Amazing Things About South India: Part 5

I went to South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks, and an intrepid group of 22 other travelers.  We flew into Chennai and visited Thirupathi, Thirutani, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thiruchendur, and Madurai.  It was a whirlwind trip both geographically and internally. There were so many amazing and incredible experiences that I would like to recount, so this five part series is my attempt to do just that.

Part 5: Elephants, Peacocks, and Snakes, Oh My!

Elephants
There is a “no photos” policy inside the temples that is strictly enforced. At the Chidambaram Temple, when I stood in front of the black Ganesha, big, fat, phat (am I dating myself?), and completely composed, I stood and stared to commit his image to memory. There is something so steady, so weighty, so grounded in his presence. And then, to my pleasant surprise, Babu and Bharati brought us a case of coconuts. Really it was a big bag, but I mean it was a *big* bag. We got to take turns smashing coconuts on the steps of Ganesha’s shrine. The symbolism behind this is wonderful. The coconut is your head, your brain. When you smash it open, you are breaking through to a new, deeper level of conscious awareness. It is an offering to the gods, to Ganesha particularly, the Guardian of Thresholds, the Remover of Obstacles. You offer yourself, your mind humbly and he is there for you. When you feel smashed in little pieces by events, relationships, life, he is there, hiding in plain sight, supporting you.

As the group of us were smashing coconuts, there were local people there to pick up the pieces. Nothing is wasted. That coconut meat probably made a great chutney later that day.

By the way, it is not necessarily easy to smash open a coconut. You have to aim it just right to hit the corner of the step and you have to put some muscle into it. It felt cathartic to generate that much effort to break it open, and if you think of how it feels when a firecracker goes off, how the air is displaced in order to make that loud boom, that is something of the feeling of the coconut smashing open, there is an internal displacement that awakens you to something more. And there is always more, like an iceberg with its tip above the water, three-quarters of it is still hidden below.

Ganesha is the ultimate elephant. The son of Shiva and Parvati he is often found sitting in thresholds, the obstacle himself — elephants are rather large — and the one who removes the obstacles. He is the first one you greet walking into a temple or even into someone’s home. Images of him often show him holding Indian sweets, modaka, and he is offering them to you, to everyone, in an invitation to enjoy the sweetness of life.

Peacocks
Upon arrival in India, I had this desire to see peacocks in real life. As we were preparing to leave the hotel one morning early on in the trip, I asked Douglas if we would see any peacocks that day, knowing that the peacock is the vahana, the vehicle of Murugan, and that we would be going to a Murugan temple that day. His response, “now we will.” I just love this idea of planting the seed and then allowing things to take their course. That day in that temple, there were many images on the walls of peacocks. It is the Mazaradi of deity transport. In contrast, Ganesha rides a moussaka, a mouse, which is a testament to Ganesha’s lightness of foot and of heart. Durga has her tiger, Sarasvati has her swan, Lakshmi her elephant or sometimes a peacock too, she is the goddess of abundance after all. Vishnu has his eagle. The vahana seems an extension of the quality that deity offers or reflects within.

A few days later we did see real, living peacocks in Tiruchendur. The peacock is so majestic with its feathers on display. Seeking a mate it puts its best face forward. Our group in our colorful saris felt a little like peacocks to me, and it was interesting when Douglas once mentioned that the reason we follow the tradition of wearing a sari is because it is sacred. We play the part “as if” we are Hindus and belong there because we do belong there. There are no rules to participation in these rituals of the self, the universal. Show up and act “as if.” Not only is it sacred to dress the part, it is a part of the culture that is being lost. Many younger women no longer embrace the wearing of a sari, I dunno, maybe because it is a little fussy, maybe because it can take a long time to get dressed, you often need someone else’s help, and getting the pleats just right is a real skill that needs to be practiced. We dressed in so many fanciful colors to honor the tradition and just maybe in some small way, to rekindle the love of the sacred.

Snakes
Naga in Sanskrit, images of snakes are abundant. Snakes are wrapped around Shiva’s arms and waist while he dances his ecstatic dance, snakes are wrapped around many deities, and they are wrapped around each other. Snakes represent spiritual power, one’s true potential, and fertility, which is really the passing along of one’s power. There is a relief image on a wall here of Murugan riding his peacock with a snake coming out of his mouth, and his father Shiva and brother Ganesha beside him. They say that spiritual energy, kundalini, is a coiled serpent lying at the base of the spine, and through meditation she awakens and rises, piercing the chakras so that the aspirant awakens to deeper levels of existence, deeper levels of humanity. It is a metaphor, a way to describe the indescribable. Awakening.

