RESTORATIVE-YIN YOGA involves supported body/mind relaxation. This is gentle, gentle yoga that promotes deep relaxation for stress reduction while also stretching and rehabilitating connective tissue.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

To Decrease Suffering / To Be Fully Present

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Serene Mind / Jakushin, 2011

To decrease suffering and develop the capacity to be fully present in our lives

The practice of yoga, in Yoko Yoshikawa, “Everybody Upside Down,”
Yoga Journal [, p. 6 of online article]

(A) THE PRACTICE OF YOGA aspires to decrease suffering.

When we are frustrated and bored and stiff and tired, we suffer.  Day in and day out, the practice of yoga does not aspire to end suffering, but rather to decrease suffering.  However, when body-mind practices become primarily spiritual practices, there may be an authentic goal of transcending suffering, and such is thought to be the ultimate outcome of yoga in, for example, the “eighth limb of yoga” [Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras]—samadhi.  Unfortunately, the transcendence of suffering may become non-spiritual when it becomes a personal compulsion toward exclusiveness or “special-ness” rather than inclusion, or when enlightenment becomes the goal that blinds one from being fully present, or when “cosmic union” and “oneness” abandon life-as-it is, or when practices become extreme and isolating.

First, the practice of yoga addresses the simple, overlooked suffering of inflexibility and lack of strength.  Then, increased flexibility of joints and tissues and functional strength allow for more energy and activity that not only decreases personal suffering but also outspread to others in a variety of ways.  This social impact may either indirectly or directly decrease suffering of both oneself and others through pleasant de-stressed interaction, as well as through increased creative expressiveness and compassionate intervention and advocacy in behalf of others to optimize empowerment in others.
The pursuit of uber-flexibility and strength [that can appear to be the epitome of yoga] can be wondrous aspects, but they may increase suffering, being associated with increased anxiety and competitiveness, and move away from the comprehensive process of yoga.
(B) Interwoven with decreased suffering, THE PRACTICE OF YOGA aspires to develop the capacity to be fully present in our lives

Authentic body-mind practices become landscapes that are intentionally designed to reduce distractions to optimize the opportunity to be fully present in the moments of practice.  Returns to such practices aspire to affect body-memory enough to gradually extend this capacity into everyday life.  After several returns, and even without much intention, basic physiological reactivity to stress or to the fast pace of everyday life is likely to be reduced or “softened.”  Further, rather than just be less reactive, the capacity to intentionally self-generate a more relaxed response may be increased [coming perhaps from the autogenic—self-generating—training that is often inherent in body-mind practices.  With increased practice, the ability to access relaxation and its associated reduced reactivity/calmness may be generated more quickly—a sort of short-circuiting or bypassing of obstacles to such a response.

OVERALL, the aspirations of yoga practice apply to most body-mind practices, especially to those that emphasize calmness and quietness such as qigong and t’ai chi and martial arts such as aikido, and also to some more energetic, disciplined practices such as kendo/kumdo.  For example, while armored with bogu/hogu and striking another participant [defined as more of a “player” than as an “opponent”],
One should learn Kendo properly and diligently; mold the mind and body, cultivate a vigorous spirit through correct and rigorous training; strive for improvement in the art of Kendo; hold others in esteem and behave with courtesy, honor, and sincerity; and forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.  Thus one will be able to love one’s country and society, contribute to one’s culture, and promote peace and prosperity among all people.
“Aims of Kendo Practice,” All Japan Kendo Federation

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step, this simple book title phrase-sentence captures a way to combine the two aspirations of yoga practice into one process: to sense non-suffering in each moment.  In every step, in every breath and in each new day, there is an opportunity to be fully present and to experience peace rather than suffering.  In Being Peace [Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1987], Thich Nhat Hanh suggests,
A human being is like a TV set with a million channels.  If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha.  If we turn on sorrow, we are sorrow.  If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile.  We cannot let just one channel dominate us.  We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty.
When we sit down peacefully, breathing and smiling, with awareness, we are our true selves, we have sovereignty over ourselves. [7]

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sattva: Optimizing Our Light

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Penetrating Light/Tetsuko, 2011

YOGA PHILOSOPHY, drawing from the Bhagavad-Gita [Ch. XIV], describes the three qualities of nature—the gunas—that one aspires to engage to bring life into balance.  In human life, these qualities reference mental states.  The tamas reference qualities such as inertia, heaviness, indifference, lethargy; the rajas reference motion, frenetic activity, heat, aspirations toward gain, intensity, and stimulation; and sattva [sometimes transliterated as “sattwa”] is associated with terms such as light, illumination, purity, clarity, freshness, peace, and joy.

