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Isvara-Pranidhana

“Our faith conforms to our nature,
Arjuna. The living personality is the embodiment of faith.
One is identified by whatever faith one has.”
Bhagavad Gita 17:3

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There is something so beautiful about watching snow tiptoe its way to the earth from the comfort of a yoga mat. This weekend I was scheduled to work overnight shifts at the hospital both on Friday and Saturday, and I’d left my car outside during the snowstorm the previous day. I allotted half an hour to clean off my car but had only an ice scraper to clean it with and hadn’t realized how much snow had actually accumulated on the windshield and at the back. By the time I’d swept the snow off the back of the car, my body was covered with a dusting of snow. I was finding that cleaning all the snow wasn’t so bad after all. I then moved around to the front of the car and discovered that the ice had frozen solid in a thick layer to the windshield. Hacking or scraping at the ice didn’t work. I started to become really frustrated and took a deep breath, then turned the ice scraper over and started to use it like a shovel. A huge piece of ice immediately broke off and slid off the car. This way, I was done in no time.

I got into my car and expected smooth sailing — or driving — from there. There was a significant pile of snow in front of my car that hadn’t been cleared away, but I thought my car would be able to drive over it. Turns out I couldn’t. My wheels made endless stationary circles in the snow, churning furiously. I began to panic and my mind started presenting a million possibilities to me at once: Should I call my friend and ask for a ride? Should I call my supervisor and tell her I was having car trouble (though this was hardly really car trouble)? Should I just sit in my car and cry? I let those superficial thoughts come and ebb.

And finally, I relinquished all sense of personal control I had over the situation, and I felt serenity wash over me. 

At that very moment, two young men walked up to me. “Do you need help? Is your car stuck?” one of them asked. He immediately began giving me tips on how to get the car out. I reversed and used the space to try to get over the snow bump, but it wasn’t enough speed for the car. So finally they got behind my car and helped push it over the heap of snow. They must have spent at least 10-15 minutes of their time helping a total stranger out of the goodness of their hearts. Many would call this a coincidence but I like to think of it as an event of  “synchronicity” – one brought about by awareness of thought.

I learned this weekend:

From cleaning off my car – Wherever you go there you are. The same patterns of thinking will not fix every problem that appears, since every problem is different. I think it was Einstein who said, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity” 

From being helped – Don’t underestimate the prevalence or extent of human kindness. We often make our own “problems.” Agitation and sorrow arise when we relent to the vicissitudes of the ever-clamoring mind. 

These experiences showed me why isvara-pranidhana is essential to maintaining a sattvic mindset throughout “tough times,” of whatever magnitude. It’s all too easy, when we’ve accomplished something, to take full acknowledgement for the success and become complacent. When I finished cleaning off my car, for example, I was expecting not to have any more problems. That’s a recipe for disaster! And so is thinking that I am somehow completely responsible for the success of getting my car over that snow bump. We often use the phrase “things that are beyond our control,” because we like to think that we can control most events in our lives, but realistically the situation is the opposite.

Offering up our successes and failures to an awareness that is larger than ourselves (not necessarily an entity, a deity, or a being, but more of a collective consciousness), we can come to understand how, as we move through this life, our impermanent thoughts and actions make impressions on the shifting sands of the vast universe.

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“Impermanence is already important to you and you’re so young, wise young poet. Never give up.”

Wow, I really needed this encouragement today. So grateful for my teacher ❤

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HOW TO BIKE ACROSS THE COUNTRY AND WASH AWAY YOUR OLD SELF IN THE PROCESS

