Class Notes, Week 3: The gunas

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is that weekly assignment.

I have been feeling pretty unorganized, something that doesn’t sit well with those of us carrying a Type A chip.  The teacher training program has unleashed an avalanche of new knowledge, and there is no all-in-one manual that preserves everything as a reference — not yet anyway.  Information is scattered among handouts distributed in class, reference guides posted to the Moksha intranet and my handwritten notes.

I suspect that how we harness all of this information is part of the unspoken challenge.  While I enjoy challenges, I also like being rescued, damsel-in-distress style.  Enter my knight in shining armor: Kinko’s.

To preserve my organizational sanity, I took the advice of Carolyn Dale, our program counselor, and printed out every single reference/study guide sheet posted on the Moksha Intranet.  I then asked Kinko’s to bind it all into four books: Asanas; Meditation & Pranayama; Elements; Ayurveda; and Sutras of Patanjali.  It took several hours, lots of patience and a few ink cartridges.  But oh, what a difference this has made to my psyche!  Today, I was able to flip to specific asana guides as they were taught in class, which allowed me to focus on the lesson and instruction versus feverishly scribbling notes.  (Well, I still took notes.  I was just more laid-back about it.)

Although I may have killed a small tree with my aggressive printing, these binders will enable me to better serve humanity someday.  This helps me get over any “green” guilt.

Here’s a peek at some of my materials for the teacher training program. (Yes, coloring is among my homework assignments.) My Kinko’s binders are at the bottom.

As I printed out these hundreds and hundreds of pages, I got a sneak peek into all of the knowledge that will be imparted (and hopefully retained) by the end of this program.  One of the lessons that intrigued me during the marathon printing session was taught during today’s class: the gunas.

The gunas are primal qualities that reside in all things, existing in varying proportions.  They aren’t measurable or able to be seen under a microscope — so perhaps hardened scientists would roll their eyes at this.  But stop and think about the nature of people, specifically, and this absolutely makes sense.

The three gunas are:

  • Rajas: the energy of activity and movement
    Stimulates action / vinyasa
    When in excess, it creates anxiety
  • Tamas: the energy of stability and mass
    Promotes grounding / asana
    When in excess, it creates lethargy
  • Sattva: the energy of peace, balance and clarity
    Exudes calm
    No such thing as “excess” satva

Clearly, the goal is to enhance sattva.  After all, who doesn’t want peace, balance and clarity?  (I would like to meet the person who doesn’t and ask them … “Why?”)

The reality with humans is we tend to skew either more rajas or more tamas – either innate in our personality, or when thrust into certain situations.  There are pros and cons to both qualities, depending on how they are aligned in combination with each other.

I immediately can think of five people who are “heavy” with rajas.  If I’m being honest, I should put myself into this group, too.  The act of putting together several binders for this class is an exhibit of my rajas persuasion.  So is any self-created anxiety, a by-product of excessive rajas.

Daren asked us to observe the gunas in people, places and things over this next week.  And were encouraged to do so without judgment, of course.  I’m going to be mindful of this, and notice how I react (or don’t react) to whatever arises with people around me.

To be continued …

Update:  I spent the past several days on a work trip in San Francisco.  It was an exhausting trip — but one where I had a heightened awareness to the energy types sprinkled about me, as well as the type of energy that I was sprinkling into the world.

The most interesting observations were at the O’Hare and San Francisco airports.  Both are full of hustle and bustle (rajas), with high-strung people dashing to catch a flight or flaring up at security when their bags are flagged for additional inspection.  I tried not to let all of this activity create unnecessary anxiety within me.

My favorite observation: Amidst this swirl of airport motion, there was a clearly labeled oasis of calm … a yoga room!  (OK, there’s judgment in ranking it a favorite.  So be it.)

Yoga (sattva) amidst the chaos of the San Francisco airport (rajas).

Quote: Sept. 26, 2012

“I just bought some really cool eyeshadow for my third eye.”
~ Shit Yogis Say

When I need a laugh, I watch this clip.  (Click it!  Even if you don’t practice yoga!)

And this week, laughter has been a wonderful healing balm to work-related stress.  Oh, boy, have I been stressed at work lately.  More than I need to be, should be, ought to be.  Thank goodness I adore the people with whom I work, at least those who physically sit around me and can help bring me back to neutral.

And, of course: Thank goodness for the people who produce silly little clips such as this and post them to You Tube.  Even if those people work for a company that charges $80 for yoga pants.