When natural life seems to be missing something, a strong aspect of that which is missing is a sense of balance between these dimensions.  In the fast pace of modern life, we may tend to stimulate ourselves until we sink into lethargy to recover.  Squeezing time for yoga, our yoga practice may be dominated by a need to “work out” with the limited time available, and come to reflect this modern cycle.  The consequence of this practice is a life that teeter-totters between high activity and lethargy, rarely engaging clarity and peace.  And rarely engaging in clarity and peace, more subtle dimensions of life such as eloquence and grace may go largely unexpressed.

Seemingly the quality to be after, exclusive emphasis upon sattva can isolate a person from everyday life, and possibly be motivated by a desire to escape rather than engage life.  It can also be disorienting and “spacey.”   But when grounded in both action and rest, strong efforts to engage sattva may bring awareness rather than disorientation, insight, and kindness.

Restorative yoga and yin yoga provides a relaxing desensitization from the distractive draw of high paced action.  The practices provide rest while offering “intensity” from both longer duration of poses and intentional efforts to deepen relaxation.  In this ground of “active relaxation,” there is time for sattva.  In this quiet intensity, there is a unique opportunity for deepened awareness of dimensions of life for which there never seems to be enough time.

By regular returns to restorative and yin practice, as self-regulation of body reactivity comes into body memory, the capacity to extend sattva into everyday life might be increased to balance the teeter-totter between inertia and intensity.  In everyday life, this might offer an improved capacity to make clear practical decisions as well as very realistic, strong moments of touching a sense of light, wherein grounded experiences such as a flower or a smile or the fall of a leaf or of rain or of snow again become meaningful, full of grace, and inseparable.


Copyright Lance Kinseth, A Prayer Of Trees, 36”x36, 2003

IN YOGA, a sense of the practice of yoga as offering more than physical attributes, such as flexibility and strength, is evoked at some point.  Increasingly, internationally popular yoga for fitness is giving way toward a quest to make this “something more” more explicit. Often, the first step involves a return of sorts to draw upon the rich religious traditions of the Asian subcontinent.  Chants, vows, etc. become aspects of practices, but these alone can be somewhat superficial and artificial in that they may imitate rather than touch the deep intent of such practices.  One may pay homage to Hindu deities but not take religious vows, and even when taking vows, a person will both not understand the myriad cultural subtleties underlying spiritual perceptions as well as not value aspects because they might be uncomfortable due to the influence of a person’s original culture or simply absent.  Not having lived one’s whole life hearing about and awaiting the Hindu Kumbh Meta festival and knowing intimately all of the details of the rituals and the cities where it is held or, in the Sun Salutation, not worshipping Surya, “ a god with golden arms and hair who races across the dawn sky in a chariot pulled by seven horses, representing the seven colors of the rainbow” [Diane Ackerman, Dawn Light, NY: W. W. Norton, 2009, pp. 58 and 97 respectively] creates a cultural gap.  In North America, among the Cherokee, feeding the hearts of mockingbirds to infants to optimize their ability to acquire language [Diane Ackerman, Dawn Light, p.68] or, among a Northwest Pacific Coast culture, offering an infant’s placenta to ravens to encourage the ravens to give their gifts to the infant, or not having been taught the Mesquaki meaning of the a raccoon’s stripes represent “obscure” [to a person raised in another culture] cultural nuances that will be missed and that mix with myriad other nuances to profoundly color overall spiritual perception. And in North America, borrowing aspects of Native American spiritual practices may be seen as not only superficial and facile, but also as a form of cultural robbery.  

In every culture and in every era, there is an inherent, enduring, universal/transcultural ground that the body-mind practice of yoga (as well as other body-mind practices) authentically touches.  In these practices, the movement of the body in congruence with mental presence evokes a variety of attributes that are extremely eloquent.  And it is the taste of these attributes that draws people back to these practices across the long run. 

The fast fitness pace of popular yoga may only offer glints of this “something more.”

In restorative yoga, the calmness and slow flow open a pathway of more than glints of something more.  With time spent in breath and asana, the “landscape” of each restorative breath and each supported pose outspreads from the breath and pose themselves to their interrelatedness with gravity, temperature, sound, the presence of others and to the timelessness of past and present. 

Time spent with breath opens a deep intuitive sense of the complexity of each breath: how it is absorbed, and the manner in which the breath is released back into the atmosphere, and the complex balance of atmospheric components, and…on and on it reaches.  In intentional calmness and quiet, there is an opportunity to see each breath as something more than a physiological response. Beyond specific dogma, this “something more” involves a variety of characteristics or attributes of spiritual persons that are recognized by anyone and cherished.  These characteristics are not typically a sense of exclusiveness or righteousness or piety.  Rather, they might involve a sense of compassion and even humor.  These characteristics are many, and include calmness and patience, sensitivity with no expectation, deep appreciation, non-striving, and joy.  A characteristic such as compassion is provoked by direct experiences of events as inseparable and, therefore, many all events important.

