Monday, November 23, 2015

I Am That
I Am.......That......I Am

The Adventures of the Little Droplet

A Good-night story for our Children
and not-so-Grown-ups
(made up on the spot by Mona Van Vooren)

On a balmy Sunday morning, a pretty little cloud sailed blissfully across the azure skies above a little town, on the sea shores somewhere on Planet Earth. It was made up of the finest, most subtle particles of vapors, all suspended above the city and swirling blissfully around each other. They were so fine that one could not distinguish one from any other. And they were so light that they could easily sail along on a breeze, carefree and unattached. They all had a good, fun collective time traveling along.

Eventually, they reached a big mountain side, so they began to climb. Higher and higher they rose, and the more they climbed the colder it got around our little, blissful cloud nation. Finally, the air around them turned so cold that they all huddled closer together. And before long, they realized that some transformation was about to take place inside the cloud: they noticed that they were no longer so vaporous, they were actually forming bigger entities. These bigger entities turned from vapor to liquid, and as they gathered more substance, turned into droplets. Suddenly, they started to slide away from their cloud home.

One such droplet, called Lil' Droplet, realized that it could not hold on to the cloud anymore at all. It tumbled and began to rush through the air, towards the land beneath. The wind seized it and tossed it about, pressing it into a streak, then again hollowing it out like the shape of an open umbrella. Lil' Droplet had quite a ride with so many intense sensations, as it kept hurling ever downward to the green lands below, still quite far away! It heard thunder roar all about, above and way to the horizon, then it saw blinding lizards of intense light flash all over the skies, which filled it up with enormous energy. “Yeeehaaaa!!!” it screamed amidst the thunder and storm. It tumbled and twirled, and sometimes the gusts of storm carried it back upwards for a short moment, like on a roller-coaster. Lil' Droplet held itself together, as best it could, which at times was quite difficult. “Where am I going? What is happening to me? Who am I? Why am I no longer vapor? What will become of me?” All these questions danced through its consciousness, but it could not sort any of them out, as it was too busy just paying attention to the exhilarating ride, which seemed endless.

By now, it had come down quite a bit, and it could make out meadows and houses and trees, and all of them were getting bigger very rapidly. At the last moment, a strong, sweeping gush of air carried it way to the side, barely past a very high steeple, and out, over the big ocean off the coast. Our droplet had never seen anything like it: It was so wide, so blue, and so very majestic!

“What is this big thing?” it wondered, “looks like I am going to fall right into it!” Our little droplet felt very concerned about its fate. It had no idea what would become of it, or how it could survive if it ever hit that big, wondrous, blue expanse below.

At last, and, with a big splash, Lil Droplet landed on the surface of the ocean's swaying waves. And, as it began to sink into the water and mingle with it, suddenly, everything became very clear and simple for it. “Oh, how wonderful”, it marveled, “I just blend in!” It felt so good to join the ocean waters. “I am That!” It jubilated! “I am exactly that!” and it knew that it had found it's home place and true nature. “I am that. I can also be a droplet, or I can be vapors in a cloud. But regardless of what I do whenever I want to transform, I am always that.”

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Thoughts on my Practice: To Thine Own Self Be True....

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Shakespeare, Hamlet

Good old William must have been quite the yogi at heart, and maybe he did not ever think that he was. Lately, and without intending to, I seem to be channeling him every day. I don't recall that this has ever happened to me before. But, I'll let it be. There must be some message in it to behold and to treasure, for sure!

Now then, what is it that yogis can take from the above quote? What am I taking from it?