At the Kalahasti Temple in Srikalahasti Andra Pradesh in particular, there is a great naga forest just outside the gates. Many many images of snakes wrapped around each other, piled on top of each other, where young couples go to pray for children. It was an amazing and fecund sight. Kalahasti is the Shiva temple that is connected to the wind element. This naga forest had an overwhelming sense of earthiness, and a great sense of hope, potential, power, and fertility, again. It was real and palpable.

Snakes represent power. This is a difference with the goddess cult so prevalent in southern India, compared to say the Kashmir Shaivite tradition of northern India. Kashmir Shaivism philosophy is a bondage to liberation model. When one is born into a body in this life on earth, one is shrouded in darkness and must practice yoga in order to return to the light; this is the rising of the kundalini energy from base to crown chakra. According to this philosophy, the yogi should do anything to get out — relief from the suffering — of this world. In the goddess cult, one lives with kundalini energy in the world. The idea is not to leave the world through liberation or emancipation, but to remain in the world and feast on its spiritual fruits. Generally in northern India, Shiva is represented as a lingam, a formless form, which you do also find in temples in the south, but you also find images of Shiva’s family much more prevalent in the south. Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Murugan, and rarely the bastard son Ayappa [see Part 3 of this series for more on him]. A family represents a full expression of love in its many forms.

And forests represent the place of human existence. They say there are three places that you can find Shiva, on the mountaintop, in the cremation ground, or in the forest. If you are on a mountaintop, the sun shines brightly and you may see vast expanses of lands. In the cremation ground it is dark and scary and there are goblins there, gravesites are often associated with the night. However, in the forest, it is the combination of these two, the sun shines brightly through the leaves of the trees, so in the forest there is light and darkness intertwined. Dappled light — which is the human experience, sometimes we are in the light and sometimes darkness reigns. It is up to each one of us individually to find our own pathway, to navigate the places of light and the places of darkness. Yoga gives us tools to navigate, and through practice we become skillful. As Douglas’ teacher Appa once said, “yoga is virtuosity in being yourself.” The Bhagavad Gita states, “yoga is skill in action.” A peaceful warrior. Impeccable and awake.

Amazing Things About South India: Part 4

I went to South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks, and an intrepid group of 22 other travelers.  We flew into Chennai and visited Thirupathi, Thirutani, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thiruchendur, and Madurai.  It was a whirlwind trip both geographically and internally. There were so many amazing and incredible experiences that I would like to recount, so this five part series is my attempt to do just that.

Part 4: Smoke… And Fire
If you travel to India, one of the first things you might notice is the massive amount of sensory input that bombards you from the moment you step off the plane.  There are so many sights, sounds, smells and tastes that are available to you; it can be a little discombobulating.  It also happens to be one of the reasons I love India.  You are surrounded by sensory experience.  And people.  And cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, bicycles, trains, rickshaws, tuck tucks.  And cows.

In the temples, there are so many sculptures, on the walls, the pillars, in little nooks and in big shrines.  For me, just knowing that these works of art have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years connects me to a certain timeless quality that offers a sense of letting go of the small, petty, everyday realities that are not so important in the long term.  This outer timelessness provides me a connection to the inner quality that is the underlying truth of experience, that which is changeless, formless, without any external supports, that which is radiant, peaceful and drenched in bliss.

Om Namah Shivaya Gurave Satchidananda Murtaye Nishprapanchaya Shantaya Niralambaya Tejase

Smoke

In the before-mentioned Murugan Temple in Tiruchendur, there was a shrine for Murugan and the priest standing outside it was cultivating a small flame.  He would pour vibhuti, white ash, on the flame and as it would smoke, he invited you to put your face directly into the smoke while he fanned it on you.  The first time I did this, I was not sure what to do, looking into the small fire, trying my best to do what the priest told me to do and going through motions.  The next morning when we returned to the temple, I had the chance to do it again, and this time I was ready.  As I stepped up to his little flame, he began to fan the vibhuti smoke into my face and I inhaled deeply.  I had the sense of the smoke penetrating nostrils, lungs, and then following the nadis, subtle nerve pathways that infuse the body with consciousness – they say there are 72,000 of them in the human form – to the furthest reaches of my awareness.  It was as though the smoke clarified and purified each layer of my awareness, body, mind, heart, emotion, spirit.  I can still remember that sensation if I close my eyes and inhale.

Fire

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple feels like home.  When I’m outside the gates, I can feel the temple calling me inward.  When I step in the gates I am open to a larger version of my own heart.  When I take the 21 steps into the inner courtyard, mantra arises in my mind without me making any effort.  The subtle vibration rises up from the very ground of the temple, through my feet and into my field of consciousness.  When it is time to go, the ounces of my being cling to the temple, not wanting to leave.

