When I was little, I was very quiet. People used to say to me, "Whats the matter? Cat got your tongue?"
I'm still more of a listener than a talker and until recently, I thought that my tendency to be on the quieter side gave me the ability to be a good listener. I mean, if I am not talking, I must be listening right?
When I put my theory to the test however, I didn't do as well as I thought. When I tried to pay attention to and HEAR every word that my friend was saying, I realized how often my mind wanted to interject, to assert itself with an idea, an opinion, some advice.
So even though I wasn't talking, I wasn't really listening either. I was actually talking in my head, formulating my response, comparing her story to mine. When I got really honest with myself, I realized that I was making my friend's conversation about me.
To be a good listener requires that we drop our ego. If we want to listen, hear, and really know someone, it's important that we let go of judging their thoughts, comparing theirs to ours, making them right or wrong. If we listen with an open mind and heart and then repeat their thoughts back to them without our own preconceptions, comparisons and thoughts mixed in (our me), it's a way of affirming that we heard what they said without judgment.
Most often, people just want to be heard. They don't necessarily need or want to be fixed.
Allowing another person to find a solution to their own problems helps them to get stronger and grow. When we find a solution for them, they weaken.
Yoga teaches us to pay attention to ourselves, to listen to our inner guidance. Yoga philosophy says that all the answers to our questions are inside of us. We all have an INNER KNOWING that we can access when we get very clear and quiet. This is our parusha, our higher mind, our Divine self.
We don't always hear this inner guidance through all the chatter going on in our minds. We often look outward for guidance, see what others are doing, compare our choices to theirs, and ask advice to anyone we can think of. This outward seeking takes us farther away from hearing that still small voice inside of us.
On our yoga mat, our asana practice teaches us to pay attention to the wisdom of our physical bodies. Our unconscious habits and patterns, in other words, our lack of listening, created our physical issues in the first place.
When we take our yoga practice off the mat, we recognize that our unconscious patterns and habits in our mental and emotional bodies may have also created issues in our lives. This awareness can help us to break free of these habitual responses and create new and healthier ones.
The eight limbed path of yoga encourages us to pay attention, turn inward, and listen closely to our inner wisdom. When our actions are inspired by our highest self, we create a happier and more joyful life.
In the Four Agreements; A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Don Miguel Ruiz says to "be impeccable with
your word". This is a lofty goal, but definitely one to aspire to.
We should never underestimate the power that our words have.
They can heal, create, soothe, and join people together.
They can also hurt, destroy, weaken, and tear people apart.
Most likely, at least once, every one of us has put our foot in our mouth, spilled a secret that we promised not
to tell, gossiped behind someone's back, or hurt someone with our words. In the heat of the moment we
often forget that what we say, and we can't take it back.
We can back peddle, apologize, try to pretend we didn't actually say it, but often these remedies are like putting
a teeny tiny bandaid on a giant gaping wound. The sting of our words can do damage that lasts for a very
Being impeccable with your word requires mindfulness.
Observe yourself for a few days and you will learn what your tendencies are. Do you talk to fill the air?
Do you speak impulsively? Do you choose your words carefully or do you choose your words
To make sure that your words don't cause unnecessary harm, a good rule of thumb is to practice the
Three Gates of Speech. Asking yourself the following three questions will take you through a process to
ensure that the words you are about to say are chosen carefully and with thoughtfulness.
Is it true?
This can be tricky. When we were kids we would play the telephone game. The first person would
whisper something in someone's ear and that person would repeat what they heard to the next person.
This would go around the circle until the last person would share what they had heard. There was always
an eruption of laughter when the first person revealed what they really said.
Unless it is your story to tell or it is an undisputed fact, most repeated stories.....ie, gossip, are NOT true, so
don't repeat them. If what you are about to say is true, you can open the first gate, but you must get through
the next two gates before you speak.
Is it kind?
We all know whether what we are about to say is kind or not. Sometimes we say hurtful things and say we
didn't mean it, but we always mean it on some level. What good does it do to hurt someone on purpose?
Like my mom said, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.