Class Notes, Week 2: Teaching my parents

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is that weekly assignment.

The program pace is picking up.  This past week involved a lot of memorization, reading, yoga practice and coloring of anatomy charts – all squeezed into pockets of time when I wasn’t engrossed in the responsibilities of my full-time job.

My time management skills are being put to the ultimate test.  So far, I give myself a B+/A-.

While I’m grateful that this program forces me to put work “to bed” each night (and on the weekends), I hope that my personal pace can withstand fatigue or burnout.  I also want to ensure that I’m leaving room for family, friends and cultivating new relationships.  I don’t want to turn into that girl who gets sucked into her yoga community, similar to how an infatuated young girl might cling to a new boyfriend and forget her good friends.  “Oh, Erica is too busy with yoga tonight.  Whatever.  Don’t bother inviting her.”

One great way to stay plugged into my family and friends is by sharing my education with them – and putting theory into practice.  After all, who doesn’t like a free yoga class?  (Aside from the uber-macho male.)  Plus, at this weekend’s training, Daren encouraged us to start teaching outside of class.

I decided that my first lesson would be with the most supportive people I know: my parents.

My parents are also ideal because they do not practice yoga.  During these past few weeks, I’ve been working with limber peers who know their basic poses and proper alignment.  My parents, on the other hand, don’t know sukhasana from savasana.  And, they’re not young – relatively speaking, of course.  At 59 and 60, respectively, my mom and dad are baby boomers with achy joints and tight hamstrings.  The perfect beginners!

Another unique challenge: My mom is stroke survivor with limited mobility and aphasia.  This means her speech is extremely limited, and her cognitive ability is questionable.  Patience and a slow pace are a must all of the time with her.  This morning’s practice, however, opened my eyes to just how little she is able to process when it comes to basic communication.  Yoga classes require attention/response to verbal cues.  My mom just wasn’t good at this – not without watching me demo a few times, or without me physically guiding her into the correct position.  This was heart breaking, but motivates me to want to work with her even more …

I arrived at my parents’ condo at 6:15 a.m., carrying two mats and a relatively loose idea of the practice structure.  I wasn’t expecting much, so my intention was to keep it basic-basic-basic.  By keeping it simple, this would also help me hone basic cueing skills.

Ultimately, this is what I included in our practice:

  • Sukhasana + Anapanasati (breathing)
  • Four movements of the spine in Sukhasana
  • Table, Cat/Dog
  • Chakra Vakrasana
  • Tadasana
  • Savasana

What I observed over the course of this 40-minute mini-lesson:

  • I liked telling my parents what to do!
  • Slowing down my speech helped me process my thoughts better, and it slowed down the pace of class.  This made things clearer for my parents aka my students.
  • I’m sure I heard this before from another teacher:  While in seated, I used the analogy of a marionette on a string, being pulled from the top of the head, to articulate the lift of the chest of lower back ribs. Not sure if it’s a “proper” cue, but it helped to reinforce the lift and eliminate the back rounding.  I noticed an immediate change in my parents’ postures, for the better.  That was gratifying.
  • I gave my parents time to focus on their breath and allowed them opportunity to play around with cat/dog on their own, moving with their breath.  (My dad really took to this; not surprised, given his study of TM.)
  • Demos were critical when we got to vinyasa, i.e. Chakra Vakrasana.  They saw the sequence and watched me exaggerate the breath movement before doing it themselves.
  • I got hung up on the inhale/exhale cues during Chakra Vakrasana.  I sometimes found myself cueing inhale when it should have been exhale, and vice versa.
  • I used Sanskrit once: to name Tadasana (as in “Ta-da!  Good morning, sun!”).  It’s the way I remember the name of the pose, so why not pass it on?
  • You don’t need a lot of poses to fill a practice.  Focusing on a few key poses or vinyasas, and going slowly, can be just as effective.  It was for my parents.
  • My mom has really tight hips, and it hurts to keep pressure on her right hand for too long.  Modifications will be necessary.  As will lots of demos, done with incredible patience.
  • My dad has a rounded back in downward dog.  (I don’t know how to give adjustments for this yet.)  We didn’t stay in downward dog beyond the C.V. flow.  But I already know that this is a pose I can work on with him.

I am extremely grateful that my parents were students in my first yoga class.  Not only was it helpful to practice with people who won’t cast immediate judgment on my fumbles … but it also turned out to be a wonderful memory.  The memory carried me through what would have otherwise been a highly stressful day at work.