Traveling with the Poonai, we had an extra special treat when the dikshitars, Brahmin priests of Chidambaram Nataraja temple, prepared a homa ceremony for us.  A homa ceremony is a fire ritual.  They decorate the place with banana leaves and other natural ornaments, we all sit around in a big circle as the priests chant their mantras, and then the dikshitar of the day offers many things into the fire – ghee, yogurt, honey, rice, sandalwood paste, milk, and more; the whole process takes several hours.  There is a large silver trough that each of the substances flow down and then get poured out into the fire, to then transform into smoke that rises up to the gods.  This process is fascinating… and painful to sit on the stone floor cross-legged, and quite often it is hot and uncomfortable, but it is fascinating.

There may be many ways to interpret this ritual, but one part of it is the idea of abundance.  Here are all kinds of food items that someone might be able to eat, but it is being offered into the fire.  The funny thing is, there is always more.  At points I would want to laugh at the ever more outrageous offerings sent into the flames, at points the laughter was at the spectacle itself, but in the most joyous way, there was nothing self-serving or sarcastic about it.  The child-like joy of the South Indian people is infectious.  Several times throughout the trip, our guide Babu would mention that it is rare for someone to go hungry in India, that may sound a little questionable, but it is what he said.  In the giving away of the food, something greater is actually retained.  After the ceremony we distributed buckets of food that our group had supplied, that dikshitar wives had cooked, to other temple attendees.  It was literally buckets of food, served in little banana leaf bowls.

Later, as our way of providing back a small token of what the dikshitars had offered to us, we offered sugar cane and turmeric to the dikshitars.  Sugar cane is for the sweetness of life and turmeric is for good health. Piles of sugarcane and turmeric branches stacked up are the very picture of abundance itself.  Having experienced these offerings first-hand, it makes me feel that I am connected to a larger whole within the universe, the part that continually offers, continually creates, continually transforms.  It is the plus one factor.  There is always more.

And each more forms a new memory, a new story to tell.

  

Amazing Things About South India: Part 3

I went to South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks, and an intrepid group of 22 other travelers.  We flew into Chennai and visited Thirupathi, Thirutani, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thiruchendur, and Madurai.  It was a whirlwind trip both geographically and internally. There were so many amazing and incredible experiences that I would like to recount, so this five part series is my attempt to do just that.

Part 3: Brahma Chamundesvari

Stupa at entrance to Thillai Kali Temple, Chidambaram
On the outskirts of Chidambaram sits a breathtaking temple known as Thillai Kali Amman. Thillai Kali herself used to be located in the Chidambaram Natarajan Temple until the 1200s when a Chola dynasty king moved her. Legend speaks of a dance contest between her and Shiva in which she was to mimic every move that Shiva made. He went too far and in order to preserve her dignity, she wouldn’t follow him in a particularly unsavory dance move, therefore she lost the contest and in her anger at him “cheating” chose to move outside the city just to prove that we humans need both Shiva and Shakti in our lives. ‘You are gonna miss me when I’m gone.’ There are other versions, as is always the case with Indian mythology, but there is no question that the story is much more involved and complicated.

Chidambaram means the space, ambaram, of consciousness, chid. It may also be translated as “clothed in consciousness.” In fact, there is a unique connection between these two temples, Thillai Kali and Nataraja, in that each one contains a piece of the other. The akasha linga, akasha meaning space as well, and linga referring to Shiva in his “formless form,” sits in the Thillai Kali temple, and there is still a place for Thillai Kali in the Nataraja temple where she is not. But the funny thing is, there is a place for this lingam, under a five faced naga, cobra, and it is completely empty. The lingam is in the ether, not in the physical, visible world.

When you first enter the temple, you notice that Ganesha is on the wrong side. Usually Ganesha is to the left when you enter a temple, and you offer him mantra, mudra, and your love at the threshold and then go about your way. His brother Murugan sits on the right. At Thillai Kali Temple, Ganesha is to the right and Murugan to the left. Which means that when you leave the Thillai Kali temple, they are in the proper position; so when you leave Thillai Kali temple you are actually entering the temple of the outside world. Everything is reversed, a reflection of Nataraja and other temples, in the same way that Shakti, the feminine divine manifestation is a reflection, reversed, of Shiva, the masculine divine consciousness. It is a brilliant way to acknowledge that in Shakti practice, the world that we live in is divine, it is the universal, it is the truth for which we have all been searching.

