Friday, September 24, 2010

Returning to Earth

I admit it: I'm nervous. Our first master class with visiting teacher Doug Keller begins tonight and I have been scurrying from one thing to another for the past week or so, full of nervous energy. Or maybe it's fear. Or excitement. Or some combination of all these emotions.

One of the reasons I've been running to and fro is that the very day I made my last post turned out to be my 99-year-old grandmother's last day on earth. She died peacefully that evening, just before midnight, in her sleep. It was not an unexpected death, as she'd been declining for several months, and one of the first things I did was write a post about her on my other blog. The next thing I did was reserve a flight to Idaho to attend her funeral, and I have been in constant motion ever since.
We buried her in the Chilly cemetery where most of my ancestors on my father's side have been laid to rest for the past one hundred years or so. 

Located next to a butte in the Lost River Valley, this cemetery is not one of those manicured golfcourse-like places but is covered with the natural flora of this part of Idaho. The sagebrush has been kept at bay beyond the fence by repeated extractions, but the brown shrubs visible around the headstones are tumbleweeds, impossible to eradicate in those parts. That red spot on the hillside is a quartz mine that I've spent many hours in, looking for gold that may or may not be there.

I returned home from the funeral just in time to clean out my desk at work and turn in my badge. The next day I woke up at 3:15 am feeling a sore throat coming on, distressed that I was getting sick just as yoga teacher training was about to start. The day after that I slept until 9:00 am, feeling disconnected from the time zone I was in and the Virginia earth I was now walking on. This discombobulation I felt came to a painful peak yesterday afternoon when I decided I needed to harvest the last of the hot habanero peppers from my garden since fall was now upon us. I thought about using rubber gloves, but unable to locate the pair I thought I once had, and impatient to finish the job, forged ahead. I picked the peppers, sliced them into a jar and poured a mixture of equal parts vinegar and sugar over the slices to pickle them.

Within minutes, my left ring finger felt like I'd stuck it into a campfire. The capsacin in those habaneros had worked its way into a tiny cut in that finger and I was in agony. I held my hand under running water, which helped, but not as much as plunging it into an ice bath. I continued this until it was time to go to yoga class. Still in pain, nearly five hours after slicing the peppers, I didn't know what to do. Should I skip the class and stay home with my hand under the faucet? Or should I pack some ice in a plastic container and go?

I went, but felt rather ridiculous sitting on my yoga mat with my hand plunged into ice. I could barely pay attention, but as we turned inward, focusing on the breath and concentrating on very subtle adjustments of position at each of the seven chakra centers, I began to calm down. I put the ice aside and somewhere in the middle of the meditation on the seventh chakra I realized the pain was gone.

It could have been a coincidence. It could be that capsaicin wears off after six hours, for all I know. It could be that sometimes pain is required to focus my attention when I get totally caught up with my own life and all the stresses it brings.
Namaste from the Lost River Valley

Or it could be that by remembering to breathe, I finally returned to earth. There may be more lessons in this event, but for now I will let the memories of the last two weeks settle into place within me. And I will remember to breathe.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

And So We Begin

Last Thursday was the first weekly class meeting for those of us enrolled in Sun and Moon's ten-month yoga teacher training program. Although "orientation" does not take place until September 19, the fact that this was the first time we were together as a group, made it feel like the first day of school. And, by the end of the evening's session it was clear to me that I had just been afforded the opportunity to experience "beginner's mind" once again.

I have practiced yoga for almost twenty years and it has been a long time since I've been in a yoga class where I felt like I had no idea how to do the pose or movement that the teacher was describing, but that was exactly my experience last Thursday. Alex, our instructor, led us through what sounded like a simple movement exercise and I was suddenly losing my balance, unable to figure out how to move my arms and legs to do what she suggested--in short, transported back to the frame of mind that used to be my normal state in yoga class.

The movement instructions were simple: close your eyes, Alex said, then step forward and go down, interpreting "down" in whatever way seems right to you. So, I closed my eyes, stepped one foot forward and crouched, immediately losing my balance and toppling. I tried it again and again, never quite finding a way to do this movement that would allow me to carry it out with grace and poise.

After a minute or so of practice with our eyes closed, Alex instructed us to open our eyes and see how the others in the class had interpreted the instructions. There were over twenty of us in there and I saw about twenty different ways of stepping forward and going down, including several people who were leaning over in a forward fold and placing their hands on the floor.

I was astounded. Why had it never occurred to me that I could use my arms and hands? Why had I restricted my movement to only my legs? Alex instructed us to change our interpretation if watching the other students gave us some ideas about how to make the movement easier, and sure enough, putting my hands on the floor completely solved my balance problem.

The exercise continued, with further interesting observations, but that first one remains with me, and I'm still mulling over the lessons and insights I can draw from the observation that I didn't think about using my upper body when I heard the instruction: "go down."

Instead of being distressed by this turn of events, I was excited. I was learning about my body in ways that were fresh and new, and I remembered a similar sense of excitement when I was a new yoga student. It was good to be a beginner again.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Radhe Govinda

I've just finished a weekend of kirtan, or ecstatic chant, and all I have to say right now is that this type of chant is very aptly named. In lieu of words, which I don't have very many of right now, I offer this short clip of one chant led by Jai Uttal: Radhe Govinda.  In Hindu mythology, Radhe is the one who loves God, Govinda, with total purity of heart. In the chant, we repeat the names of the divine couple, Radhe and her beloved, Govinda.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Kirtana: The Yoga of Voice

Tomorrow I leave to attend the Omega Institute's Ecstatic Chant weekend where we will spend nearly every minute practicing the yoga of voice, also known as kirtana or, more commonly, kirtan. I discovered this remarkable practice a couple of years ago in a yoga class and was swept away. Things have not been the same for me since.

Kirtana is easy to describe and even easier to do. The leader chants one of the many divine names and the group copies what the leader has chanted. This is repeated -- over and over and over, sometimes for as much as thirty minutes. The tune can change, the tempo is often varied, but all that a participant has to do is follow the leader in a call and response fashion. 

The result is remarkable and hard to describe -- this is one of those things where "you just have to be there" to really get it. In short, the practice of kirtan can lead the participant quite easily into a state of transcendence. The result is pure, sheer joy and there is nothing else like it.

I recorded a short bit of a kirtan session I attended this past May with Krishna Das, or KD as he is known by most of us, and I offer it here to give you a hint of what I'm expecting for this weekend. If you want to listen to more kirtan from KD, check out his YouTube channel.