Sounds pretty simple but there are exceptions to every rule, which leads to the last gate of speech.
Is it necessary?
This is the "gate" that requires the most mindfulness before stepping through. Sometimes we find ourselves
in a predicament. Should we tell our friend the truth of what we know even if it will be painful for him or her
to hear? Even if it may risk her relationship with another? Even if we aren't certain what the consequences
will be. That's the thirty million dollar question. There is no simple answer, but a heart felt and well thought
out process will help you make your decision.
Most spiritual practices teach the importance of right and honest speech. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali
says, "When established in truthfulness, everything one says comes true."
Aspiring to say only what is true, kind, and necessary is an excellent way to stay true to yourself and others.
This weekend I was fortunate to spend time with my adorable little nieces.
I watched in amazement as they practiced all of the new skills that they learned since the last time I saw them.
With support and encouragement from their parents, they learned how to take their shoes off and put them back on, color on paper instead of the walls, kick a ball across the yard, and say please and thank you when offered a snack.
As I marveled at these precious little creatures, I thought to myself, "practice makes perfect". I quickly modified that thought to, "well, almost perfect" when I saw the mischevious two and a half year old getting ready to color my couch a beautiful shade of crayola purple.
Anything that we do over and over again, we get better at.
It might be a skill like playing the piano, knitting a sweater, or playing golf. It might be a behavior like saying please and thank you, holding the door for someone, or exercising daily.
If we do anything often enough, it will become a habit. It might even become ingrained or automatic....something that we just do.
My nieces will eventually say please and thank you and put on their shoes without being prompted by their parents. Our golf swing will start to feel more natural, and our exercise routine will be a part of our daily lives.
The good news is; whatever we practice we get better at. The bad news is; whatever we practice we get better at.
We can unwittingly get better at things that we don't necessarily want to get better at.
If we often show up to work irritable or angry, we will get better at it. If we are afraid to try something new or step out of our comfort zone often enough, we get better at it. If we lose our temper with our kids each time they annoy us, we get better at that too.
Like the Olympic athletes who practice their sport so often that it becomes part of who they are, the state of mind that we practice often enough becomes part of who we are.
According to yoga philosophy, our natural state is one of peacefullness. Through the stilling of the craziness of the mind we will be able to discover this truth.
Yoga Sutra 1.12 says " these mental modifications (craziness of the mind) are restrained by practice (abhyasa) and non attachment (vairagya)."
Yoga Philosophy teaches that when we practice the eight limbs of yoga and let go of the results of our efforts, we will acheive this state of yoga or union with the self.
We can apply these wise teachings to everything that we want to get better at in our lives.
When my nieces payed attention to the process of putting on their shoes instead of being distracted by the goal of getting outside, the process of putting on their shoes was perfect. Their shoes were on the right feet and fastened securely. Staying focused on the task at hand, instead of the final outcome allowed them to get outside more quickly.
When we stay in the present moment and turn our attention inward on a regular basis, we will be more aware of our own "practices". With this knowledge, we can choose to practice only those things that we would like to get better at.
Each time we find ourselves getting better at anger, judgement, gossip, or fear, we have the ability to change that state of mind and instead choose to get better at patience, acceptance, compassion, and courage.
Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga said "Do your practice and all is coming."
This simple statement encourages us to commit to our practice and have faith that devoting ourselves to something greater will ultimately bring us exactly what we need.
There is a story about a Zen master who takes his student to the edge of a pond and asks him how many fish he sees.
The student looks in the pond and says, "I see ten."
The master says, "Good, now how many ponds do you see?"
The student is a bit surprised by the obvious question, but he answers, "There is one pond master." The master says, "Count again."
The student looks at the single pond in front of him and is perplexed by the question. After some time and reflection, he finds the answer. "Master, there are ten ponds. Each fish has their own pond through which they see the world."
The Zen story teaches that we each have our own unique and sometimes limited perspective on the world as a result of our experiences, upbringing, teachers, etc. (our own pond). It is from this place that we interact with others.
In the Four Agreements, A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, the second agreement says,
"Don't take things personally; What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be a victim of needless suffering."