There are many things to capture your eye and your spirit in this temple, and on this particular trip, it was Brahma Chamundeshvari who captivated me. She is the deity in the innermost sanctum, and she is Kali, Shakti, Parvati, the divine feminine in murti form. She has four faces. The one facing out, toward you looking in, is Shakti herself. Shiva is to the left and Vishnu is to the right. And then there is the face in the back. These faces represent a little known story, told in Rajanaka lore of South India. Shiva and Shakti, Parvati, Kali, are married, but in the course of time, Shiva was attracted to the feminine form of his best buddy (and Parvati’s brother) Vishnu, called Mohini. Shiva and Mohini were in the Thillai forest to awaken some sages who had become complacent in their yoga and meditation practices. They were able to shock the sages back into reality and when that deed was done, they had a tryst with each other. This resulted in Vishnu becoming pregnant. Vishnu, being a man after all, had no way to birth this baby, so Parvati, after already being wronged by them having a tryst in the first place had to suffer the indignity of then helping her brother betrayer birth this baby through the pores of his skin. She was the midwife to the bastard child of her husband. Talk about feminine strength. Despite all of the things she must have been feeling because of her husband’s and her brother’s betrayal, she held strong and supported them through this most unusual and perhaps even life-threatening event.

Thillai Kali Temple, Chidambaram
The child’s name is Ayappa. You may recognize him in south Indian art because he is often sitting in a squat position with the yogi’s strap around his legs supporting him. In the Thillai Kali temple, he is the face of Brahma Chamundeshvari that you never see. He represents the broken piece, the missing piece, the thing that guarantees there is always something more, something else, something different, something interesting. It might be something painful, but it in contemplation, it will always bring you closer to your own Self.

We have things that are broken right? Something about ourselves that we might not want to show to the world, but that gives context, richness, fullness, story. It is something that makes one unique and perhaps even colors our decisions or actions. This is what this story is about, recognizing that the figurative bastard child is not something to be thrown out, but to be embraced, for all the heartache that he causes, he brings more love into the world. Or perhaps better stated, he brings more experience into the world. The broken piece in our own lives causes more trouble when we try to deny it or ignore it, because then it festers. If we recognize it for what it is and accept it — no matter how much we may or may not be able to forgive — still acknowledging it, then it adds a new pattern, a new detail to the fabric of life.

Brahma Chamundeshwari is the peak of strength of the Divine Feminine. She holds those things that she loves and those that have betrayed her, and she still shows her best face to the world. She may be inspiration to us all.

Amazing Things About South India: Part 2

I went to South India with my teacher, Douglas Brooks, and an intrepid group of 22 other travelers.  We flew into Chennai and visited Thirupathi, Thirutani, Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thiruchendur, and Madurai.  It was a whirlwind trip both geographically and internally. There were so many amazing and incredible experiences that I would like to recount, so this five part series is my attempt to do just that.

Part 2: The Poonai
Poonai means cats in Tamil. As in, our tour guides feel like they are “herding cats” to get us on the bus, get us off the bus, into the temple, out of the temple, checked in to the hotel, checked out of the hotel, and make sure everyone gets their bio break when the need it. Oh, and, of course, to make sure everyone has their chai. Over the years the trip has become more and more sophisticated in that our guides now know that shopping must take place in the beginning to make sure we have the best saris (and dhotis) for our travels; they know when to make a pit stop as well as where and how; even during our picnic lunch in a banana field, we had everything one could ask, hot delicious sambar, tamarind rice, and curry complete with straw mats to sit on so we weren’t on the hard ground.

Inside MC Poonai

Of course the Poonai come mostly from the US with a few other countries represented, Sweden and Thailand, but I believe we all are a little South Indian at heart. How else could we get up so early to have someone else help us dress — I tried diligently to tie my sari myself, and came relatively close, but my sari-tying never lived up to our guide Bharati’s standards — and not to mention, eating with our fingers. You have to want to be in South India to be in South India.

Bus Chuck

Sometimes the challenges were real, being so far away from comforts of home, but daily, the people on the bus, my friends new and long-time were continually nurturing, supportive, curious, welcoming, open, and maintaining a positive attitude. It was hot and the roads were sometimes bumpy, and the ground on which we walked barefoot was often less than clean. Over the years, the Poonai have developed some rituals and nicknames. Once, there was a guy named Chuck (which may or may not be his real name) who tended to wander and who accidentally got left behind. Of course this was discovered relatively quickly and they went back for him right away and all was well, but now, after every temple and every re-boarding of the bus, we do a “Chuck check.” You have to make sure that your roommate is there. I ended up with two Chucks, my bus-mate whom I would sit with, my “Bus Chuck,” and my roommate in the hotels, my “Chuck Chuck.” These ladies were so wonderful.

