eh? And don't be surprised if I up and move to NYC for a life of words and art and symphony orchestras and, uh, socialite divorces. It's never too late, you know?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

Seeing Mary O tonight. So excited.
That makes two inspirational
dames in just a few days.

Wild and precious.
And short.
Do tell.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Raw, adjective: 5. crude in quality or character; not tempered or refined by art or taste: raw humor.

Once again, Recovering Yogi comes through with a winner.

Do you remember your first day of yoga? Well, this guy does. And he nails it: the blissed-out pretension, the feeling like you're not allowed to swear, the wondering what the hell OM means. And the feeling like everyone else knows what to wear and what to do and where to go, and what the hell do all those unpronounceable asana words mean, anyway? Would they just shut up and speak in English already so we can understand?

I remember. And I love that this outsider experience — what so many of us have felt — has been put into words. If there's any lesson from this particular guy's story, it's that we've gotta be careful not to slip so comfortably into some glossy, commodified version of "yoga" that the pretty-shiny-product scares away all hints of the rough, the real, the raw. Right?

And what’s that she’s saying?? Ok. Sounds good. I got this. I totally fit in here. I have to remember to smile at everyone, even though I’m not feeling that great today. I’m tired of chasing money and rush hour traffic reminds me of Armageddon. But that’s no matter. I can’t bring those feelings into this space. I’ll tuck them away and deal with them later. The receptionist asks me how I’m doing today, with a strange smile. She might be medicated. I’ve seen smiles like that before — on neglected housewives and people in nursing homes. Not sure what to say, one negative word seems like it could knock this whole building to the ground.
Read on. Guffaw. Remember what it was like to feel clueless, marginal, out-of-place, uncertain. Because that roughness, that rawness, that realness? Well, that's where the yoga really starts, at least as far as I'm concerned.

My First Day of Yoga (Recovering Yogi)

Raw, adjective: 9. disagreeably damp and chilly, as the weather or air: a raw, foggy day at the beach.

It is a Monday morning and my first quiet day in a very, very long time.

The weather's accordingly grey and drizzly. I had forgotten, but craved, this sense of stillness, knowing that damn, sometimes it's so nice to just be quiet already. And how really wonderful it is to be off.

(There are 27 gazillion emails to be returned in three different inboxes and there's a floor to be swept and a dishwasher to be unloaded, but they will wait.)

I spent the morning with Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter and once again, yet again, it blows my mind that one film, one simple tiny quiet film, might so perfectly express so very much about what it feels like to be alive.

(Also: Aaron Eckhart.)

We talked in yesterday's workshop about a fair number of things, too many to try to squeeze into two hours, for sure. But one that I've been thinking about since, and still yet think about right now, is the idea of learning to be present when you're eating. It's something I've practiced for years now, this general [quite simple, quite obvious] effort to actually be present in the process, rather than stuffing your face while you run down the street to catch a bus or eating dinner in front of the computer while you catch up on work. And one example I gave yesterday afternoon, one tiny way in which this practice has made itself known in my own life (because yes, it is most certainly a practice, just like anything else), was that of eating an apple.

It happened just the other day.

I'd stopped by Whole Foods after teaching that morning, and was starving, and needing to be somewhere, but in spite of the hour, I walked out of the grocery, spotted a sunlit strip of sidewalk across the street, waddled over with my bags, and leaned up against this nondescript office building in that very sun, where I commenced to pull out one of the new Gala apples I'd just bought, polish it once or twice against my scarf to get rid of any really obvious junk, and then just stand there quietly, leaning, for two minutes, in the sun, eating my apple, really tasting it, really actually being in it.

And then I finished it and hoisted up my bags and hauled my heavy, late ass down Van Ness towards home. And on went the day.

But those two minutes, well, they were a meditation; they were two minutes of stillness, of silence, of presence. They were two minutes of ignoring the phone and being in my body and feeling the sun on my face and tasting the [kind of mealy, quite mediocre] autumn apple in my mouth. And noticing, just noticing, the hour and the traffic and the street and the view and the taste. And by god, well, if that isn't yoga — if that isn't paying attention, and really just being present, for even a flash — well, then, I don't know what is.

You steal the moments when you can. What stuck with me on that day, Friday, maybe, it was, was the way those two minutes shifted my entire energy. My racing heart and chattering mind stopped, stood still, calmed, found quiet for even a moment, and as I walked down the hill toward home carrying my bags, my experience of being alive in a body, well, it was altogether different.

You don't know what insubstantial, unromantic moment might shift your day. You can start by sitting down and turning off all your shit (because, as Anne Lamott writes, "you have to grasp that your manic forms of connectivity — cell phone, email, text, Twitter — steal most chances of lasting connection or amazement,"), and really be right where you are.