When you don't take things personally, if someone hurts you, judges you, or is unkind, you will know that it is because they are seeing you through their limited perspective which is directly affected by their state of happiness or unhappiness. ie... They are projecting what is going on inside of their hearts and minds onto you.
Understanding this can help you avoid taking to heart what others think and say about you, which can leave you feeling wounded and unhappy. We are all ultimately responsible only for what goes on in our own minds and hearts.
Not taking things personally doesn't mean that you will not react or take action when someone hurts you, but you will be clear and responsible for the actions that you take. Sometimes the best action to take is to speak up against those who have hurt you, other times the best action is to just walk away.
Being hurt by another is never easy, but if we attack the one who hurt us or close our hearts in fear, we are perpetuating the belief that what was said or done was about us. In reality it is always a direct reflection of the person who said it and has nothing to do with us at all.
Forgiving another for the pain they have caused and having compassion for their limitations will help us to heal our wounds more quickly and move on.
Being aware and mindful of our own personal "pond" is a constant practice that when attended to will bring us more happiness, peace, love, and joy.
Yoga Sutra 1.33 says
"By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards the happy, compassion towards those suffering, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind retains its undisturbed calm."
According to Patanjali, our state of mind isn't something that just happens but something that we must cultivate if we want to keep our minds peaceful.
Similarly, in Buddhism, the four immeasurables are practiced to settle one's mind. According to Buddha, when one radiates loving-kindness, compassion, delight, and equanimity towards all people and things, whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, good or bad, the mind can remain in it's natural state of peacefulness.
This past weekend, I was able to practice this ancient but always current wisdom passed down by the great sages Patanjali and Buddha.
One of my best friends was visiting. She moved away last summer as a result of a very painful divorce.
My friend and I spent two days walking, talking, laughing, and crying.
My mind and heart flowed easily from loving-kindness towards my friend that I care deeply for, to compassion for the suffering caused by the radical changes that occured over the past year, to a state of joy and delight in hearing the successes that she and her children were experiencing despite the hardships that they had to endure.
Loving-kindness, compassion, and delight came easily to me in the presence of the friend that I love and care so deeply about.
What wasn't so easy was when the topic of conversation was the ex husband. I unabashedly blamed him for not only the suffering of my best friend and her children, but I selfishly blamed him for taking my best friend away from me. Just the mention of his name this weekend took me down a slippery slope of anger, hatred, judgement, and condemnation.
Our very limited time together made each moment with my friend even more precious to me, so every time my mind began it's downward spiral, was time that I lost being present to the joy of being with my friend that I miss so dearly.
As much as I may have secretly wanted my mean and vengeful thoughts to hurt the "wicked" ex husband and change the situation that my friend and her kids were in, I would be kidding myself to believe that my judgements and thoughts would make any difference at all. Since I can't change someone else's behavior or circumstances, the only person affected by my disturbing thoughts were me.
It is a waste of time, energy, and our own peacefulness to try to control someone else and make them into who we want them to be. Whether they are happy or sad, virtuous or mean, everyone is responsible for their own actions and attitudes, and the consequences of them.
When I let this "radical acceptance" sink into my mind and heart, I began to have a mind and heart that were at peace despite the actions or behaviors of another. I was able to allow another's "wickedness" to pass through me instead of knocking me off balance. With continued practice, I may even begin to see through the "wicked" behavior of another and feel compassion for their suffering as well.
When we cultivate this state of equanimity we feel pleasure without clinging to it, pain without condemnation or hatred, and an openess and acceptance to all experiences and people including ourselves.
As I sit here writing my blog, I still miss my friend dearly, I still feel compassion for her suffering, I still feel joy in my heart from the time we spent together, and what I don't feel thanks to the wisdom of yoga and my practice of "cultivating disregard for the wicked" is an angry and vengeful heart.
I have had the privilege of hosting Thanksgiving at my house for the past twelve years. We have a large group, sometimes as many as forty people gather together to celebrate.
