Monday, December 16, 2013

Not this body


Yoga has taught me to love my body, every curve, every muscle, every perceived flaw.  Yoga has taught me to move my body in ways I never imagined, to flow like a prayer in motion, to tap into strength and flexibility I never knew I possessed.  And most importantly, yoga has taught me that I am not my body, that I am something beautiful and Universal beyond this limited human form. Go figure!

So I am not my body, but I use my body- as an instrument, as a vehicle, as a shelter. I teach, feel and love with my body. It contains this idea of “me” the way any good vessel holds its contents- safely, securely yet decidedly separate from the contents themselves. Toss coins in a jar. Does the jar become currency? Place flowers in a vase. Does the vase sprout leaves too? No. The separateness remains.

All of this is at the front of my mind because of an unpleasant experience I recently had practicing yoga. The words “unpleasant” and “yoga” are seldom, if ever, in the same sentence for me. I love yoga! Chanting mantra, breathing my way through pranayama, sitting for meditation, flowing through asana. . . you name it, I love it! It’s my happy place, so to even think about unpleasantness creeping in just doesn’t seem feasible.

But it happened.

It started innocently enough. I got a call from a friend and business partner asking if I’d do some paddleboard yoga in front of a private waterfront residence that is being featured on a television show. They wanted to showcase some of the fun aspects of living in the “Venice of the Americas” as canal-heavy Fort Lauderdale, FL is sometimes called. And since I am the proud owner of Ocean Om, a standup paddle yoga business in that very community, who better than me, right?


I quickly said yes, got the address and time, and then went about my business, which of course includes lots of yoga.

The appointed day and time arrived. I strapped my BOGA YOGA paddleboard onto my car, plugged the address into Siri, and off I went; surprised to pull up in front of a lovely home with a driveway full of men milling around.

Um, ok.

I asked for the contact whose name I’d been given, and only then did I realize these men were all involved in the production of the show. Call me na├»ve. I just didn’t realize this was such a big deal. It was real TV stuff going on! Not just a single camera, but whole crews. Production assistants. Catering. Props. Walkie-talkies came out, waivers had to be signed, a mic concealed inside my top. What did I need a mic for? I thought I was just some eye candy in the background of some minor affair.

Turns out that is EXACTLY what I was, but the affair wasn’t so minor, for me anyway. What I hadn’t considered beforehand was just how inauthentic and uncomfortable I would feel using my body, the vehicle driving me along the journey of yoga in all its glorious facets, for something so commercial.

I felt naked, exposed and fragile. And that is saying something given that, for a rare change, I was actually fully clothed on my board. I regularly practice in a bathing suit or small items of form-fitting clothing, and there are pictures of me on the water that I cannot deny are provocative. It is my business, after all, and so promoting the experience of yoga on the water, something I genuinely love sharing with others, means I also promote myself as the owner and principal teacher.  All of this is to say that the strong, flexible vessel I inhabit is one I am accustomed to showing off in a certain way.

But THIS certain way, I didn’t like. I didn’t feel strong even though I was holding the poses. And though I am definitely flexible enough to move through the flow, I walked away with a sore back. Serves me right! No matter how many deep, three-part breaths I took or how many mantras I repeated during the roughly 90 minutes I spent on my board behind that house, I could not relax. I could not enjoy myself. I could not shake the feeling that I was pimping out the sacred wisdom and practice of yoga.  

You see, regardless of the fact that there are many public images of my body to out there to promote my company or my board sponsor, all of that is done in the context of spiritual work. Every class I teach incorporates mantra (sacred sounds, prayers and names of the Divine), fuses philosophical discourse with the postures, fosters a sense of awareness to the Truth that we are all One and provides students an opportunity to connect to nature and their true Self in an environment that is stimulating yet safe. The body facilitates this exchange, but is not the focus, for me any way. It is an honor for me to be a conduit for this experience for my students. And though I may be in the business of yoga, what I know for sure is that I am not comfortable with spirituality being for sale.  This might seem contradictory to some, which I can appreciate, but I hope you’ll allow me to clarify.



Because I am not the body you see on the board (or on the mat) it doesn’t really matter what clothing I am wearing. It doesn’t really matter what posture I am executing. What matters is the intention, bhava or buddhi in Sanskrit, among other words, that the work is being done under. That intention reflects the state of my soul, the shape of my Divine form. And my intention every other time I step on my board is to share, generously and freely, the gifts of yoga that have been given to me by my teachers and all the great masters and sages who came before. My intention is to teach. It is a pure intention. On the day in question, stepping onto my board to be eye candy for this show, I must admit, my intention was not pure.

This wasn’t by design. It was innocent, unthinking, really. I said yes to an offer I hadn’t fully considered, which was a consequence of not practicing mindfulness. I didn’t realize that just because my body would be doing “work” it knows how to do, doing it in this particular setting, for this particular purpose, would feel so wrong. Yes, I get paid to teach yoga to students who seek me out for that particular reason, but that is not the same as putting the outward manifestation of my yoga practice on display for something as commercial as this was. Now I know the difference. Live and learn.


All told, I am grateful. I learned so much through this experience so there is nothing to regret. I’m nursing my sore back and I’m refining my practice of mindful awareness. I am consciously cultivating bhava that is honorable and true to my yogic path. And I’m leaving the eye candy gigs to the other twisty bodies out there that find it conducive to their spiritual evolution. To each his or her own!





Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Heart of the Matter


I don’t really remember my very first time. The details I hold in my mind are more likely woven from a fabric of the many blessed communions that have come after, the sounds that have spilled through my lips and the sensations that have overtaken my body, rather then from the memory of that actual night.

I do know for certain it was night. It would have begun at 7pm on a Sunday. Downtown. In a warehouse. And, no, I'm not talking about THAT first time. I’m talking about ecstasy of a whole different flavor, though infinitely sweet. I’m talking about kirtan.

Kirtan?

That’s basically what I said.



It all started in a fairly typical yoga class about 7 or 8 years ago. The teacher played some mantra music and I started asking questions. Who is singing? What are these words? Why are they making me feel this way? How can I learn more?

Something about the resonant sound of OM vibrating at the center of my heart. Something about the depth and power of Krishna Das’s soulful calling or Deva Premal’s angelic intonations. Something about the feeling of familiarity with words I had no conscious memory of having heard before.

I was coming home to a home I never knew.

The teacher told me I’d really like this place called Yoga Warehouse. Let’s go together. Take a class. Attend a weekly satsang.

Flashback to that first time. Ooooooooommmmmmmm. Ooooooooommmmmmmm. Hhhhhooooooommmmmeeeee.

I don’t think I cried then, but tears are spilling from my eyes as I write this now, thinking about what that night meant and where it has led me.

Yoga Warehouse in Fort Lauderdale, FL (www.yogawarehouse.org) is an affiliated Sivananda center (www.sivananda.org) and in order to meet the requirements of this international yoga organization, a weekly satsang must be held.  Satsang can be understood as “good company” or “gathering in truth” or other similar interpretations of this Sanskrit word. At the YW it means dhyana (meditation) and kirtan (call and response chanting of mantras). To me it meant coming home.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor that night, surrounded by a small, eclectic group of kindred spirits in front of an altar with photographs of gurus and statues of Hindu deities whose names I did not yet know, I found my heart.  All I wanted to do was chant. All I wanted to feel was that sense of joy, connection and peace. All I could be was present. All I could offer was love.

This didn’t exactly jive with the image of myself I had created at the time. Young, married professional with plenty of worldly aspirations, a bright future colored by the American Dream laid out before her. A Jew, albeit an exceedingly reformed one, bowing down in front of idols. None of this made sense and yet it was the only thing that made sense.

In the years that have unfolded since, my heart and voice have opened beyond measure. I have re-envisioned that image of myself and my aspirations have changed in many ways. I have chanted mantra for more hours than I could possibly count, and yet I know I have not chanted nearly enough. Mornings at my own altar. Satsangs at YW. As many local gatherings as I can squeeze in. Festivals, concerts and retreats in different cities, states and countries all so that I could chant in the satsang of like-minded souls: Bhaktifest. Omega Ecstatic Chant. Weekends  of devotion with Krishna Das. Beachside in Costa Rica with Deva Premal and Miten. Traveling for hours in the cold Indian winter to spend one afternoon on the banks of the Yamuna River with my beloved teacher Shyamdas right before he left his body.

This past weekend I celebrated America’s Thanksgiving in a decidedly Indian, yet some Universal, way. There was no turkey, but there were definitely pilgrims, vegetarian devotees to be specific, offering gratitude in a most glorious way. And while none of these people were my biological family, there I was, draped in a sari and immersed in the sounds of mridangas, kartals, harmoniums and hundreds of voices singing the Maha Mantra with all the love in their hearts, feeling an overwhelming sense of family and love.

                        Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
                        Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
                        Hare Rama Hare Rama
                        Rama Rama Hare Hare




I was blessed to be part of the gathering that the Mayapuris (www.mayapuris.com) hosted in Alachua, FL (www.alachuakirtan.com) for the Festival of the Holy Name, a tradition of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness- http://iskcon.org) where devotees gather to chant for hours on end. It was one of the most radiant, ecstatic satsangs of my life. There was such power in the repetition of this single mantra, the Great Mantra, being chanted with all the love, yearning and sincerity pouring from everyone’s hearts. There was a trance-like state induced by the synchronicity of so many voices calling, hands clapping and hearts beating in unison.



As is always the case when I take part in a big kirtan gathering, so many beautiful memories were made. New friendships were formed. A deeper understanding of Truth was gifted to me. An immeasurable wave of gratitude washed over me. I must give a special shout out to Kish, Vish, Muki and everyone who was part of the Mayapuris holiday! My heart is overflowing.

I may have started my yoga journey on a mat, moving my body and breath down this path toward Self Realization, but the real journey takes place in my heart. The real vehicle is my voice, which gets me so much further when it is joined by the voices of others, singing the names of the Divine. I travel the path of bhakti, the yoga of devotion, the yoga of the heart, and it always leads me to the happiness, beauty and joy that all of us, in our way, are seeking.

My search continues, back home now, without the physical proximity of the family that embraced me during the festival, yet knowing that there are truly no physical bounds. Bittersweet in its way, though truly more sweet than bitter. This family is the human family. This love is the Universal love. This path is the one of Truth. We are all One. We are all Divine. And however you package it, whatever words you chant, or not, whatever godhead you bow to, or not, whether you gather in a group or sit in solitude, you, like me, are on a journey home. I share my experiences with you in hopes they might shine a bit of light on your path, and all I ask is that you share your experiences with others in hopes of doing the same.

Haribol! Namaste!