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Diving Into The Depths Of The Ocean: From Prameya To Pramatyr

This fall I spent 8 weeks (well…9, including the bonus class) studying the Spanda Kārikās via a tele-class with Christopher Tompkins entitled ‘The Liberating Power of Vibration.’ During this immersion into the Spanda Kārikās (Tantrik Stanzas of Vibration), we literally dove deep into these rich, vibrant teachings on the pulsation of Consciousness. We explored all 52 karikas (stanzas) using the commentary by Shrī Kshemarāja. This revealed teaching emphasizes achieving liberation from ignorance/suffering through the recognition of what really is. That is, during our own peak experiences in life we realize that our true self is pure pulsation of Consciousness. These are the moments in between expansion and contraction that take our breath away, when we feel the most uniquely alive.

Throughout the class, we often invoked the image of the ocean to symbolically describe and study the different stages of awareness. The first stage of consciousness, prameya, is objective awareness. This state of citta-vritti (anxious cycles of thoughts in the mind) can be represented by waves on the surface of the ocean. Each wave appears distinct and different, indicating a sense of duality. In this state, we identify with our senses – what we see, feel, hear…even what we see in our heads. When we are caught up in this state of citta-vritti our true spanda is concealed from us. The second stage, pramana, is witness awareness. This can be described figuratively as descending beneath the waves (the anxious thoughts) into a dreamier state, yet there remains a perception of duality at this stage. In keeping with the ocean analogy, in the pramana stage one would be aware of the surface waves and of the deep blue sea but would not identify with them. Deeper still is the delicious state of pramatyr. In this stage of consciousness the spanda principle draws you into her (as opposed to you deciding to find her). In this stage one is metaphorically invited deeper into the ocean where the perception of surface waves has dissipated. In this peak high, the wave and the ocean are one. Despite its fleeting nature, it offers an expansive experience of tranquility.

Coincidentally, just days after this tele-class series concluded I had the pleasure of going on a dive trip with my husband to Grand Cayman where we did a total of 9 dives over a 3-day period. Who knew that on this dive trip I would have an actual experience of progressing from prameya to pramatyr as I physically descended from the surface ripples of the ocean into the deep blue sea? The analogy became my reality.

On the short boat ride to the dive site, I was filled with anticipation as I put on my dive gear and double-checked the functionality of my equipment. However, after I rolled off the boat and waited at the surface of the water for the rest of my dive team my enthusiasm began to fade. Being on the surface was the least enjoyable part of the diving adventure. Despite having my buoyancy compensator device full so that I could float while waiting for the others, the struggle to remain in place (rather than drift away with the surface current) was a great deal of effort so I decided to hold onto the descent line. As I continued to wait I was smacked in the face with each surface wave. With my feet dangling in the water (tasting the freedom that would soon come to the rest of my body and mind), I just bounced around on the surface – a victim of the physical waves and the citta-vritti in my head (photo 1 above; while the photographer might have been in pramana, I can assure you that I was in prameya). The rocking motion invited such anxious thoughts/questions as “Why again am I doing this? Why can’t we just wait for everyone on the bottom? Ouch! Why do they use fiberglass line instead of something softer? Who wants to hold onto this? Why didn’t I wear my dive gloves anyway? Next time I should plan to exit the boat last so I don’t have to wait. Wow, my hair really gets tangled in this mask strap!  Where is my ponytail holder? I must have lost it on the last dive. If one more f-ing wave hits me in the face…” This stage was definitely that of prameya, and citta-vritti was in full force. And then finally the moment we had been waiting for: the hand signal to descend. At this point I could drop below the choppy surface and the chatter of my mind.

As we began our descent I immediately felt more easeful, forgetting about the fiberglass splinter in my hand and my lost ponytail holder (even though my hair was waving in and out of my vision with the gentle flow of the underwater current). One of the cool features about being in this layer was having the ability to look up and see the ripples at the surface (which looked much prettier than how they felt) and look below and see a reef teeming with life underneath me. I was in the state of pramana – a dreamier, quiet phase of awareness. I was aware of the rippling surface waters and knew that I would return to them and all that they represent soon enough, but I embraced the moment of not identifying with them. I peacefully swam through the grottos and along the coral as a witness (photo 2). I observed numerous species of coral, brilliant green and purple sponges, anenome, fish (including parrotfish, squirrel fish, snapper, grunts, trunk fish, big eyes, barracuda, jacks, damsels, grouper), stingray, turtles, lobster, and so many others.