Ten years ago I asked everyone to write down what they were grateful for on a piece of paper. I remember the eye rolling that I got from the teenagers, and the slightly annoyed looks from the men watching football, but after some cajoling, everyone deposited their written sentiments into a basket. At the end of the meal, we all gathered together to read the notes. Each person took a turn reading until the basket was empty. Some of the notes were funny, some were sweet little scribbles written by a two year old or pictures of a turkey, some of the notes were sentimental and made us cry. Taking the time to focus on what we were grateful for that year brought us together as a family and reminded us of how fortunate we were.
Our gratitude ritual has since become a tradition that we look forward to. It was especially important after we lost my beautiful sister in law to cancer, when my brave nephew went to Iraq, when my niece and nephew lost a child, we lost a baby to and when many family members who lived in Breezy Point lost their homes and possessions to hurricane Sandy, and most recently when my mother and my father in law passed away.
A gratitude ritual reminds us that there is always something to be grateful for, even in the midst of tragedy. We might have to dig deep to find it, but it will be there like a shiny little gem.
Practicing gratitude daily can be transformational. Studies show that people who have a regular gratitude practice have stronger immune systems, are more generous, happy, and positive, and are less lonely and isolated.
The philosopher Meister Ekhart said, "If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you, that would suffice."
Like prayer, a gratitude ritual can enrich your life. It is a good practice to regularly list the things that you are grateful for and to say thank you to the people that you appreciate. It is an even better practice to push past the typical gratitude list of family, friends, and good health (if that's the case) and begin to look deeper.
Can you be grateful for your difficult sister in law or grumpy boss? Can you have gratitude for your knee injury or your not so perfect living quarters? Can you find gratitude for the people and experiences that challenge you the most?
Every person and experience in life gives us an opportunity to learn and to grow. Our failures and suffering often teach us the most about ourselves, even if it's not so obvious at the time. Looking for the good in every situation can rewire our brains and help us to have healthier and happier lives.
Years ago, my oldest son's seventh grade teacher said to me, "You will never have to worry about Ace. He has it all figured out. He pushes himself just hard enough to do well, but not so hard that he can't also relax and have a little fun".
Years later when he was in college, my husband asked him if he was working hard in his classes. His answer was, "You know Dad, there's such a thing as working too hard. When you work too hard, life just sucks. I don't want to live like that."
My (push yourself with 110 percent effort in everything you do) husband just about fell off his chair!
Ace never did yoga, but he described one of the Yoga Sutras to a tee.
Yoga Sutra 2.46 in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali says, "STHIRA SUKHAM ASANAM". Asanam means "a posture". I'll take some liberties here and say that a posture can be a yoga pose or a posture that you take in your life.
The sutra above tells us that a posture should have the qualities of steadiness and ease. Steadiness requires effort, while ease requires relaxation.
These two qualities may seem like polar opposites, but when we are able to cultivate them together, we will feel a healthy balance of stabilty, strength, flexibilty, and comfort.
To create this dichotomy in the postures on our yoga mats requires that we stay very connected to our bodies so that we can be aware of when we are pushing too hard or not hard enough.
If we are straining and gritting our teeth through a yoga class, there is no ease. This all work and no play mindset
will surely get us hurt.
On the other hand, if we don't push ourselves hard enough, we won't improve, advance, or see any growth in our poses. This mindset may leave us weak, stagnant or bored.
To create this dichotomy in the postures of our lives also requires that we stay very connected to ourselves so that we can be aware of the areas in our lives in which we are pushing so hard that our efforts are unsustainable.
On the other hand, if we aren't pushing or challenging ourselves enough, we won't improve in our lives or grow, which again may leave us weak, stagnant, or bored.
When we balance effort and ease in our yoga postures or in the postures of our lives, we create an internal balance that we can call upon to face everday challenges.
My 27 year old son Ace, has been fortunate enough to cultivate this internal balance early in his life. Recently, while facing a very difficult and potentially life changing situation, he was able to call upon this internal steadiness and ease to help him stay strong, steady, and flexible enough to adapt to the unexpected challenges that he was presented with.