Chuck Chuck

My Bus Chuck, Harriet, is a head-strong activist resisting the corruption in government that we are seeing so much of lately and standing up for women’s rights in so many ways. My Chuck Chuck, Shannon, is a brave soul who is stellarly living her truth and being a positive influence in the world. The conversations that we had really helped me figure some things out in my own life and to get in touch with places and events that I may have rejected, ignored, or wished away. This past year has been emotional for many of us, as the American “Id” has risen into power and the #MeToo movement has swept social media. Figuring out not just ways to cope and to deal, but ways to make positive change is truly priceless. Having a non-judgmental sounding board is really the best therapy. 🙂

We may not have all known each other at the beginning of our trip, but we all came for similar reasons, to “see and be seen,” darshan. Please check out Douglas’s post regarding darshan. “The practice of darshan arrests the mind into singular focus, places the body in often uncomfortable positions (spoon up, lean in…), and it compels the heart to race into a kind of fury, chaos, and wonder that is difficult to explain but from doing it, and doing it, as it were, “properly.” Think of it this way: our whole cognitive and somatic being allocates our attentions, regulates and assigns meaning to our environments, in terms of both inside and outside awareness.”

Speaking of spooning up, at most of the temples, there were long lines to see the inner sanctum deity. We had to hurry up, rush rush, and then wait, and then the moment when he or she is revealed. Quite often we had to squish really close in order for everyone to have a chance to see. In that moment we were “Spoonai”… and when the new folks needed to get up front in order to have the best view, they were “Newnai.” Joyful, child-like enthusiasm at every turn.  And at the same time, we were immersed in one of the most sophisticated philosophies on the planet.  The rituals, habits, and mantras reveal a rare depth of humanity.

One temple, the Tillai Kali temple in Chidambaram, is especially breathtaking.  The images of Shakti, the goddess, are striking and they can and will meet you at every level of your awareness.  We visited twice, once at the beginning of our trip and again at the end.  On a particular occasion, as I was standing in the back courtyard area, somewhat dazed and just absorbing the experience of being there, Mariah walked up to me and whispered the 66 syllable Durga mantra into my ear.  I was caught by surprise because at first I thought she was offering the mantra that I was familiar with, Om Dum Durge Bhagavati Namasthite, but then it became clear that she kept going.  More syllables that spun into an amazing mantra that represents the churning of the milky ocean of consciousness.  Shakti, the feminine form of infinite consciousness who manifests in the world, is continuously churning, making more, giving the value added experience, the “plus one.”  As Mariah, unprovoked, spoke this mantra to me, I felt it a gift to help me recognize that churning within and all around, and in the next few days myself had committed those 66 syllables to memory.

By the end of our travels, we were functioning as a unified whole. A group of individuals with our own unique desires, needs, and habits that existed completely in support of each other as well. Friends, Poonai, for life.

Samkalpa – Trust and Do More Yoga

You may have heard me mention Samkalpa in class before.  We use it during yoga nidra practice and on other occasions too in order to help set a positive direction for class or in life.  Samkalpa means resolution or intention, and truly, it is your own heartfelt desire.

Generally speaking it is a short statement in positive language in the present tense.  One makes a statement regarding his or her desire as though it is already happening, already taking place.  Then, she feels into the statement as though she is already living it.  In many ways, when we do this, we already are living at least the seeds of making that desire come to life.  It may not have fully manifested yet, but if it is a deep, heartfelt desire, the seeds of positive change have already been planted.

At the new year, I like to set a one-word intention.  It is a little more open to interpretation, and it becomes a great guide as to how to conduct myself and my choices throughout the year.  I got this idea from friend and colleague Kathy Donnelly, owner of Yoga Center of Columbia, and partner in our upcoming 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training.  For years now, she has been making this suggestion and I love the idea.  When I began this practice, my samkalpa that year was ease.  And so, for any decision I made, I would start by asking myself, “does this promote more ease in my life?”  That happened to be a very challenging year personally and so this one word samkalpa was really a godsend as far as keeping me sane.

This year, I’m choosing Trust.  Trust in the universe and trust in myself.  Seems to me there is some crazy sh*t going on out there in the world and it is easy to be overwhelmed and angry about all the greed, corruption, and ignorance.  When I feel overwhelmed, I return to my practices, daily meditation and yoga asana.  These practices ground me, bring me back to myself, and help me to recognize that the first place that real change occurs is inside myself.  These practices help me to trust that my decisions are the right ones for me in the moment and I try to make them based on uplifting others around me too.  For example, if I say something in a reactionary manner, perhaps that helps me feel better, but how does that affect the other person?  The practices help to give me pause when I’m in situations that could go either way, towards the positive and helpful or towards the detrimental.  The pause is the instantaneous moment in which I can mindfully choose to do something uplifting rather than defeating.