And then (when I least expected it), IT happened! On our seventh dive of the weekend, we did a deep wall dive where 110 ft was supposed to be the maximum depth. It was a coral wall and we swam through a tunnel to get to it. Upon exiting the tunnel, there was a beautiful coral wall to my left. And to my right…wow! Well to my right was the deep blue sea (there is no photograph of this, only the experience imprinted with unimaginable beauty in my memory). It was the most amazing, mesmerizing drop off into the abyss. The ocean, in its entirety, sweetly enveloped me and pulled me into her depths. Breathtaking. Pramatry! This was the most profound high I have ever experienced. In this moment, the ocean, everything in it, and I were one. The surface waves had dissolved and there was nothing but expansive consciousness. That is, until ‘Clank! Clank! Clank!’ – the sound of my dive master banging a wrench on his tank. It took the sound of metal on metal to get my attention and draw me out of this state. I had descended to below 110 ft (we figure I was somewhere between 115-120 ft based on how far underneath my dive master I appeared to be – I don’t know for sure because my analytical mind was not participating and I was therefore not looking at my depth gauge). As my awareness was pulled back to the state of pramana, I realized my dive master was beckoning me to ascend and I dreamily arose to his depth and followed his lead for the rest of the dive (which was actually not that long since the time we can stay under is determined by the maximum depth of the dive – so I effectively cut that time quite short for everyone in our dive team with my deeper descent – oops – sorry guys).

As we ascended, we were required to pause below the surface water to allow for decompression. Holding on to that same fiberglass line, I didn’t even mind its scratchy feeling or notice if I received splinters again. Once on the surface, the waves were just the same but somehow they didn’t bother me this time. The residual tranquility from my pramatyr experience allowed me to access peace despite the surface waves lapping against my face. I also managed to hold onto this state as I was surrounded by a cacophony of voices once I got back onto the boat: “Wow! Did you see this? Did you see that? That was awesome!” Everyone else on the boat was giddy with excitement about their experience and everything they observed. But I remained quiet, still taking it all in, and not wanting to let go. After all, it is this peak experience of pramatyr that my yoga practice seeks to find. I had no idea that it would be 110+ ft under, far away from my yoga mat and meditation seat that I would have such a profound state of awareness.

To Haiti With Love: From My Heart To Theirs

Yesterday I had the pleasure of taking a special yoga class entitled ‘Coming Home to Your Heart: A Benefit Class with Naomi Gottlieb Miller’ at Capitol Hill Yoga in support of To Haiti with Love.  There was so much sweetness encapsulated in that 90-minute class. I was truly awed by the extraordinary seva (Sanskrit for selfless service) of Kristin Adair, DC-area yogini and yoga teacher, and her exemplification of living her yoga off the mat. Kristin left her full-time job as a lawyer to take yoga into community and be a leader in sustainable change. Her project is To Haiti with Love and her goal is to raise $20,000 by December 15th to support relief efforts in Haiti, a country still struggling to recover from the devastating earthquake in January 2010. In particular, the funds raised will support Haitian organizations that create sustainable solutions, including community infrastructure projects, education programs, jobs, and financial stability. Kristin’s unwavering commitment has demonstrated to me how one person can make such a huge and far-reaching difference.

Supporting Kristin’s project and the people of Haiti is what brought me to the mat yesterday afternoon for this special event, but it was Naomi’s seva of teaching that brought me to my heart. As far as I am concerned, it just doesn’t get any better than being able to practice yoga on and off my mat simultaneously. I smiled brightly yesterday (and again now as I am thinking about it) when Naomi said to us that the practice of yoga on the mat teaches us to live yoga off the mat and that ‘doing anything different than that just doesn’t even make sense.’ I couldn’t agree more. After all, it was the off the mat goal that led me to step onto my mat for yesterday’s benefit class.

Naomi and I have been friends and colleagues for years. In fact we even did our Anusara Immersion and Teacher Training programs together. Just as much as I consider Naomi to be my friend and colleague, I also embrace her as one of my teachers. Most of the time when I take Naomi’s class I am still wearing the hat of the teacher – meaning I pay attention to how she sequences, how she gets us into and out of poses, how she describes detailed alignment principles, etc. with the aim of becoming a more effective teacher myself by learning from and emulating successful methods employed by such amazing teachers. I can count on Naomi’s classes to challenge me and provide me with a strong physical practice, and often through her skillful teaching I am able to get deeper into poses than I generally do on my own. But yesterday something else (well really, something ‘in addition to that’) happened. Through Naomi’s sweet offering I was able to get out of my head (out of teacher mode) and into my heart (into student mode). This is not an easy accomplishment for me – remember that my other gig is as an analytical scientist. Yesterday Naomi’s teaching focused on bringing us into our hearts with a special emphasis on sustainability, nourishment, and health. It was a great practice with plenty of challenging poses, including a pinnacle pose that was like a hybrid between wild thing and Brighid’s cross – what was that called Naomi? Whatever it was called, it was an offering from my heart all the way to Haiti. And I am pleased to report that 24 hours later, I am still at home in my heart, I feel nourished from the inside out, and I know that the healing process that occurred for me on my mat during those 90-minutes will continue to sustain me.