Cultivating the qualities of steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha) takes effort and letting go. Patanjali says that when our minds experience a blending of effort and release, we get a glimpse of the infinite.
What qualities are you cultivating?
Every Tuesday and Friday morning I used to have a yoga class in the studio that I created in my basement. The space is also used by my very active family as a driving range, batting cage, weight room, movie theatre, gymnastics studio, and bedroom.
It's actually quite impressive that I was able to transform the room (which often looks like a tornado came through) into a peaceful and zen like space to practice yoga.
Oftentimes, in my haste to get the room ready, instead of putting things into their proper places, I would just shove them quickly into the closet and slam the door shut. I had been doing this for quite a while and the closet was beginning to protest. In fact, the door had begun to change shape as it's contents threatened to burst out.
As the closet got more and more cluttered, I often hoped that no one would open the door and find out my secret!
One day as I approached the misshapen door, with weighted vest in hand, I was reminded of a cartoon. I imagined the door trembling as it attempted to keep the mess inside and hidden from view. Since I also wanted to keep the mess inside and hidden from view, I saw myself quickly opening the door just enough to shove the vest in there. After I imagined myself slamming the door shut and hoping for the best, the closet door buckled and then burst open knocking me onto the ground where I lied trapped under the weighted vest, soccer balls, hula hoops, winter coats, golf clubs, exercise bands and baseball bats.
In the Path of the Yoga Sutras, Nicolai Bachman defines yoga as a gradual purification of all layers of the individual self.
Sauca is a personal practice of keeping the body, mind, and heart clean and clear.
On the outer most layer, the practice of sauca would require not just cleaning out my closet, but keeping it neat and clean on an ongoing basis.
The clutter in our surroundings can add to the clutter in our minds. Closing the door on my messy closet didn't make the mess go away. Just knowing what was behind the door weighed on my mind as I tried to hide it or pretend that it wasn't. Most of us know the feeling of spaciousness and relief that we get when we clean up our desk, our car, our garage, or our junk drawer.
To purify the layer of our physical bodies, we practice asana (yoga poses). We also eat as cleanly and healthfully as possible, choosing organic foods and reducing our consumption of processed or junk foods. We might even fast or do a cleanse to clean out our sluggish digestive systems.
At the layer of our breath, we practice pranayama or conscious breathing as a way to purify and cleanse our lungs, heart, and circulatory system.
As we move inward towards the layers of our hearts and minds, sauca becomes a practice of being aware of our thoughts and emotions so that we can mindfully rid or purify ourselves of negative, angry, violent, or judgemental thoughts about ourselves and others. This purification practice might require forgiveness or letting go of grievences and resentments that we hold onto. In an attempt to purify our hearts and minds, we might also stay away from people or places that affect us in a negative or toxic way.
When we attempt to hide, push down, or deny the "messiness" in our lives, (like I did with my closet), we not only create a mind, body, and heart that is sluggish and cluttered by all the stuff, but at some point all that we push down will find a way to come out. My closet door changed its shape in order to hide its contents. Our bodies, minds and hearts are also shaped by the junk that we put in them. Our bodies may develop an illness, an injury or excess weight. Our minds may become delusional, confused, or unclear, and our hearts may become bitter, closed off or shut down.
The more junk we layer onto our surroundings and into our bodies, our hearts and minds, the less we are able to connect to our higher self or as the yogis call it our parusha. When we purify and cleanse the layers of our being, we are sure to find that our inner most layer always is, always was, and always will be, to put it simply, PURE LOVE.
After a particularly challenging yoga class, a student said to me, "I was really agitated in class today. I am not sure why. I saw myself wanting to be angry at you for making me struggle, but instead I kept breathing and going back to myself."
Every time we struggle in any part of our lives, we have been given an opportunity to learn about ourselves.
Had my student blamed me for giving her poses that made her struggle, she would have missed that opportunity.
Instead, using the tool of her breath, she chose to use her struggle as a way to stay connected to herself.
The practice of yoga is about discovering ourselves. The belief that we are all perfect and whole at our center is one of the main teachings. Svadhyaya or self observation and study is a commitment that we are encouraged to undertake through our practice.