From there, well, Lamott writes:
I often remember the story from India of a beggar who sat outside a temple, begging for just enough every day to keep body and soul alive, until the temple elders convinced him to move across the street and sit under a tree. Years of begging and bare subsistence followed until he died. The temple elders decided to bury him beneath his cherished tree, where, after shoveling away a couple of feet of earth, they found a stash of gold coins that he had unknowingly sat on, all those hand-to-mouth years.

You already have the gold coins beneath you, of presence, creativity, intimacy, time for wonder, and nature, and life. Oh, yeah, you say? And where would those rascally coins be?

This is what I say: First of all, no one needs to watch the news every night, unless one is married to the anchor. Otherwise, you are mostly going to learn more than you need to know about where the local fires are, and how rainy it has been: so rainy! That is half an hour, a few days a week, I tell my students. You could commit to writing one page a night, which, over a year, is most of a book. ....

I’ve heard it said that every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self, unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour. I promise you, it is there. Fight tooth and nail to find time, to make it. It is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day.
That's yoga. For real. Creating space, cultivating stillness, getting rid of the excess chatter and being with what is. That said, I'm gonna go play the piano. Inbox, I'll see you soon enough.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Raw, noun: 13. unrefined sugar, oil, etc.

Thanks to everyone who came out for today's Bhakti Kitchen workshop at GLOW Yoga & Wellness! We loved every second. Thanks for your heart, your humor and your hunger.

(The cake loved you, too. That would be chocolate coconut cream — vegan and gluten-free! — and still weirdly delicious. Gerbera daisies and tuberoses for the pretty.)

Raw, adjective: 1. uncooked, as articles of food: a raw carrot.

Yes indeed, The Yoga of Eating:
My chocolate coconut cream cake's
out of the oven and ready to roll.

See you at 3 @ Glow.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Raw, noun: 13. unrefined sugar, oil, etc.

Sunday's Bhakti Kitchen workshop on The Yoga of Eating is rapidly approaching. We're fired up. Are you coming? The cake will go in the oven tomorrow night.

In preparation, I've been revisiting my yoga of baking stuff. Want a preview of a few things we'll talk about on Sunday? Here's the piece I wrote for Yoga Journal few years back on how baking can be not only a functional craft but also a form of seva and most certainly a moving meditation.

The Joy of Baking
When I was a little girl, I'd sometimes answer a knock at our front door to find one of the local church ladies bearing a homemade cake. My sisters and I would marvel at the confection delivered in howling winds and subzero temperatures to our remote acreage on the edge of a South Dakota town. Throughout the year, these kind women filled potluck tables with their homemade pies, cakes, and breads in celebration of births, weddings, and harvests; the same desserts were also offered to the sick and grieving. By watching these generous bakers offer the fruits of their kitchen labors to those who could use a sweet surprise, I learned early on the joys of nourishing the heart through food. Making food for friends and family has a powerful effect on both giver and receiver, says Scott Blossom, a Berkeley, California, yoga therapist and Ayurvedic educator. "It's not unlike the kind of nourishment that comes from romantic love. Food prepared with loving intention is spiritual."

A Year of Bundts

As an adult, I rediscovered the practice of baking heartfelt gifts in my new community in San Francisco. At one point, I decided to devote a year to baking cakes as offerings. Every Saturday morning I'd roll out of bed bleary-eyed, fill an empty bundt cake pan with batter, and give the resulting cake to someone in need of comfort or a little celebration. As I listened to the city wake up, I counted and chopped, mixed and measured. And in the process, my mind became still, my breath slowed, my body felt balanced and at peace. What I experienced was more than mixing butter and eggs—it was a practice in baking and giving from the heart.

It all began when my friends Heidi and Jeff were celebrating birthdays in the midst of difficult times: One was heartbroken, the other far from home. They shared a fondness for almonds, and so, after a quick Web search and a trip to the mom-and-pop store around the corner, I set up shop in my small kitchen, armed with a new cake pan and a recipe for a simple almond bundt cake. A few flour-covered hours later, sifting powdered sugar over the nearly finished cake, I felt a connection with the women in my family and community who'd taught me to bake when I was a little girl in South Dakota.

Later, I learned to toast walnuts, make streusel, and adhere rose petals to coconut cream frosting. I also learned to balance hope for a beautiful confection with a letting-go of expectations, for there were certainly failures. At the same time, I learned that building such a regular practice into my life meant that there would always be a chance to approach each creation as a fresh start. It was the practice that mattered, not the product; the act of the offering, not the offering itself.