On the mat, this was one of the first things I came to understand: I can only be who I am at any given moment, while I practice. My body will do what it can, and if I apply all my attention and care to the exercise, it will do it the best it can. That is all. It is my contribution to my growth at that very moment. I honor it, accept it and savor it for whatever it is, right there, right then. Tomorrow will be another day. I live only in the Now of this posture, everything else falls away into Nirvana.... non-existence. I am talking to my body and it talks to me. I discover that the two sides of my body are not equally made: one is subtler and more bendable, the other stronger, but also more rigid. There is not such a big difference, but it is enough to be noticeable. I am alright with that. The human body is not symmetric naturally: We have one heart, and while it sits in the ribcage centered before the spinal column, it is somewhat inclined sideways, its tip pointing to the left ribcage. The liver sits on the right side, the spleen occupies the left, just to name a few organs. Of course, we also have organs in pairs, such as the kidneys, the eyes, ears.... but even so, they are not clones of each other, showing physical differences of size or orientation. All this to show that asymmetry is a natural phenomenon in our human body.
We can add to that the effects of living: sitting all day at our office desk, driving around in a car for hours, slumping forward while staring at the computer screen, standing without much movement in the same spot for hours, on hard and cold floors, and so on. We may also bear the scars of past and present traumas in our muscular and skeletal structures: old sports injuries, car and other accidents, disease – sometimes self-inflicted, as when we smoke or practice unhealthy eating habits for most of our lives.
Even seemingly “invisible” events leave their mark on us: the loss of a child, a parent or any other loved one, abusive life situations, where our trust has been betrayed, depression or other mental struggles.
We are the sum of all of these factors, and we need to honor that. To thy own self be true.
I had some terrible accidents before I was 20 years young. They all involved injuries to my spine. Luckily, my muscular condition was so strong that I survived all of them without breaking the spine. However, when I am on the mat, all these events beg to be remembered, as I feel a light terror each time I do a posture with a back bend. Physically, my back muscles hold on so tight that they don't want to hear anything about letting go. Mentally and emotionally, I struggle with terror at even the thought of bending myself over backwards. In the beginning of my practice, all this filled me with frustration on top of the terror that gripped me. Why can't I just do Camel pose? It looks so easy. I know it is easy, so why can't I just do it? There was no answer for these questions. But during Savasana, my mind simply rolled back the film to all these incisive events, when I found myself thrown into the air by a speeding car and landed head-first on the pavement, waking up from a coma in a hospital bed without knowing what got me there...., when a big guy jumped into my lower back while I was just in the middle of emerging from the deep end of the diving pool, ….when my car lost traction on a stormy autumn morning and went flying over the edge of the road, across a wide field, down a ravine and into a river, doing several somersaults before it got there, smashing my car flat into the shape of a pancake.... but each time, I survived. I am still here, with the deep-rooted memories of those days in my subconscious mind. I had forgotten about them before I started practicing yoga. They were tucked away in the lowest basement of my mind, where nobody, not even I, cared to venture.... ever. Now they are out in the open of my awareness again, and I want to acknowledge them for what they are, and for the scars they left. I can live with them and exist as I am. I can heal myself, given patience and time. As I have now acknowledged the existence of these things, I find that it was the first step to overcoming the trauma. I am beginning to befriend the back bends, a little more every time I do them. It now feels half good and half terrifying. I let both be, the half good and the half terrifying part of me. I tell both it's OK for them to reside in my heart and mind. But I do know what I want, and this is very important. I want to heal. So every time, I do a back bend, the balance shifts subtly further towards the 'feel whole' side, and leaves behind the 'feel terror' side.
The key is to say “I want”. I do not say “I should” or “I must” or “I have to”. There is a dimensional difference between these expressions. “I Want” will make it so, and it will be a process where time is needed, but there is time enough for all of our needs. We live for the purpose of healing ourselves from whatever it is we require to heal.
I want to be whole. And I want to experience the process which takes me there. Every day is good for its own subtle change. That is enough for me. To my own self, I am true.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Something from Nothing

“O teach me how I should forget to think”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

A typical yoga class session with a teacher begins similar to this:

The teacher invites the students to take a relaxed pose: lying down, sitting in easy seat, or standing in mountain pose, with their eyes closed, as they are about to prepare for the yoga practice to come.
The teacher instructs them to bring their awareness to their breath, observing it, without making alterations. Then, the teacher asks them to scan their body, again, simply to make statements of the existing situation, no alterations. “Just acknowledge what is, let it be.”
Next, the teacher asks the students to focus on their mental condition, and to make note of this, too: Feelings of anxiety? Nervousness? Tension? Distractions? Preoccupations, Frustrations? Peacefulness?
Again, the students acknowledge whatever frame of mind they are in and let it exist.
Then, students are asked to return to their breath, lengthen the inhales and exhales, deepen the breath, expanding it beyond the diaphragm into the abdomen, upwards and into the rib cage, the shoulder girdle.... to even out the exhales and inhales to a count of four or longer.

Finally, students are invited to “set an intention for their practice”. This is a private act, nobody knows what each individual decided upon for their intention. Everybody is asked to hold on to this intention and return to it whenever they lose it during yoga practice.