It's not always easy to look at ourselves honestly and with our eyes wide open. Its much easier to blame others for our problems, or look the other way when we make a mistake or act in a way that feels unbecoming.
Winston Churchill said, "I am always able to learn, but not always willing to be taught."
Looking for someone to blame or becoming defensive when things or people in your life become challenging is an indication that you are "not willing to be taught."
Learning from your mistakes and taking ownership of your actions shows that you are.
Through self observation we can learn to change our habitual tendencies. When we look honestly at our behaviors, reactions, motivations, and strategies we may see that underlying it all is our attempt to protect our self image or ego.
Getting past the ego can be quite a challenge, but when we do, our relationship to ourselves and others will benefit.
Using our challenges and struggles as an opportunity to grow gives us the freedom to be courageous, strong, and centered no matter what life brings.
"The inner gate opens only when the outer gates are closed." Hazur
I recently taught a private yoga session to a student who normally does yoga in a group with two other friends.
In the group sessions, she was very distracted and always seemed unfocused and ungrounded. She had a great deal of trouble keeping her balance in standing poses and was never able to calm down. Her inability to focus caused her to repeat bad habits in her asana. I felt like a broken record reminding her over and over to soften her elbows in downward facing dog.
She had some injuries so I suggested that she come to me privately so we could address them.
During her private session, she was completely focused and calm. Within minutes, she was able to break her habit of locking her elbows and turning her fingers outward in downward facing dog. I didn't have to repeat myself a hundred times!
I realized that in the group classes, she was so focused on what her friends were doing that she couldn't stay connected to herself. Whether she was looking at them in comparison or for approval didn't matter, what mattered was that her outward focus was knocking her off balance.
The ability to focus inward isn't always easy. Our normal state is often to follow our senses. We see, hear, smell, touch, and taste our way through life. Our senses can make our lives wonderful, but they can also distract us from following our inner wisdom. They can draw our minds towards all the things around us. When we are overly attached to our senses, we are always chasing the next thing. We are always hungry or thirsty or wanting something or waiting for something to happen. BKS Iyengar said that, "our senses look outward naming everything they see, as if life is a non stop shopping spree!"
In the eight limbed path of yoga, the fifth limb is called pratyahara. Pratyahara is the practice of withdrawing our senses so as not to be energetically pulled away from our center. To "withdraw our senses" requires our letting go of sensory over indulgence. When we do this, we begin to follow our inner guidance instead of being guided by external events and what others around us are doing.
Rolph Gates, author of Meditations from the Mat, says that pratyahara is going from distraction to direction. So the more often we practice yoga or simply don't allow ourselves to be distracted by external stimuli, the more we will be able to stay centered, balanced, and guided by our always present inner wisdom.
All Abhyasa Ahimsa Aparigraha Asmita-Ego Attachment Baron Baptiste Beginner's Mind Bramacharya Carl Jung Clear Seeing Colorless Comfortable Discomfort Creating Spaciousness In Mind And Body Cultivate The Opposite Deepak Chopra Dharma Empty Your Cup Enthusiasm Equanimity Family Fight Or Flight Great Vows Inner-awareness Inner Critic John Kabbatzinnb2faff332d Listening Mirrors To Ourselves Monkey Hunting Non Stealing Patanjali Pause Pillar Pleasure And Pain Posseses Us Practice Pratipaksa Bhavana Pratyahara Present Moment Present Moment Awareness Respond Instead Of React Samadhi Samskara Santosha Satya Sauca Sensual Pleasures Shadow Side Spirituality Steadiness And Ease Sthira And Sukha Strength Sustained Attention Svadhyaya There You Are Thich Nat Hahn This Too Shall Pass True Self Uncertainty Universal Truth What We Possess Wherever You Go Wisdom Yoga Philosophy Yoga Sutra 1. 14 Yoga Sutra 1.33 Yoga Sutra 2.33 Yoga Sutra 2 37cfe9965fa2 Yoga Sutra 2. 46 Yoga Sutras