The lingering thing that bothers me, however, is what was magnified with my mom: Her ability to process what people say to her, and subsequently the world around her, is worse than I realized.  Much worse.

Cosmic blueprints

My neighborhood Starbucks has a thing for horoscopes.  The baristas rip out the daily horoscope section of the Chicago Sun-Times and place it on the counter where drinks are fetched.  It’s a fun thing to read while waiting for my overpriced pumpkin spice latte (non-fat milk, no whip).  I never take the message too seriously, but sometimes those little blurbs seem to fit with what’s happening in my life.

Here’s what Astrologer Georgia Nicols writes today:

Leo (July 23 – Aug. 22)
Fasten your seatbelts because your daily pace will accelerate in the next six weeks. You’ll be busy with short trips, running errands and talking to everyone. Many of you will be reading and writing more than usual as well. Get out and get the buzz from everyone!

The key parts that resonate for me: “your daily pace will accelerate in the next six weeks” and “you will be reading and writing more than usual.”  Both are true.  My pace and has begun to pick up with the introduction of the yoga teacher training, coupled with mounting work responsibilities and deadlines.  The training has also inspired a lot of new reading and writing — including the birth of this blog.

As I connect these life dots, however, I pause.  Am I making this message apply to my life?  Or does some cosmic truth exist in the blurb by Georgia Nicols, a woman who’s never met me?  Why couldn’t this same message apply to my Pisces or Capricorn friends, too?  Can this horoscope 100-percent apply to each and every Leo out there?

The rational part of me — and this part of me still tends to dominate — shakes its head.  Georgia doesn’t know me as a unique individual.  Grab the pumpkin spice latte, Erica, and move on.

An ancient practice in which I do have more faith: astrology.  Most people confuse horoscopes and astrology as being the same thing.  Not so.  The horoscopes you see at the grocery checkout and in the back of women’s magazines as a very superficial study of astrology, and often inaccurate — albeit entertaining.

Astrology, on the other hand, is a 9,000-year-old science that focuses on the individual via a unique birth chart. This is based on the date, exact time and exact location of your birth.  For each person, there is a cosmic connection to the sun, moon, planets and stars that triggers specific pre-determinations.  Astrologers are able to determine specific traits and inclinations — and in the case of Vedic astrology even make predictions — based on your chart.

In other words, I’m more than just a “Leo.”

Although I don’t profess to be an expert on astrology, I did grow up with it.  From a young age, it was common to see astrological charts and books littered around my dad’s basement library and reading area.  One day, as a young teen, I was snooping around this area and stumbled upon my birth chart.  It was a large binder with astrological symbols on the cover – and my name on it.  This was a book about ME!  What would it say?  Would it unlock my future?  Would it tell me everything I need to know about my life?  Including when I’d marry, how many kids I’d have and when I’d die?  After making sure that my dad wasn’t around, I sat down and opened up this tome of Erica.  But I couldn’t get past the third or fourth page.  I didn’t want to know about me.  Not this way.  I was scared to have the cosmic blueprint of whatever resided inside this book affect my future, my choices, my free will.  So I closed it, put it back and walked away.

Twenty years later, I walked into the office of a Vedic astrologer in New Delhi – ignoring the fear that forced me to close that “tome of Erica” as a teen.  And wow, this woman nailed me.  She even told me with complete confidence, based on the chart in front of her, how many kids I’d have, or wouldn’t have.  (I’ll save the story of this mystical encounter for another time, perhaps after seeing if some of these Vedic predictions are realized.)

I’m not sure if my decision to see a Vedic astrologer was “good” or “bad” — or perhaps written into my life blueprint somewhere.  But the intense experience did reaffirm my appreciation for astrology as something more than New Age mumbo jumbo.  Way more.

Horoscopes, on the other hand — I find them entertaining, but nothing more.  With respect to Georgia Nicols’ horoscope for Leos today, I’m going to take an unscientific poll among friends to see how her message resonates with them, without telling them it was written specifically for Leos …

Update:  I brought the horoscope blurb to a bar tonight and asked a few people, “Without knowing which zodiac sign this is meant for, does this apply to your life?”  All four people — none of whom are Leos — found a phrase or component of the message that worked into their current life experience.  Just as expected.  What I didn’t expect was one of my friends asking if I was considering taking up a career as a horoscope writer.  Oh, please.