Every time I hear this invitation, I begin to wonder what this may do to my fellow yogis in the room.
What did they pick? Resolutions like “I don't want to be anxious any more”? Or “I don't want any more hate in my life”? “I want to feel peace”? “I want to have a great day”? Or maybe “I want to practice well”? These all seem like possible candidates for an intention, so why not!

The first time I heard my yoga teacher ask me to set an intention for practice, I wondered what the purpose of this should be. I thought, well, I am here to do yoga, so let it be related to that: “I want to practice well.” There, I set my intention! That's what I kept up in the beginning days of my yoga practice, the first few weeks. But soon, I came to realize that this was easier said than done. What is a good practice? How do I practice well? Does this just come about by itself? Will it just happen because I said so? Could I actually also practice “unwell”, meaning doing it wrong without ever knowing that I did it wrong? Soon, it began to dawn on me that, yes, I could very easily do that.

Gaining the proper understanding of even the simplest postures is a long term process, not an instant accomplishment. Sitting with my legs crossed, erecting the spine straight, pulling the shoulders down, away from my ears, the shoulder blades hugging my thoracic cage, the sternum raised, the head poised in equilibrium above my shoulders, my pelvis tilted just right, my thighs relaxing and the knees resting on the floor, all that demands to happen during a longer process, it is not instantaneous. Adjustments offer themselves while I sit quietly for several minutes and observe my body sitting there.
My mind begins to zoom in on a part of my body, say, my hip flexors, or my pelvis, or the spine. And with the help of my breath, I can adjust that part of the body, upwards, downwards or in any other dimension, letting go, settling into a deeper expression of this posture. What a miraculous process this is. Time is a big factor.... time, patience and attention to what the body is doing, how it is doing it. There are many “aha” moments in this process!

As the first two or three months of my yoga practice passed, one day I got the idea that the best intention to set would probably be something in the way of a 'universal tool', an intention which would help me make the most of my practice. I got inspired to set my intention to “Let me be completely empty”. What I meant by that is, let me empty my mind, my body, any expectations, all my feelings, my impressions, my thoughts, preoccupations, worries.... let me make a “tabula rasa” ! So, I visualized myself as a beautiful, tall vessel, poised in infinite space, and with a subtle movement, I tilted it gently to let the contents of my inner self flow gently and completely out of the vessel into the void of the universe, return it to where it came from. Then, I visualized that I put my vessel back into the upright position, and I contemplated and savored the empty Me.
My inner space of awareness felt like a vast, sheer endless, silent and smooth existence, serene and promising. I set my intention to keep my inner condition just this way during the hour of yoga practice . I wanted to see what would happen during a practice with this “no intention-intention”.

And it was simply amazing! Now, instead of being torn apart by errant thoughts, my mind could focus its attention on the practice, keenly observe every move, to see what was happening in the muscles I stretched or contracted. I discovered that it could 'visit' every part of my body, observing it and learning from its needs and actions. It helped me to understand how yoga postures work, what their effects were on the body as a whole organism.
The hour of practice seemed like just the span of one breath, and it was already over! Time seemed to also have vanished in this process of “emptying”! I realized that energy came to me whenever I needed it, fatigue had mostly vanished along with the rest of the emptied-out articles. And as the practice drew to its closing in Savasana, I felt accomplished and filled with fresh energy, warmth and inner harmony and contentment. I knew that I had received from the universe just what I needed that day!

I began to understand that this is how it should be for all of us, in the ideal world. We learn to trust our life, our existence, knowing that it will provide us with what is best for us, at any given time, in any situation. Instead of picking and choosing all kinds of “something”, we have the option to choose the big “Nothing”. This “Nothing” will transform itself into any and all appropriate “somethings” we may need at any given time, in any given situation, and it will be just the right amount and quality of support and inspiration for that particular situation. This has to be the best intention we can ever offer ourselves!

So, I'm thinking, maybe this “void my inner self completely” intention really is the universal tool, which, if used correctly, would turn out to be the all-in-one solution to any and all life situations?
It may not be easy to gain control over this tool upon first try, but it will serve each of us well if we keep practicing it. As is true for any and all tools, every time we practice, we gain a better understanding of it, and we increase our skill level in its use! It has proven itself to me time and time again over the two years on my yogic path. I find that it helps me progress steadily, it taught me to always be in the Here and Now. And this is the best possible place to be in, always. I can take this tool and use it anywhere, all the time.... at home, with the kids, in the office, in the supermarket, on the road ... It brings the benefits of yoga directly into my life of every day, anytime, anywhere.
Now if that is not an awesome, real-life benefit of practicing yoga, then I don't know what is!