At the end of the benefit class I further supported To Haiti with Love by purchasing new mala beads (shown in the photo above) from Kristin. These hand-knotted mala beads are made with creamy natural calcite beads (symbolizing healing energy and stress reduction) and intense red garnet beads (symbolizing vitality, strength and courage). The mala beads have a To Haiti with Love bird charm to symbolize the peace and promise for Haiti. The mala beads will serve as a reminder to me of the people in Haiti whose lives will be enhanced through Kristin’s seva as well as the sweet teachings by Naomi that brought me home to my own heart so that I could more easily connect to the hearts of others. To Haiti with Love, from my heart to theirs.

Mission Possible: Men on the Mat

As you may have noticed, my current mission is to get more guys into yoga class. This full-on initiative manifested following several independent signs that pointed me in the direction of specifically calling men to the mat. Firstly, over the course of the year I have been drawn to numerous articles/blogs featuring men and yoga (e.g., Emma Magenta’s 12 Reasons I Love Having Men in Yoga Class and Andrew Tilin’s Where Are All the Men?). I noticed that in March 2011 Yoga Journal even featured a man on the cover of their magazine, the first time in 8 years! I started really paying attention to how many men were showing up for (and coming back to) my classes. While students are in savasana, I have found myself doing a quick calculation of the percentage of men in my class (this week it was 25%). This is this first time that I am in any way acknowledging this to anyone, but I kind of started this internal competition with myself to strive for 100% retention of men who try out my class. Of course the goal is to always get 100% retention, but I really wanted to make sure the guys came back. While my retention hasn’t exactly been 100%, it has been very good and I have men (plural) in pretty much every single class that I teach. Not only do I notice how many guys are in the classes that I teach, I am quite observant of how many guys practice along side me in the classes that I take. Let’s just say that this year my awareness of men in yoga classes has heightened.

The second sign in this sequence of events was when my Capitol Hill Yoga (CHY) partner Betsy suggested that we feature the men of CHY in our October newsletter. In full support of her idea, I began researching statistics on male/female practitioners in the US and compared them to our metrics at CHY. I started reviewing the number of men in attendance and retention rates in all the classes at CHY. I asked men questions about why they come, what they hope to gain from the practice, and what they like/dislike about yoga class. Likewise I inquired with male friends who don’t practice yoga to find out why they haven’t even given it a chance. As I wrote in the October newsletter, yoga offers so many benefits and it matters not whether the recipient is a man or woman. So for any skeptical males out there, I suggest that you don’t just take my word for it. Read what some of the men at CHY have to say about yoga in our CHY Kula Members of the Month feature. Rave reviews aren’t just being shared by our guys at CHY; check out this article from the UK by Paul Clements entitled Do Real Men Do Yoga?

The third (and pinnacle) event that led to this men’s initiative came when we (CHY) participated in the Barrack’s Row Fall Festival. A very nice man approached our table and genuinely posed the question “Do you have any regular offerings – I mean for people who aren’t pregnant or for kids?” My initial reaction might have appeared defensive in nature – “Of course. In fact, only 2 out of our 24 regular classes per week are prenatal. There are plenty of opportunities and options for you to take a class.” But as the reality of his question sunk in, I thought to myself he really seems interested in yoga but for some reason he actually thinks it might just be for chicks, moms, and babies! Are other men in our community shying away from this timeless and transformative practice because the general association is that it is a girl thing? My response: Game on!

This was the birth of Mission Possible: Men on the Mat! I feel that if there are men out there who think that this is a girl thing, I have not been the best yoga ambassador. So here’s to a paradigm shift for those men out there who associate yoga with women! I want to spread the word that yoga is indeed for men as well. Men can reap the same rewards from this practice that women do.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not looking to replace women on the mat with men. I am simply trying to bring balance to the practice and to make all people aware that yoga has something to offer everyone, regardless of sex or age. The tantric roots of Anusara yoga, as well as the Universal Principles of Alignment, lead the way for me both on and off the mat. So how can these teachings be applied to Mission Possible? According to the tantric tradition, as one of my philosophy teachers Douglas Brooks always says, “you are nothing like me” followed by “you are a little like me” and then “you are nothing but me.” I think we can incorporate these stages of awareness and the Anusara Universal Principles of Alignment when contemplating men and women with regards to yoga. How so? Very generally speaking, it appears that the first principle of Anusara yoga, Open to Grace, is accessed more readily by women. I say this only because women are giving yoga a chance, whereas many men don’t appear to be as open to the possibility of all that this practice can offer. Not that I am keeping score or anything, but at the first principle: women = 1 and men = 0. It appears as if men and women are totally different. Next quarter. I mean, next principle, Muscular Energy. Again I am making broad generalizations here, but men usually have the upper hand with this one given their inherent strength. I always smile when men enter my class for the first time and I ask them if they have injuries or special conditions and more times than not the response will be “I am incredibly inflexible.” So guys – here’s the big secret: Muscular Energy (strength) comes BEFORE Organic Energy (flexibility)! Okay, it isn’t really a secret since they are Universal Principles of Alignment and they are taught and applied in order. But my point is, guys often times have a super incredible advantage here with their inherent strength and it is this strength that allows greater flexibility in a safe way. A lot of the super flexible gals out there have to work extremely hard at engaging muscular energy in order to protect themselves during the backbendy and flexible poses. So what’s the score now? women = 1 and men = 1. Perhaps we aren’t so different. And when we realize that at the end of the day all each of us wants is to be happy and to feel better, we see that men and women are in fact the same. So how about more men start Opening to Grace and give yoga a try? Then women can witness the men next to them in class as examples of how to access greater Muscular Energy in poses, tapping into strength that affords incredible amounts of freedom and flexibility. Then together we can all rock out the rest of the Universal Principles of Alignment (Inner Spiral, Outer Spiral, and Organic Energy) so that we can all tout the awesome benefits of yoga.