Quote: Sept. 19, 2012

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds.”
~ Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”

I try to play the guitar each night before going to bed, and “Redemption Song” is one of my favorite songs to sing.  Imagine it: a tall white girl sitting cross-legged on her bed, singing a Bob Marley tune.  It’s kind of funny, right?

But there’s a special truth in this specific line that leads me to play this song over and over and over again.  I feel a surge of power when I get to these words.  My voice becomes stronger, clearer, more confident.  I’m singing it to myself, for myself.  It’s an affirmation, courtesy of Bob Marley — sung without the Jamaican reggae accent.

There’s a sweet irony to this line when it comes to my relationship with the guitar, too.  For years, I longed for the ability to pick up a guitar and strum with the easy coolness of a 1970’s singer-songwriter.  But I “never had time” so it remained “something I wish I could do.”  I mentally blocked myself.  Emancipation came in the months leading up to my 30th birthday, when I vowed to do 30 new things.  One of those new things: learn how to play the guitar.  I signed up for beginner guitar lessons at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music … and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” was one of the first songs I learned how to play.

My first guitar recital.

Class Notes, Week 1: Diving in

The Moksha yoga teacher training program requires me to journal once each week about my experience with the poses and assignments + my practice and progress. This is that weekly assignment.

My favorite yoga teachers make it look so easy.  After spending this past weekend learning yoga fundamentals — which included a swirl of Sanskrit terms, anatomy and how to cue “basic” yoga poses — I am already in awe of what they are able to distill and articulate in a one- to two-hour class.  I have so much to learn.  So, so, so much.  It’s humbling and exciting at the same time.  The eager part of me wants to absorb everything at once and get this thing started; the practical side of me recognizes that this is going to be a very long road and patience must be practiced.  In this case, practicality (and patience) needs to prevail.

Although I originally signed up for this program with a so-so desire to actually teach-teach yoga upon its completion, I’m already noticing a shift in this assumption.  During this first weekend’s lesson and training, we were thrown into the fire and asked to teach anapanasati (“mindfulness breathing”), plus asanas such as adho mukha savasana (downward dog) and the cat/dog vinyasa.  Nothing like putting theory into practice on the first day, after just a few hours of discussion!  It certainly gave me a jolt of anxiety.  It also gave me a sneak peek into something exciting: I like teaching yoga.

It just wasn’t clear that first day.  I was terrible.  And so nervous.  We were paired up with our fellow teacher trainees to teach.  There was comfort in this, as we’re all inexperienced and all a little (or a lot) nervous.  Yet I still fumbled while trying to stay “on script” with my first two teaching attempts: guiding anapanasati and articulating the four movements of the spine in table pose.  I clung to the piece of paper in front of me with both attempts.  I was thinking too hard about what to say and when to say and how to say it.  How do I instruct the positioning of the hands?  When do I guide the inhale?  The exhale?  How many different ways can I ask open-ended questions about the breath?  Why do I sound so foolish?  Too much thinking!  To much thinking!  I am terrible at this.

The second day I eased up a little bit, giving myself permission to loosen up on the pseudo-script in front of me.  Instead, I concentrated on helping to guide my student — versus focusing on selecting the “right” words and worrying that I was throwing all of the “necessary“ instruction into my dialogue.  This was easier.  Not easy.  Just easier.  I  need study and practice, lots of it, to help me become more knowledgeable, concise and confident.  Having the one-on-one instruction from the teaching assists definitely helps, along with an honest trainee teaching partner who isn’t afraid to bruise my ego with constructive criticism.  While I still wasn’t great with this third teaching attempt, my confidence increased a sliver — and that small improvement felt like a huge victory.  Plus, I actually enjoyed explaining the mini-lessons to my partner when guiding her through down dog.  That made the moment even sweeter.

Some key learnings for me when it comes to teaching:

  • First, name the next pose in the practice. (blueprint)  Second, give the alignment. (lay the foundation)  Third, give the action. (build the house)
  • When explaining the alignment and/or action, pepper in the benefit of that specific alignment or pose.
  • Don‘t speak too much, let the student process and experience.  (“Do a couple of rounds on your own.”)
  • When demonstrating, exaggerate what not to do.
  • Key words to help a student internalize: “notice” and “feel.”
  • Encourage a student to experience without judging.  Awareness is key.
  • Remind the student to breathe.  (“Come back to your breath.”)
  • It’s easier for me to guide and give cues when I am practicing the pose alongside the student.  I can see what I am doing and interpret/translate better.