I want to invite my readers to try it out for themselves and see if this may serve them well!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Yogic Reflections - Asanas --- Savasana and Fetal Pose

To die, to sleep - To sleep, perchance to dream - ay, there's the rub,
For in this sleep of death what dreams may come...” Shakespeare, Hamlet

Shakespeare had it all figured out, even though he may not have thought of Yoga when he wrote these deep words. After all, somebody else said that life is just a dream, and that person may have hit the truth in its very core and essence.

I would not suggest that we all lie down and fall asleep for the rest of our existence, hoping thus to accomplish our mission to its highest level – no, we should stand our ground, firmly planted on our two feet! After all, that is what Warrior II is all about, right? Lately, on and off my mat, and at night when I lie in my bed and reminisce about the day's events, this thought enters my mind of its own volition: Yoga is life is yoga is life.....

I can see the symbolic correspondence between the two: some parts of living my life are easy, some are enjoyable, others, painful or labored, and others yet again, transitions between any combination of these options. I find the same experience on my mat: some postures are pleasant to my body and mind, others demand a lot of effort, some I feel I just cannot handle, and some fill me with dread for no rational reason. What I learn from practicing yoga is to envision all of it with an even and accepting attitude. Nothing will last forever, not the situations I perceive as pleasant, and neither the ones I dread to face. I learn to muster up the courage, and the resolve, to move through them in a somewhat detached frame of mind and spirit, taking not too much pleasure from the first kind and not too much pain from the later. Eventually, it will all balance itself out. I know it will.

On the mat, I like to think of the postures of Savasana and Fetal Pose as the 'bookend' postures, the closing and opening moves of the game of yoga, and metaphorically, the game of life itself. We move through the time of our practice, where we encounter all of the situations mentioned above, and when our 'dance' is done, we slide to the floor and let our body rest in the posture of death, the Corpse Pose, aka Savasana in Sanskrit. It is the posture of non-action. We just lie there, totally relaxed, and let our body and mind assimilate what occurred during practice. We do a total reset of all our levels of existence and consciousness, cleansing our slate so to speak, for the next phase of action to come. My teachers often call Savasana the most important pose, and they are right. We Westerners should learn to appreciate it much more than we usually do, busy as we are to get to the next thing on our list. Who needs to lie there for a long time and do nothing, right? Wrong! As much as breath is paramount to Hatha Yoga, as its rhythm dictates the movements, the efforts and releases, just as much we need the alternating rhythm of action and rest in our practice, and in our lives. They should ideally mirror each other. So then, the idea of a two-minute Savasana after a sixty minute practice sounds quite off....
Maybe it is a good exercise in itself to be able to stay on the floor in Savasana for at least five minutes. They may seem like an eternity to many of us yogis! Let's go to ten minutes once we can handle the five!

At the end of Savasana, we need to come back into our presence of mind and awareness of action. What better pose than fetal pose to get there? We need to remember that fetal pose is the very first yoga posture we get to practice when we incarnate: Nine months of it in our mother's womb! All that time, we are being carried by the mother, nurtured by her, protected by her, and we are being kept safe, nicely tucked into this very introspective position, while we prepare for another round of excitement on Planet Earth. The moment we enter this world, we unfold and stretch and begin our own, individual existence. We are given a new, fresh and clean slate, as we begin our life's path on our own two feet. We travel life's paths and postures until we come to the last posture, corpse pose, which will conclude our journey on this oh-so-entertaining Planet Earth.

On the mat, we are given the chance to re-enact these key events every time we conclude a yoga session. Think of Savasana as the conclusion of whatever actions/postures we practiced. Let it be the closing gesture of the active part of practice.
Then, get yourself into the fetal pose and think of it as a clean slate, a new beginning for another phase of the practice of life beyond your mat. Wipe the slate clean, (you might remember your Mom, and thank her for bringing you here!), then stretch out and start a fresh round.... what a great opportunity for change! You need not ask for permission by anybody; if you want it, you can simply make it so. We are the creators of our own lives. We should always remember that we have that power, and that we can make the decisions for all the things that matter in our lives! Let's put this to good use!