Please help me get the word out about men and yoga, and let’s change the putative association that this is primarily a woman’s practice. All you guys in the DC area: check out the Men on the Mat workshop that I will teach with my husband this Sunday 2:00-4:00 pm and/or try out any of my regular classes or another teacher’s classes. There are numerous fabulous Anusara Certified and Inspired teachers in the greater DC area who would warmly welcome more guys into class. And all you lady practitioners: let’s encourage the men in our lives to give it a shot and also please be sure to welcome the next guy who rolls out a mat in class next to you. This mission is indeed possible!

Pacifying Vata

Fall FoliageThe characteristic of autumn that I love most is the feeling of the cool brisk air against my skin when I step outside. However, it is this very same attribute that requires me to carry Chapstick at all times and apply lotion or massage oil to my skin numerous times a day throughout the season. This airy quality penetrates deeper than my skin, impacting digestion and creating anxious tendencies. Believe it or not, fall is my favorite season and the first sentence above holds true despite the potential negative impacts the cool brisk air may have if it goes unbalanced.

According to Ayurveda (the science of life), fall is known as the season that is inherently full of Vata (the Dosha or constitution that is represented by the elements of ether/air). A Vata energy that is balanced is one that inspires creativity, enthusiasm, speed, and agility; whereas an excess of Vata can lead to mental, nervous, or digestive disorders. So to align with nature, we must balance Vata with more Kapha (earth and water) and Pitta (fire and water) energies.

Therefore, I welcome this season as an opportunity to emphasize activities that ground and soothe me. My asana practice focuses on poses that stabilize me. Maintaining my steady connection to the earth, I move through my  practice in a slow, methodical, and fluid manner. Gentle movements guided by my breath, forward bends, hip openers, twists, seated poses, and restorative poses are ideal at pacifying my excess Vata energy. So these are the classes of poses that I am highlighting this week — both in my home practice and in the classes I teach.

I am also engaging in other practices to appease Vata, such as establishing a regular daily routine for myself, getting more and better sleep, dressing warmly (excited to wear scarves that have been in the closet untouched for months), and finding creative ways to stay calm and relaxed. Diet plays a major role in my ability to find balance between the Doshas. It is a good thing that I love the foods of this season – root vegetables are my favorite. Eating guidelines for balancing Vata suit me just fine: warm, nourishing meals, sweet/sour/salty tastes, spices that are warming but not spicy, and limiting the intake of raw foods. In fact, I am enjoying a cup of steamed milk with fresh nutmeg as I finish this writing and get ready for my new bedtime.

I am confident that all of these activities will create a better balance in my life so that I can step out into the cool brisk season and be inspired by the beautiful foliage and creative shakti in the air.

Matrika Shakti

Welcome to my blog – a venue for sharing my own matrika shakti. Sanskrit for the inherent energy of the letters that make up our words, matrika shakti is the power of speech or the power of consciousness in our words. I never would have thought that at some point, I would actively create a vehicle for sharing my voice with others. In fact, growing up I sought to just blend in with others – to not make any waves. Today, however, I seek to be genuine and to share my authenticity in thought, speech (both written and spoken), and action – fully recognizing that each wave, regardless of how different it may seem from all the other waves, never loses its ocean-ness. So it is here that I offer you my unique voice, even if at times it seems like a rogue wave.

Here I intend to share my weekly themes for class, including the inspiration behind these themes and how we can extend our awareness and practice of them off the mat. Consider my thoughts and ideas presented here to be from my heart, delivered as drops of inspiration into the Oceans of Grace.