What has helped to enhance these preliminary lessons is putting it into outside practice.  I attended a few Moksha classes this weekend, outside of the teacher training program, and definitely paid more attention to how the teachers were cuing.  I also incorporated things I learned into my practice, such as adjusting my downward dog and reciting the translation in my head: “Bend the elbows out to the side, wrap the elbows in, straighten the arms.”  I hope that my outside practices don’t always turn into one giant learning lab, as I don’t want to lose the ability to get lost in personal practice … but I have a feeling I’ve already jumped down the hole that makes me forever a student-teacher.

In sum, it was an energizing first weekend of training and reinforced my commitment to continue.  I just need to let things sink in naturally, practice as much as possible and allow myself to make mistakes.  Lots of them.  I really liked Daren’s analogy for us: As new students, we’re like a well-water faucet that’s been turned on for the first time.  The water at first is going to come out a brownish color.  But let it run for a while, and it will eventually begin to flow crystal clear.

The opening circle

Whenever I casually tell people at work that I’m starting classes again, those who don’t know me have asked, “Oh, are you getting your MBA?”  My response: “No, I’m not interested in getting my MBA.  I’m beginning a year-long yoga teacher training program.”  The usual response back: “Oh, that’s nice.”

This happened to me again today.  Sigh.  I’m confident that some — perhaps many — people in my corporate work world view this venture as a “cool hobby” rather than a vocational program that will ultimately prove beneficial in ways that an MBA never could.  After all, I plan to treat this program with the same vigor and dedication that any MBA student would treat her courses – I just won’t end the program with a degree that should triple my salary.

I can’t impose my views on others, of course.  It’s frustrating, however, to feel like something so valuable to me – and something that could prove immensely valuable to my co-workers – isn’t shown a similar respect.  So it goes.

That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to meet the other 25 (or so) yoga teacher trainees tonight: I wanted to learn a bit about their backgrounds, and revel in our common enthusiasm.

At tonight’s “opening circle,” we all sat in a circle and shared our name, background and intention for the program.   There were no candles or incense, no drums or guitars, no holding of the hands.  (Some of this I anticipated.)  What was exposed: really cool diversity in our class.

There is a husband and wife duo going through the program together.  There is an ex-football player.  An ex-Marine (female).  A former attorney who has also planned high-profile events at the White House.  A nanny.  A woman who recently quit her job and spent several weeks at an ashram in India.  A handful of people who are disillusioned with corporate life (but haven’t quit their jobs yet).  A children’s yoga teacher.  An elementary school teacher.  A few recent college graduates still figuring out the career thing.  And a mother and son duo – the son is in seventh grade, the youngest teacher trainee ever at Moksha.

It was intriguing to hear the little bits of life story shared by each person.  I don’t remember all of the specifics, but look forward to learning everyone’s story on a deeper level in time.  The common thread that strung together everyone’s intention for entering the program: a desire to help others discover a path that’s transformed each of our lives for the better.

It will be fun to watch how we all evolve over the next year.

Jumping in the Ganges

I traveled to India on a yoga pilgrimage in January of 2012.  This journey changed me, just as close family and intuitive friends had predicted.  Although I was prepared for some subtle shift in perspective, I didn’t anticipate how intense a teacher India would be.

One of her greatest lessons: the art of letting go.

The ability to surrender — to the good, the bad and everything in between — really is an art best learned through experience.  Books don’t teach it.  Classes don’t teach it.  Letting go is not something that blossoms from intellect and years of careful study.  In fact, intellect has often held me back.  Intellect resists surrender.  It resists change without process.  It wants to register, analyze and dissect.  Intellect is what made me an A+ student.  It’s what propelled me as a journalist chasing stories.  It’s what drove me to over-analyze all of my relationships.  Still does.

When I landed in India, however, I didn’t have time for this sort of rational thinking.  At first, the sights, smells and disorganization of the place frustrated me — to the point of tears.  But with time, my perspective shifted.  It needed to.  The dizzying environment that once frustrated the hell out of me transformed into a beautiful ballet of humanity, and I could either resist or participate in the dance.  I chose to dance.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the seismic shift in perspective happened — that mystical moment when I gave myself permission to “let go” and surrender to the life around me.  But no act personifies this transformation more than when I jumped in the Ganges.

Yes, I jumped in the Ganges.  And no, I’m not crazy.