makeshift cue sheet

  1. Dip your back tire in the Baltimore harbor before you leave. Use caution, so that you don’t somersault into the grey-green water.
  2. In the shower at the YMCAs in North Carolina and South Carolina, scrub your ignorance away, hard. You have become dirtier than you think.
  3. When Valeria at the hospital in Georgia wants to hold your hands because you remind her of her granddaughter, whom she hasn’t seen for twelve years, you send her waves of healing energy. You pray that the palm-to-palm contact will wash away her throbbing and endless pain, moisten her dry, cracked lips, soothe the churning hollow of her stomach.
  4. Launching yourself from that broken rope swing 30 feet up in the air will be worth it after you have realized that your ribs are not broken, and that your side will turn from purple back to brown after a few weeks, long after you are out of Arkansas.
  5. Sip water. Constantly.  Even though you’re in Texas in the middle of a cold spell (it’s 94 degrees instead of 100). If your Camelbak has even a single drop of water in it at the next water stop, after 20 miles, this means you aren’t drinking enough. This means that you will also pee constantly. Pee whenever you see a good spot. Better to moon an old Southern couple and go in their front yard than to show your derriere to a million drivers when you can’t hold it anymore and have to go by the side of Route 66, like your friend who will get pulled over by a cop.
  6. Every river, every stream that you see in Colorado, dive in. There is nothing so cleansing as having the Earth’s lifeblood flowing between your fingers, the sound of nature’s wisdom trickling from a waterfall, your ears drinking the music of splashes, mouth making bubbles of breath below the surface.
  7. If the water at the abandoned school in Monument Valley, Utah, comes out of the tap grey, don’t drink it.
  8. Pedaling through the mountains of New Mexico in the rain is the definition of meditation. Another definition of meditation is to sit and let things happen to you.
  9.  David who has had four types of cancer and can no longer speak from his throat will buy you 10 water bottles when you cross the border into California and have another hundred miles to pedal with no other water source in sight. Pay it forward. Give one to the blind man who sleeps by the side of the highway and weaves along the shoulder line, hoping to be hit one of these days.
  10. Run into the Pacific Ocean with your arms thrown wide, just like you promised 4-year old Jayden you would after he showed you his port scar. You will hear the waves murmuring, and you will murmur back, I am home I am home I am Home.

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“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” -Pema Chödrön

This week, I am working on cultivating 3 of the yamas elaborated upon by Patanjali in the Sadhana pada of the Yoga Sutras:

1) ahimsa (“non-violence”)

Ahimsa is not just outward violence perpetrated physically. It can also be negative self-talk (within the mind, or negative talk with others) — talk that ultimately is alienating. Self-harm and self-deprivation – in the form of not respecting our bodies and minds – constitutes violence as well. All this must be acknowledged. My concrete goal for this week is to observe and alter my body language, both when interacting with others (eye contact and giving the perception of being receptive) and when I am alone (good posture!). Today, my phone broke which allowed me to practice acknowledging strangers as I encountered them on campus. I found that most people will smile back if you acknowledge them! That added a warmth to my day. For true ahimsa is ultimately not just tolerance but is acceptance.

2) satya (“truthfulness”)

I want to acknowledge “what is” as an observer – at the end of the day, to reflect and think about what was done, and if it could have or probably should have been differently without berating myself.

3) asteya (“non-stealing” or non-covetousness)

My goal here is to practice entertaining less desires in the context of my daily schedule and academic life, specifically with regards to the outcome of the efforts I put in.

The poem above is a reflection on a long trip I made by bike and is inspired by some reflection on the three yamas. Traveling always grows my mind and turns on its “awareness switch,” and this written piece was an exercise in writing things as they were: a meditation on what was done and what was seen, without judgment.

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Two Poems

Inspired by my yoga practice this week:

Raising my bike in salute to the Awesomeness of nature in Tucumcari, NM. From my bike ride across the country, summer 2013.

DIFFERENT WAYS TO PRAY

When the teacher asked

“Now, which of you has a sacred space?”

the students began to clamor,

about the bustling walkway through the city,

the barbershop that made hair smell

like wet noodles in the snowy air,

the wooded single-track through the ponderosa pines

studded with screaming birds,

the café that smelled like warm butter and boasted

the incessant thrum of a coffee machine,

even the abandoned construction site where

sawtooth dinosaurs in macabre ballet poses

danced amidst stray dogs with tattered tails.

Only in the back, there was a boy,

whom the others heard and grew quiet,

and when he spoke, they nodded:

he talked of the comfort of putting

the key into the ignition

of his grandfather’s whispering old blue Buick,

and of turning the key,

of the CD’s noiseless slide into the player,

and the bass thrumming every mile,

of each calcium syllable forming and crumbling on itself

within the chapel of his mouth,

and his fingers making fractals on the dash,

and the wheels spiraling,

and going and going.

A flower given to me by a kind stranger.

LEAF

We wish for eagle feathers,

toeing the line between hulking crag

and fall, knowing a misstep means a

plunge means being engulfed by the

motherly maw of a tired earth.

Means sweet breezes passing overhead

amidst trees with pillared feet

that murmur green,

bent into forever-dance by

the wisdom of fires, trunk-skin mottled with spots

massaging wrinkles into our arms with old age.

When I press my palm close enough

to the skins                of leaves,

I can hear the songs in their veins.

I can hear them breathe.