When I see crazy weather patterns, I trust that Mother Earth is doing what she needs to in order to restore balance in the world.  That is similar to trusting that the universe is doing exactly what it is supposed to in each moment, but I am not a fatalist.  My teacher Douglas Brooks talks about mantra and malini.  Mantra is a word or phrase, a sound vibration really, that you can count on.  When you utter it, verbally or internally, it produces a certain effect, whether it is words that we understand or just vibration that evokes feeling, it is the thing that generally doesn’t change, therefore we can count on it.  If you do a thing, then a thing will result, consistently.  Malini on the other hand is complete randomness.  If you do a thing, then any result could happen.  Malini is the thing that adds interest, excitement, even playfulness.  However, it can also lead to the unexpected or ugly so it becomes the scary factor if you do not have trust that you can meet the challenge when it arises.

Where mantra offers comfort, support, regularity, malini brings possibility, excitement, newness.  Both are a part of human existence and human experience.  It depends on our own perceptions as to whether one or the other is ‘better’ in any given situation.  It depends on our own skill as far as how we respond to either type of situation.

Doing yoga practices gives us the skill and helps us to build trust within ourselves.  So, you know what I’m going to say here: Do More Yoga.  Who knows what 2018 will bring really, but I choose to trust that I will have the proper answer at the right time for the given situation.

 

The Joy of Child’s Pose

How did you get here? Close your eyes and surrender. The hurt that we embrace becomes joy. 
 -Rumi

For the past five months I have been dealing with fluid in my knees. I think it began with a long flight overseas and back (did I mention I am obsessed with India? See here, here, and here) where I was cramped in an economy seat for hours without much movement. At first they were only painful with some restricted movement, but after an anniversary weekend in NYC walking everywhere in not the greatest shoes (go see the World is Sound exhibit at the Rubin and The Great Comet!) and a bit of landscaping with a shovel into the hard Cheverly clay, my knees became two little orbs of sharp, burning, stabbing pain.

Needless to say, there was no child’s pose for me.

My yoga practice really changed. Instead of yoga postures each morning, I became fast friends with my tennis ball. If you’ve been to my class, you’ll know that fascial release is one of my favorite things, and all you need is a humble tennis ball to support you in this endeavor. So instead of coming to my mat for yoga postures, I would press and roll the tennis ball into and over hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, even on the outside of my feet to help open the peroneal muscles, IT band and tensor fascia latae. This tennis ball rolling, making space in and around the knee joints, felt really good relative to the constant pain and it was about all I could do for a while. My meditation was in a wide-legged seat, upavista konasana, sitting up on blankets with rolled towels or blocks for support under my knees.

A yoga pose I found really helpful was elevated pigeon pose. With my back foot on the floor, I would place my front shin on a bed or raised surface. You have to spread the toes of the front foot wide and draw the pinky toe back toward the knee to do this safely when there is knee pain. Going slowly, I would sink in to the sensation and breathe with it, allowing time to release gripping and holding, and believe me, there was a lot of gripping and holding.










This kind of practice, patience, massage, and acupuncture began to offer results and my knees became not so cranky. Yesterday, slowly, with toes active and pressing into the mat, I was able to slowly lower my hips toward my heels and, even though I was very wary of not going too far, it felt like heaven. In child’s pose it was as though the earth swallowed me up and held me in her embrace, reassuring me that this pain is just a phase, and like many things in life only temporary. But it takes work, patience, and persistence to overcome.


Refreshing Summertime Cooler

During summer, the sun is at its highest, the days are long, the air is hot and humid (in our area).  We can love this time for the outdoor opportunities to enjoy the beauty of nature, but it may also lead us to overheat.  Ayurveda, yoga’s sister practice, offers tips to keep cool.  

Wear light, comfortable clothing, do not go out in direct sun in midday, or if you do, wear a hat to cover your head and shade your eyes, enjoy activities involving water — swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking — and try this yummy lassi!  Lassi is a yogurt-drink inspired by Indian cooking.  Yogurt has beneficial enzymes to aid your digestion, keep you cool, and it pairs well with so many flavors.  This recipe is a summertime crowd pleaser.

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Mint and Cinnamon Lassi
5 cups filtered water
1 cup organic plain yogurt
¾ cup raw organic sugar or sucanat
40 fresh mint leaves
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

Put the water, yogurt, sugar, mint leaves, and cinnamon in a blender and blend until frothy. Pour into tall glasses and garnish each serving with a dusting of cinnamon powder.
(From Eat, Taste, Heal)
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Pitta is the ayurvedic constitution made from the elements fire and secondarily water. Summer is the fiery time of year, and 10am – 2pm is the fiery time of day. When we get overheated, we might experience that as heartburn, red eyes, skin rashes, irritability or anger. If any of these symptoms are occurring for you, consider sipping this Mint and Cinnamon Lassi, or even taking a cool bath with several drops of rose essential oil.