I plunged into one of the most infamously polluted rivers in the world.  A river in which millions of Indians bathe, defecate, bury their dead, wash their clothes and dump their trash.  The color of the water is sewage-soaked brown in many cities lining its banks — not exactly an enticing invitation for a swim or eco-friendly laundry session.  Every single guide book I read before traveling to India warned me to avoid direct contact with it, unless I was in a boat or walking over it on a bridge.  Knowing all of this, and seeing the not-so-crystal-clear waters flowing downstream, I still chose to jump in.  It’s the exact opposite of what pre-India Erica would have done.

But here I was in India, doing my best to live in the present.  And the Ganges inspired a curiosity in which I chose to indulge.  I just couldn’t shake this question: How could a river so disgusting be so revered?  In Hindu mythology, the river is a goddess whose waters purify the soul.  Looking at its filthy color, you’d think no “purifying” could ever take place.  Yet each morning, devout Hindus come to her banks to pray and cleanse their souls.  I witnessed this while in Rishikesh, a peaceful town at the foot of the Himalayas where cows, monkeys and yogis rule its winding dirt roads.  After morning yoga practice, I would walk along the banks of Ganga Ma, as the locals called her, and watch with wonder and quiet reverence as women in rainbow-colored saris and men in dusty cottons would toss marigolds into the river.  Some of the faithful would then sit in silence, meditating.  Others would chant ancient Sanskrit mantras, the melodies intertwining with the rhythm of the wind.  A handful would jump into the river, immersing their bodies repeatedly, like a pogo stick, up and down, up and down, up and down.

I asked why the men did this, and learned that it’s a ceremonial cleansing of the body, mind and spirit.  A few fellow yoga pilgrims wanted to participate in this ritual and asked me to join.  I treated that question as a rhetorical one, answering with an eye roll.  Of course my answer was no.  Hell no.

Irony had an unexpected way of tapping me on the shoulder repeatedly while in India, however.  After a few days of sinking into the rhythm of Rishikesh, absorbing the spirit of its people and embracing the traditions of Hinduism, I changed my mind.

Or, perhaps it’s better said this way: Hushing the mind changed me.

There was a pull, an unexpected and irresistible pull.  It tugged from deep within and triggered an exhilarating mix of excitement and fear, about 100 times stronger than the butterflies I used to experience before a gymnastics competition.  I would gaze at the river on my way to the market or from the yoga studio, and wonder what it felt like to be enveloped by those waters.  As esoteric as this may sound, the river was calling me.  And I couldn’t fight it.  So I stopped being rational and relying on Western intellect.  I let go, and answered the call.

It was chilly the morning of the leap.  With a breakfast of bananas and chai warm in my belly, I walked down to the banks of the Ganges with six other yoga pilgrims.  All women, we were dressed conservatively — knees and shoulders covered, to respect the cultural norms of Hindu women.  We also wanted to avoid the stares and camera phone clicks of the local Indian men.

We found a remote part of the river away from curious onlookers, where the water was relatively clean.  Since Rishikesh is closer to the river’s source, the water here was nowhere near as polluted as it was further south — and thank goodness for this, otherwise I may have had second thoughts.

We were each carrying a handful of fresh marigolds to present as an “offering” to Ganga Ma.  I cradled mine in my hands, knowing that in a few minutes they would be floating downstream, and I would be in the water.  The butterflies in my stomach started fluttering.  Anxiety and doubt surfaced.  Should I do this?  Why am I doing this?  Do I want to do this?  Am I trying to prove something?  Can I sneak back to my room without anyone noticing?

While this swirling mental chatter has a history of creating hesitation, it failed to put me on pause this time.  I let go of the intellect, closed my eyes and let my heart guide.  I was taking the plunge.  Literally, and figuratively.  It was a sweet feeling of surrender.  This is what letting go felt like.  And it felt … right.

I opened my eyes and knelt before the Ganges, this holy river with an ugly reputation.  I tossed the marigolds as I offered up a silent intention to a river that, at that moment, was the most beautiful thing in the world.  Then I jumped.  An icy electric current shot through my body as I immersed myself completely, then resurfaced three times.  Up and down, up and down, up and down.  Holy crap, the water was cold.  It was also intensely invigorating.  It inspired a sensation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.  Volts of energy shot through me.  I felt so alive.  So completely alive.  I’ve never felt that alive before.