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This week, I have been learning all about what it means to let go, to accept. So often, I feel that acceptance is seen is a negative sort of compromise, associated almost exclusively with bad happenings and situations. It’s like having to swallow a bitter medicine and just letting it sit in your stomach until the negativity dissipates with time. Now, I’m trying to re-learn to associate acceptance more with equanimity.

As a runner, it is hard for me to draw the line between acceptance and the feeling that “I can keep going” because running has led me to discover an enormous reserve of mental strength within myself. While training for all of my marathons, I never once took water on a run (honestly, because I didn’t feel like carrying it), and I usually wouldn’t eat breakfast before my morning runs. I would run 15-18 miles without stopping without water or food because I was so absorbed in the run – and partially because the cold distracted me from my thirst. This began to be a problem when I stopped getting enough sleep and was running 40-50 miles a week. Not only did my mile time become slower but I was tired and hungry all the time. My coach told me that I would incur an overtraining injury if I didn’t cut back and sleep more. I learned to accept that my body needed time to transition slowly, even if my mind was overeager and ready to run those long distances without sustenance. So I learned to carry food and water with me on my 20+ miles long runs. It learned that it’s not possible to force or push things to bend to the ego.

Acceptance is not only knowing when to change your outlook on a situation, though; it’s having undistilled and limitless compassion for yourself no matter how things go. I am taking a conducting class this semester and many of our assignments consist of writing up and practicing rehearsal plans with our classmates as makeshift choirs. Our first assignment was to come prepared to teach a Bach Chorale to the class in 5 minutes. I was very nervous at first, as I stepped up to the stand and began to assign everyone in the room parts. The thought came that “Everyone in this room wants you to do well. If you put in your best effort without expecting praise from your teacher, this in itself will be rewarding.” My conducting immediately took on a genuine, natural quality and the rehearsal flowed smoothly. My clarity of thought improved dramatically as well! My rehearsal certainly wasn’t perfect, but I did the best I could, received constructive feedback from my teacher, and more importantly, didn’t let the objectively bad part of my performance overshadow my desire for growth. I kept the key to my happiness in my own pocket.

I dream of becoming a physician (right now, a pediatric oncologist, although my interest may change) so that I can continue to practice this self-awareness daily and extend selfless service to others through my profession. Currently, I work as an scribe 16-20 hours a week alongside doctors in the Emergency Room. I already see how even-mindedness, ability to think clearly, and express myself calmly will be vital to interacting with and treating patients, especially in the event of delivering sensitive medical information. In emotionally malleable settings, it is all too easy to get caught up and swept away (there’s the wave metaphor of the mind again!) by attachments and feelings. Especially in the unpredictable setting of the ER, I have observed how various patients’ cases don’t progress according to plan, and the state of mind that doctors must maintain in order to reassess them to provide the best care they can give. There is no time for disappointment – only a focused attention to the task at hand, that single-pointed awareness.

A famous violinist once told me during a masterclass, “Don’t indulge so much in the music that you lose the ability to observe what you’re doing.” I was becoming so emotionally intertwined with the piece that my musical performance was becoming compromised. There’s a yogic balance between one’s worldly involvement and equanimous observation of that involvement (this reminds me of Virabhadrasana II – where the body becomes firmly grounded in the present, with arms stretching steadily from past into future), and it’s this balance that I am determined to practice.

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Waiting Spirit

I, 21 – tīvra samvegānām āsannah

“For those who have

an intense urge for Spirit

and wisdom

it sits near them, waiting.”

When I first heard Dr. Dwyer read Mukunda Stiles’ translation of I, 21 from the Yoga Sutras aloud, it was as if a spark flared up in my brain and all the neurons fired a synchronous “Aha!”. In the past week, I have seen the idea that creative and spiritual growth (which are very closely related for me, as a writer and a musician) requires discipline and intense awareness reaffirmed in many other spheres of my life, including the “yogic sphere.” As a writer, I have spent most of my creative life buying into the stereotypes that creativity hinges on inspiration, and that prolific writers are lucky because they receive frequent strokes of insight. I have learned that if you wait for the right time, it will never come – and thus I write regularly to train my mind. And so this sutra struck me particularly because it not only made me realize the parallels between these “practices,” but also it drew my attention to the fact that sustained discipline and wholehearted commitment are a necessity, not a choice, in this journey to realize the Self. So yes, “Spirit and wisdom…sit near [us], waiting” – but we must reach out and embrace that Spirit and wisdom with focused mind and open heart. We cannot expect divine bliss to grace us at some undetermined, unsure-of-when-to-come moment.