Some 60 cakes later, I see now how my "bundt cake Saturdays" have given me a creative outlet that, among other things, reminds me that compassion can transcend urban boundaries. Strangers on the street soften at the sight of my cake caddy, asking if that's a cat I have hiding in there. Even the bus driver will wait patiently for "the cake lady," going out of his way to drop me off at work, where my colleagues light up like children at the prospect of a new flavor to sample.

I've shipped cakes across the country to old college friends and my new goddaughter on the East Coast; buckled them into the back seat for a winding trip to a surprise birthday party in Santa Cruz; and hauled them up steep San Francisco hills to share with a friend going through chemotherapy. In the process, these silly bundts have nurtured burgeoning relationships among strangers, reminding me of the truth of yogic interrelatedness and the power of compassion to comfort the lonely.
Gift Exchange

As word of my practice spread, acquaintances showered me with unexpected gifts: cake molds and mixes, gadgets and glazes, recipes carefully clipped out of newspapers. In this receiving, I realized that when we offer up our labor, time, energy, love, and craft—humble and imperfect as they might be—with no expectation of return, people respond in kind, and tenderness opens up in the spaces between.

A few weeks ago, as I finished making a cake—chocolate decorated with red hibiscus flowers for a potluck with my yoga kula—I realized that my bundt pan is a perfect rendition of the yogic mandala, a whirling chakra, a vortex of energy spinning out hope and sacred intentions in the body. How fitting, I thought, to find here, in this simple pan, a reminder that giving and receiving are circular, that what we put forth with love and intention comes back to us in equal joy.
The Joy of Baking (YJ)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Raw, adjective: 11. unprocessed or unevaluated: raw data.

Speaking of goddesses...

Today is the final day of the Hindu festival of Navratri. We close by celebrating Saraswati, who by all accounts is one badass chick.

Why, you say? Well, try this on for size:
  1. She's the goddess of literature, knowledge, music, arts, science and technology
  2. She's the symbol of the allure of wisdom, attractive and enticing like a beautiful woman
  3. She is "not adorned heavily with jewels and gold, unlike the goddess Lakshmi, but is dressed modestly — representing her preference of knowledge over worldly material things." Indeed, she "wears neither jewels or paints herself with bright colors. The white sari she adorns reflects her essential purity, her rejection of all that is base and materialistic." (Yup, we'd get along just fine.)
  4. She "represents intelligence, consciousness, cosmic knowledge, creativity, education, enlightenment, music, the arts, eloquence and power."
  5. Her symbolic animal is (ahem) the (pea)cock. Supposedly, this peacock chillin' alongside Saraswati exhibits "arrogance and pride over its beauty," and so, "by having a peacock as her mount, the Goddess teaches not to be concerned with external appearance and to be wise regarding the eternal truth."
  6. She's a scholar and a musician, always pictured seated on a white lotus, holding her book and her lute. "Schools and libraries are her temples; books, pens, all tools of the artist and musical instruments are the items used in puja to this enlightening goddess of wisdom."
Not gonna lie. Kinda wanna be her.

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

Thrilled be spending tomorrow eve with Rita Moreno at Berkeley Rep.

You know Moreno as Anita from West Side Story. That'd be her at left. She's also the rare bird who's won an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy and two Emmys. Aaaaand, she was on The Electric Company when we were kids.

Talk about some serious street cred. It's any musical theater nerd's dream. So Rita's rocking this one-woman autobiographical show — Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup — and I've been trying to score a free night to see it for weeks. So excited.

Here's more on the production. Killer reviews. Not surprised.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

I am reminded, over and over again, that we all have broken hearts.

We forget this sometimes, you know? We're good at pretending. I see it sometimes in class, though, as people beat up on themselves for falling out of Utthita Hasta Padangustasana, or feel it in their heaviness as they walk in the door and make a wan effort to smile, or when they struggle, fidgeting, to give themselves permission to rest for even two minutes at the end of class in Savasana.

One of my own pet peeves as a yoga student is when the teacher starts jabbering on and on about "finding your bliss." There you are, fighting to stay in Parivrtta Parsvakonasana and to not topple over straight onto your face, sweat dripping into your eyeballs, and they're wandering around blabbing about bliss and joy and rainbows and unicorns. Um, seriously? No. That's not how it works.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Yoga does not mean you have to be perky. Yoga means you get to be real.

And a part of that realness is remembering how grounded our lives are in suffering. The fact of the matter is, we all suffer. (It's one of the Four Noble Truths, silly.) And because at one point or another we have all suffered, we know what it's like to be in pain, to feel empty, lost, confused, broken, fearful. And that knowing, that empathy, becomes the ground of our own compassion. Because when we're able to recall that heavy empty dark shadowy feeling within our own bodies, hearts, minds, we're better able to reach out to those around us whose own darknesses might feel too great to bear.