In ayurveda, the principle is that opposites balance each other. If there is too much fire, apply something cooling and soothing. In that way, heat dissipates and you will find less discomfort during the hot, dog days. If you would like a consultation regarding your constitution and appropriate habits to keep you in balance, please contact me!

About Blessing Counting

I grew up with a tangential relationship to church. We went to a Methodist Church (several different ones over the course of my school years in fact) in order to “gain a moral background” according to my parents who would gladly say that they do not believe in God. These Sunday morning outings usually involved getting donuts together on the way home. I was pretty much there for the donuts. But this is not to say that I do not have a connection to spirit, that is very much alive…

This is to say that I was never totally convinced that “blessings” were a thing and that I should be counting them. The very word blessing seemed kind of wimpy to me in some way. Please forgive me, my church-going friends, but I am only speaking my experience.

Longwood RoseIt was not until a friend and fellow yogi suggested to me that a blessing is really anything that makes your heart feel lighter, that I gained a better relationship with the word, and with the idea. Anything that makes your heart feel lighter. How amazing is that? We all experience ups and downs, some more than others, and it’s true, right? That when we feel bad, the heart gets heavy. Emotions have a physical seat in the body. This is a thing that yoga practice teaches us directly; often on the mat as we move through different shapes and forms, emotions and memories rise up, and in that safe space on the mat we can allow ourselves to feel them and recognize them for what they are — feelings — like waves in the ocean that are a part of the ocean but do not represent the full depths.

So with this new understanding of blessings, I began a practice of gratitude.

Each morning, as I begin my meditation practice, first I take the time to name three things that I am thankful for. Taking a walk, breathing fresh air, having a good meal, watching the birds in the yard, good health, good friends, a loving partner, a vibrant community in which to live, a career that I really enjoy. I try to vary it each day and think of even the smallest everyday things that make my world a better place.

If you have not tried a gratitude practice, I recommend it! Perhaps first thing in the morning upon waking is the best time because then you are immediately reminded and can maintain that feeling of thankfulness throughout the day. Three things.

And now scientists are discovering a biochemical reason for gratitude too. Neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb has a book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, in which he says that practicing gratitude boosts dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that governs pleasure and serotonin the one that governs mood.

“One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.” —Dr. Korb

And he goes on to say that it is not the finding of gratitude, but it is the remembering to look for it that creates the beneficial effect. The more you remember to look, the more the dopamine and serotonin increase. It is an upward spiral. Fascinating. Thank you for reading!

Anxiety and the Brave Warrior

This week in class we’ve been learning the story of Virabhadra — the ferocious and terrifying warrior that arose out of Shiva’s anguish at the loss of his beloved Sati. Virabhadra is the namesake for all those Warrior Poses we do in class, Virabhadrasana I, II, III, the Humble Warrior, and more.

virabhadraBriefly, Shiva and Sati were insulted by Sati’s father, King Daks’a, who never liked Shiva and certainly did not want his daughter to marry him because Shiva was an outcast from society. He is both the Lord of Meditation and the Lord of Destruction, and as such would dress in rags and cover himself in ash. He had long, unwieldy dreadlocks, hung out in cremation grounds, and was often surrounded by goblins. After Shiva and Sati’s marriage, to spite them, Daks’a hosted a fire ceremony, an auspicious occasion, but did not invite Sati or Shiva due to his lack of love for Shiva. Sati found out about this while the ceremony was taking place, and so she rushed to her father’s home in protest and, sitting dignified in her meditation amid the crowd, she called up her own inner fire so powerfully that she immolated herself.

At the moment of her death, the worlds shook. Shiva knew exactly what had happened. He howled in anguish and went into a rage. He ran to the fire ceremony himself and began destroying things at the party, Lord of Destruction he is. In his misery, he ripped a dreadlock from his head and threw it on the ground, and out of that lock of his hair arose a fearsome warrior, Virabhadra. He was as tall as the sky and as dark as thunderclouds. He wore garlands of bloody skulls and had the most formidable weapons. Everyone knew to run and hide when Virabhadra appeared. This brave warrior finished the job of destroying the fire ceremony for Shiva and he even lopped off Daks’a’s head.