I have also been reflecting much on the idea of “non-attachment” lately. When I first came across this concept in the Gita in high school, it seemed impractical. After all, how could I do my dharma as a student, daughter, sister, and friend without being attached to anything – was I supposed to stop wishing to get good grades, grades that would help me acquire scholarships to help further my education…and thus help me continue my dharma as a student? This confusion continued somewhat into college; even in my Neural Systems course last semester, when we investigated behavioral neuroscience experiments, we concluded that a baseline level of stress is necessary and even beneficial to arousal and motivation. So many college students thrive on stress!

But there is a difference, I think, between “non-attachment” and “un-attachment”- un-attachment being rooted in tamas and unwillingness to participate in worldly affairs – and which seems, then, to be ultimately adharmic to me. And then there is “non-attachment”— which seems to be a state of character in which the Seeker still fulfills her responsibilities in the world of prakrti without preference for the result, and amidst this attitude of “Do your best and leave the rest,” still maintains a constant awareness of purusha. I expressed some confusion in class as to how one can realize the True Self without attachment to the Self. It is hard to imagine striving for a goal without desire for the result after being so ingrained in this world of attachment, likes, and dislikes. After some reflection, I feel this idea is most easily exemplified by bhakti – that attitude of complete and utter devotion and surrender to the Divine. I think of bhakti as a sort of flame within the Seeker that generates profuse, joyful love. That unconditional love has the selfsame quality of the love of my family’s golden retriever, who, even if he gets walked a little later than usual some mornings, never bears a grudge.

Continuing with the topic of bhakti – last Saturday (2/7) I had the good fortune to attend a performance entitled “Song of the Jasmine” by Ragamala Dance Company, a group of Bharatanatyam performers. In this work, the artists aimed to “explore the interconnectedness of the spiritual, the sensual, and the natural that is the lifeblood of the Indian psyche.” The various sections of the dance were inspired by selections from 8th century Tamil poet and saint Andal, who was so renowned for her Bhakti that she refused to marry any mortal man and was said to have merged with the Vishnu idol at the temple in Srirangam at just 15 years old. This description of bhakti in terms of physical desire and emotional affection seems so counterintuitive, since Andal’s poems read just like intimate words to a lover – but perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that the worlds of purusha and prakrti run parallel and entangled.

Perhaps this immersion of sense organs in what is ultimately a journey for Truth is another form of dhyana, of single-pointed awareness, simply expressed in the form of intense emotion through the instruments of the body and the mind. The lines between the sacred and the personal become wholly erased. In Nachiar Tirumozhi, Andal has written exquisitely:

“…the state of bliss attained by the total surrender of body, mind and soul, or Atma, to the Paramatman, or the Divine Existence. He has invaded my heart; and while I pine and sigh for his love, He looks on indifferent as if it were all a play. I feel as if my bones had melted away and my long javelin eyes have not closed their lids for these many days. I am tossed on the waves of the sea of pain without finding the boat that is named the Lord of the highest realm…If the blazing lord finds kindling of virtue, then he will reveal what’s outside himself inside me.”

As a final thought, I want to acknowledge in words that my jobs and schoolwork have really impinged on my asana practice in the past few weeks, since school began again. In acknowledging this, I will not berate myself but rather will resolve to make an effort to recommit to my practice (with the attitude that “Abhyasa vairagabhyam tannirodhah) beginning tomorrow. I am interested to learn about the “evolution” of asana – do we practice specific asanas in a certain order simply because of practicality (easier poses first) or is there a deeper underlying spiritual meaning to poses such as balasana? I have noticed in many yoga classes that teachers will often begin with balasana, then move to shavasana – to mirror the journey of the physical body, but I would like to do more research into the significance of the poses with animal names.

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Who does Yoga belong to?

Recently, I left a prominent fitness organization by the name of CHAARG after being a dedicated member for a good six months. Based out of Ohio, the movement aims at “Changing Health, Attitudes, and Actions to Recreate Girls” and has chapters all over the country. The organization has a large social media presence, especially on Instagram, where girls post fitness “before and after” photos, descriptions of their workouts, and pictures of food. Even though this didn’t feel like my true identity, I struggled to fit in and get others’ approval on Instagram with my daily posts, making sure to write in “the CHAARG voice” and use the “CHAARG hashtags.” There is a word for what I was doing called “code-switching.” Quitting this organization has provided me with so much relief already.