So much of asana is about learning to meet ourselves in moments of struggle, of chaos, of self-imposed difficulty — Warrior 3, anyone? — and remind ourselves that the struggle will pass, the chaos will abate, the difficulty will ease. That truth of impermanence then bleeds into our lives off the mat, so that when we're sitting with sorrow, or pain, or uncertainty, we can remind ourselves that, in the same way that Warrior 3's tension eventually resolved, so will our own emotional tumult blow right by.

I'm reminded of all this here, now, on this particular morning, because of a conversation last night with a dear friend who's aching a bit, whose usual radiance is feeling a bit clouded-over, and because I'm feeling particularly close in this autumnal grey to memories of own past sorrows, and so I sat down this morning with Pema Chodron's beautiful, brief teaching on Tonglen practice, and it lit me up.
The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering — ours and that which is all around us — everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.

We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness. However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.
Breathe in one another's sorrow; breathe out one another's peace.

How simple, how perfect, how counterintuitive to the resistance we usually present to all things dark or painful or difficult.
People often say that this practice goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together. Truthfully, this practice does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, of wanting it to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others. The practice dissolves the armor of self-protection we've tried so hard to create around ourselves. In Buddhist language one would say that it dissolves the fixation and clinging of ego.

Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we begin to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness that Buddhists call shunyata. ....
So on the spot you can do tonglen for all the people who are just like you, for everyone who wishes to be compassionate but instead is afraid, for everyone who wishes to be brave but instead is a coward.

Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world.

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.

Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.
It's just so powerful, isn't it? Suddenly the notion of taking on another's suffering becomes liberating, becomes the source of compassion, becomes just one more way in which we remember that we are all connected. And if that's not yoga, I don't know what is. No expensive pants or fancy props necessary.

The Practice of Tonglen ~ Pema Chodron (Shambhala)

Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

Mary Oliver. Iconic poet.

She'll be here in town next week. Are you coming?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Raw, adjective: 11. unprocessed or unevaluated: raw data.

from your girl Rach.

Raw, idiom: 14a. in the natural, uncultivated, or unrefined state: nature in the raw.

Are you feeling your yin coming on?

Don't be surprised if you do. According to Chinese medicine, right about, oh, now, you might just be feeling quiet and thoughtful and maybe a little nostalgic and maybe a little sad and a little bit mournful. Autumn, you see. The seasons.

Part of what I love about Traditional Chinese Medicine is its close connection to the seasons, its recognition of the role that nature plays in our physical health and our emotional moods. The other day I was just saying to my acupuncturist that I've noticed how many of my closest friends seem to feel so goddamned melancholy of late.

And she pointed out the TCM connection between the autumn, the Metal element and the lungs and large intestines (and their related energy meridians in the body). Basically, as befits the harvest time, with its earlier darkness and cooler air and shift toward root vegetables and soups for sustenance, quietude and an inward turn are super-natural and to be expected. So if you're feeling more reflective of late, maybe a little aloof and sickly and dry, and kind of just want to tell people to fuck off, that's the autumn in you saying HELLO there, doll — I'm here!

Here are two excellent articles that give a little more philosophical insight into this whole seasonal shift away from summer's yang and toward winter's yin. The first offers some useful practical tips for rolling with the seasons; the second makes some nice connections between emotional states and the bodily results that come with the whole harvest vibe.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Raw, adjective: 6. ignorant, inexperienced, or untrained: a raw recruit.

Thailand is booked. My year of Asia continues.

Seven weeks til I board a plane for Bangkok. This thing's for real. Now it's all about managing to squeeze into that Richard Freeman training on Koh Samui, crafting a really sweet wedding ceremony for Jinny and Derek's celebration on Railay Beach, and hammering out a legit writing plan for finishing my book manuscript(s?) while I'm there.

Suddenly the next two months have taken on a great arc of their own. So excited. Any Thailand travel experts out there, I'll welcome your advice in the weeks to come.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Raw, adjective: 11. unprocessed or unevaluated: raw data.

Yes, it's true! I'll be continuing to teach at Urban Flow through the month of October. If you haven't yet had a chance to practice with me there, please do swing by Tuesdays and Thursdays 4:30-6. It's such a pleasure to get lost in the quiet of the toasty studio as the late-afternoon autumn sunlight streams in.

So just come already.

And don't forget to join us tomorrow afternoon for Rusty and Aaron's Drum and Chant workshop. It's going to be ridiculous(ly good). My bongos are so excited, they haven't slept for days.

Raw, adjective: 11. unprocessed or unevaluated: raw data.

Obligatory gratuitous goddaughter photo of the day:

Rachel Lynn and Clara Mae, rockin' the smiles.
Rachel turns 3 on Monday. How time flies.

Doing our best to cultivate these sweet little goddesses in our lives, even from across the miles. Navratri love.