I emerged from the water feeling victorious and full of life energy.  I shot my hands into the air, shouting praises of gratitude toward the sky.  This photo (see below) taken by a fellow yogi captures this moment.  It’s one of the happiest moments of my life.  It was a baptism into the same world, but with a new lens — one that would make life a little bit easier.

Tough times still creep up, so don’t let me lead you to believe I’m some above-everything yoga chick.  I’m not perfect.  Far from it.  But I recall this moment at the Ganges whenever I need the confidence to plunge into something that, at first, may frighten me or may be something I don’t understand.

I take a deep breath and just … let go.  There’s only so much you can control or rationalize.  If you don’t take the plunge, you’re not living.


Aadil Palkhivala: Dharma and the heart

Definition of DHARMA (according to Merriam-Webster)
1.   Hinduism : an individual’s duty fulfilled by observance of custom or law
2.   Hinduism & Buddhism
a : the basic principles of cosmic or individual existence : divine law
b : conformity to one’s duty and nature

Oh, how I hate this definition.  For me, it doesn’t capture the beautiful essence of what dharma is.  I get hung up on a word used twice: “duty.”  The connotation of that word implies a hardship, action that may lack passion, even a potential dislike for what you’re doing.  I’m sure the word doesn’t resonate with everyone in this way.  Unfortunately, my maternal grandparents, who were always characterized as “duty-driven” by my own parents, never seemed happy.  And dharma, to me, is a positive mission.  Therein lies my perspective thanks to childhood conditioning.  So it goes.

A definition that I do love comes from Aadil Palkhivala, a respected master teacher with oodles of yogi accolades.  In his book “Fire of Love,” he says dharma is “my unique mission, the intention of my individual spirit, my soul’s purpose for choosing my body.”

A much lovelier descriptive, no?

Tonight I attended a talk given by Aadil.  I didn’t go expecting to find any answers to help me immediately unlock my own dharma; it was pure curiosity coupled with an open heart.  The same poetic prose found in that book, I witnessed in person with its author.  Aadil is a stocky bald man with a gentle demeanor and lovely Indian accent.  He didn’t sport crimson robes, wear mala beads or project an arrogant, holier-than-thou attitude.  He wore a button-down shirt, slacks and a smile.  He chose his words thoughtfully.  And in true yogi form, he opened and closed the talk with three AUMs.  I love the immediately calming effect of that ritual.

The talk drifted into esoteric territory at times — that, or I didn’t consume enough caffeine to keep me alert after a long day at work.  However, when the subject matter is “dharma,” it’s not going to be as mindlessly straightforward as an US Weekly story.

Of everything that was discussed, my biggest take-away was Aadil’s guidance on decisions — and how to choose the “right” decision suited to your dharma.  When at a crossroad, his instructions are simple: 1) Find a quiet place to meditate; 2) Spend time with the fingers of your right hand at the heart center; and 3) Go inside yourself, hush the brain and ask the Question.  When you feel an opening and expansion in the heart based on a choice being considered, that is the direction you take.  When a possible choice causes your heart to contract and close, that is not the right decision.

In short: Follow your heart.

How often have I heard this!  From my parents, in movies, on Hallmark cards.  It’s such a simple piece of advice, yet so hard to take — and sometimes difficult to reveal, given the often-times deafening chatter of the brain.  Trying to answer the question “What is your heart’s desire?” can be complicated by pragmatism, societal norms and expectations, family conditioning, guilt, fear.  Too much thinking, in other words.

Follow the heart.  Duh.

I liken this advice to following your first instinct.  Does something make you immediately cringe with disgust or fear or (negative) anxiety?  Or, does it make your heart sing?  Make you feel energized?  At least for me, my first instinct is usually “right” — even though I inevitably will draw out the decision-making process by listing the pros/cons and weighing every conceivable, possible, hypothetical angle.  (It’s tough to completely let go of the Type A.  I’m working at it.  Baby steps!)  Ironically, I do recognize the practical nature of that first instinct.  When a friend of mine was considering a job shift recently, I asked him: “What was your first reaction to the offer?”  He paused and made a face.  Before he could verbalize an answer, I told him that I saw the answer in his body language.

Listen to your heart.

I vow to hush the mind and do that more often.  After all, decisions made with the heart, not necessarily the mind, have led me to amazing life milestones …

My heart led me to India. It wasn’t “wise” to spend the money or take a month off work. But it was the most rewarding experience of my life so far.