Kelly Virabhadrasana IAs in all of the Indian tales, this story begins in the middle and ends in the middle too. Shiva grieves for eons while Virabhadra goes off doing warrior-like things. Ultimately, Virabhadra stands for courage and potency, the definitions of the Sanskrit word vira. He is born of the Lord of Meditation’s heartbreak, and he is the one who will bravely step into the fire in order to set things right. In our own lives, his energy represents our courage to stand up and face the things we would rather not face. He is the innate potential within us to wield our own power in a way that restores balance to our lives. He is our own fear and agony and he is the ability to overcome it.

Kelly Vira II ReversedSo, anxiety. People experience anxiety in different ways, and therefore there are different ways to address it, but often it is best to look at the source. On many occasions, anxiety is the manifestation of some deeper trauma — a loss, grief, fear, or even anger. When a strong emotion is buried deep, we may even forget the thing causing the emotion, but we are left with the anxiety: a gripping around the heart, a tension in the throat, a “deer in the headlights” immobility. Yoga addresses the physicality of the experience of anxiety.

Sometimes the person might need more activity, a flowing practice that is connected to the breath to help move the tension out of the body. Sometimes the person might need more stillness, to inwardly address what is coming up for them. It depends on the person and the situation. Either direction takes courage. Through yoga practice and even breathing techniques and meditation, one can develop the strength of inner fire, the potency to step courageously into the world, or into one’s own mind, and face the deeper source of the anxiety. A warrior pose with some steady, deep breathing may help.

img_3072If you are experiencing anxiety, first be kind to yourself. Remember that feelings are like waves in the ocean, they come and they go but they need time. And, try some yoga. If you are not sure where to begin, contact me, let’s talk. Together we can find a doable practice that is suitable for your needs and goals. Relief is possible.

What is Yoga Therapy?

The International Association of Yoga Therapists defines yoga therapy like this:

Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and wellbeing through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.

You may read the entire article here.

img_0061I have been interested and practicing yoga and meditation since college when I was first introduced to the practices. Immediately I felt the anxiety-reducing and joy-producing effects of yoga and meditation and I knew deep in my heart that these practices, called sadhana in Sanskrit, would support my life in a profound way. Some 25 years later, my yoga practice has survived loved-and-lost, love again, family issues, pets, career changes, moves, and band crises.

I’m very pleased to announce that recently, the IAYT accepted me as a certified Yoga Therapist. This represents many years of study, practice, and application in the field. Yoga Therapy is an emerging field, but one that is a natural evolution of continued and perhaps deeper yoga practices. If you are a yoga practitioner, then you already know the personal benefits that yoga may have in your life, whether it is a stronger, healthier body, relief from aches or pains, relief from anxiety and depression, less headaches, a stronger, healthier mind, the list goes on.

Once a student asked me “what is the advanced version of this practice?” And I love the answer… sticking with it. After 25 years, I am here to say, the practice of yoga only continues to enhance your life in more and better ways then you may imagine.

IAYT logo-webOn the physical level, yoga activates muscles in chains. When you take Side Angle Posture for example, the entire side of your body is affected, from the sole of your foot through the peroneal muscles, to the IT band, through the obliques, latissimus dorsi, the scalenes, to the top of your head. There is a connective tissue chain along the entire side of the body that is activated, and not to mention the other muscles supporting your pose, the adductors, the psoas and so forth. So if there is, let’s say, lower back pain, it is addressed in a holistic way. It is not simply one area of the body that receives the focus, yes that area gets addressed, but in context of the entire being. There are refinements to alignment that awaken new avenues of feeling and awareness in the body that help the yogi let go of past habits that were causing the pain in order to establish new habits that better support the body as a whole, and the mind too is effected in a positive way.

fisher_kelly-113_2Another way to approach these issues is through relieving physical and mental stress. Through the practices of meditation and even breath work, known as pranayama, we find a more subtle and lasting way to make positive changes in your body and life.

Another way to approach these issues is looking at lifestyle habits. How much sleep are you getting? Are you eating well and drinking enough water? What daily habits support you and which ones might be exacerbating your issues? The science of life, ayurveda, offers tools to align your personal habits to access your fullest potential.

Yoga therapy incorporates yoga postures, breath work, meditation, and ayurveda to help you live better. I have been studying and teaching these things for many years now and am so pleased to have IAYT’s recognition. It is an emerging field and so far a little over 300 people around the world have received their certification that represents a significant amount of hours practicing, studying, and teaching; therefore I am proud to be able to offer my services at this enhanced level.

So, if you are wondering how yoga may enhance your life more, if you have been dealing with anxiety, arthritis, osteoporosis, headaches, joint pain, muscle sprains, back pain, shoulder issues, depression, trouble sleeping, or generalized ennui, let’s talk.

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