I had always felt a bit wary about CHAARG’s treatment of yoga, since I joined the organization (I also felt wary about lack of diversity and body positivity, but that is a different issue. The chapters are doing a great job of being inclusive, and I always felt welcomed by the girls on my campus, but I believe the national organization seriously needs to rethink its website organization by including pictures of girls across a variety of cultures – and even more importantly, needs to stop equating skinny with fit). I thought that this was just a silly misgiving I had. But this nagging feeling about how yoga was being exoticized, especially as I completely committed myself to a daily practice a month ago, would not go away. CHAARG created and popularized the “#CHAARGOM” hashtag, which was supposed to be synonymous with any type of relaxation. I felt strange about using it, especially when CHAARG released the “limited edition CHAARGOM tights” which placed the word “OM” – the most sacred word in Hinduism – on the “right back upper hip” (as CHAARG called it) which was really the butt. I voiced my concerns about the placement of Om and received the comment that “We wanted to put it on the ankles but there wasn’t enough space there.” I replied noting that placing “OM” near the feet wouldn’t be respectful either, and that I hoped to see some clarification, but I received no follow-up. I offered to write a blog post as well, but my offer was dismissed.

About a week ago, I stopped and thought – what am I doing? Why am I doing this if I don’t feel that this is a respectful treatment of my culture? I left CHAARG with an explanation of why I had chosen to withdraw. I received lots of support and some backlash as well – “you don’t own the word OM. You don’t own yoga. Why are you trying to bring down this organization?” Which was true, but it seemed insensitive and irrational to me that CHAARG didn’t even want to present yoga holistically. I received a comment from CHAARG itself that said “Please reach out to me if you ever want to talk about anything!” which was basically a way of covering the bases to look like a real response, without actually doing anything in response to my concerns at all. It felt as though CHAARG wanted to continue to fetishize this little sliver of Hindu culture – which was barely recognizable as Hindu culture anymore – without having to explain itself. Because, for some reason, it’s okay for appropriation to be that convenient.

The CHAARG chapter in my life is over, but until last week’s reading – especially that of “American Yoga: The Shaping of Modern Body Culture in the United States,” the question still persisted…who owns yoga? Did I assert something that I shouldn’t have asserted? Does yoga and Hindu spirituality as a whole need to be “decolonized”?

Clearly, yoga is a fluid practice that has become enmeshed with corporatization, colonization, and marginalization, but it has taken on new identities, especially in the United States. So why does it make me uncomfortable when I see Under Armour ambassador Shauna Harrison telling me to “Put a little bass in your chakra. Go hard + go OM!” or when I am the only girl of Indian descent in a yoga class? Or when the entire soundtrack to my class is of a clearly non-Indian person struggling to croon Sanskrit chants?

I came to my mat early this morning as the sky was still a sleepy purple-blue and the rain was pitter-pattering gently on the pavement. I realized today that many people recognize a binary with the West being devoid of spirituality and the East being the hub of Truth. Yoga is a concrete reminder that this isn’t altogether true. I believe strongly in knowing the history of my practice rather than just doing isolated asana. In this regard, it is important to know the context of the work of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (who popularized Ashtanga yoga) and even earlier, of Swami Vivekananda, who first brought Vedantic philosophy to American soil when he spoke at the 1893 Parliament of Religions – thus spurring the growth of Hatha Yoga. Yoga as a physical practice has not come to us untouched through an unbroken line of isolated, sacred history – although I would argue that it has been sustained through the careful work of saints, sages, and gurus such as Swami Sivananda.

The bottom line is that it’s easy to look outside of one’s own marred and even traumatic history, to use another culture for healing and salvation. In the “yoga-sphere” in America, I still get the feeling that the Hindu culture is more attractive in the studio, more desired than Indian people itself. It’s funny because this type of thinking is almost anthithetical to the yoga philosophy, which encourages one to look inward for the Truth. That is one of the reasons why I would like to deepen my practice enough to become a yoga teacher one day, to extend this holistic understanding of yoga and its complicated history to others eager to learn.

I have CHAARG to thank for spurring me to leave that uncomfortable spiritual limbo and for inspiring me to return to my study of the Gita again, as I am especially eager to explore the Vedantic teachings of yoga (not just Hatha Yoga) and to put these into real-life practice.

OM sarve bhavantu sukinah

Sarve santu nir-aamayaah

Sarve bhadraanipashyantu

Maa Kashchid-duhkha-bhaag-bhaveth

 

May all be happy.

May all be healthy.

May all seek auspiciousness.

May none suffer.

OM shantih shantih shantih