One eloquent attribute of any event is its inherent grace.  It is apparent in the body shape and in movement across species, from the insect to the hummingbird to the falcon.  It is present in everything, but our lives often don’t seem to have much room and time in them to let us open to this grace.  It is in everything, even in our breath.  Each breath is overflowing with grace.

There is an opportunity for a deeper appreciation, wherein the breath itself might amplify grace, transforming to a prayer.

In Yoga Beyond Belief [Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2007], Ganga White writes in a poem entitled “What If…”
What if our religion was each other
If our practice was our life
If prayer, our words

What if the temple was the earth
If forests were our church
If holy water—the rivers, lakes, and oceans...
[Excerpt, p. vii]

Such a “What if” is optimized when we calm.  Then in each moment, we are presented with an opportunity to be fully present in the grace that we discover in ourselves and in others and in everything that is fundamentally inseparable from ourselves and, authentically, is the longer reach of ourselves.

Every cultural product that we see or touch, from a glass of milk to autos, is overflowing with the grace of millions of people who have contributed to that specific glass of milk or to the myriad components of that automobile.  No matter how secular and ordinary something may seem to be to us, there is the sacred presence of remarkable effort, design, trail and error to bring it to this moment. 

When we calm and quiet, our bodies open to grace.  We tend to disprize our body as it is in this moment, often not seeing just what a miracle it is and what a gift from billions of life forms and even from the stars that it is.  The simplest movement and the seemingly near still flow of blood and respiration and digestion and even the way that our death is a gift to the Earth, by allowing human life to leave ourselves behind to become more, as our ancestry did to become you and I.

So when we begin our practice, and sit down, this is the heart of the First Excellence of Yoga into which we sit.  This place and our body and others when we practice together and the place of practice are already overflowing with grace.  By calming and quieting, by coming to a still point, a “something more” of joy, compassion, deep appreciation, grace, and on and on, is opened.

And then, in each pose, we can allow ourselves to physically experience the grace of our bodies.  In each pose there is this point where we can release to the pose, to experience grace as it is in that moment. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Perfectly Peaceful Pause

Copyright Lance Kinseth, What Is The Meaning Of Bodhidharma’s Coming To The West, 19”x19, 1996

BAHYA KUMBHAKA describes a pause in breathing after exhalation—a point where even the enduring motion of breath is momentarily suspended.

Bahya Kumbhaka is a component of a penultimate pranayama practice, Kevala Kumbhaka, wherein breath is intentionally ceased [more than “held”].  Breath approaches “kumbhaka” when a person is deeply relaxed so that cessation is sensed to be a natural consequence of deep relaxation rather than forced.  Kevala Kumbhaka can be an intense ascetic practice wherein an accomplished yogi can cease breath for long periods of time, as well as limit breath volume and frequency of breathing.  The austere practice may involve isolation and a very restricted diet such as ghee [milk product].

Breath can be stopped after inhalation, as well as exhalation [Both: Sahita Kumbhaka].

Whether momentary [perhaps for two or four heartbeats and gradually more] or for longer duration as an intensely ascetic practice, NOT inhaling or exhaling, when accompanied by intentional stilling of body, may produce an experience that can easily be described as a “perfectly peaceful pause.”

In restorative practice, it is possible to experience this “perfectly peaceful pause” with new participants as well as with seasoned participants [who are able to more easily self-modify physiology to activate the parasympathetic nervous system as well as alter brain waves to provoke alpha and possibly theta wave trains].

In restorative practice, the intentional cessation of breath can be guided in both the beginning and end of the practice session in either seated or supine postures.  Generally, the cessation of breath is more momentary than sustained, due to an emphasis upon relaxation and opening/expanding more than on focus. 

In relaxed seated and supine poses, a “perfectly peaceful pause” sequence is offered.
1.     A suggestion is made for participants to allow their bodies to become as still as possible.
2.     Having developed body awareness of increased stillness], attention is then directed to a major continuing movement—breath.  Breath is first observed as-it-is [i.e., “natural”].  A suggestion is offered for participants to soften or lengthen the breath cycle [gradually reducing the frequency of the breath cycle by increasing the length of the breath cycle].
3.     Attention is then refined, directing awareness more intentionally to exhalation—allowing the breath to completely empty, and for inhalation to occur when it is naturally needed rather than being directed by participants.
4.     Having stilled body movement, attention may be directed to another autonomic movement that continues to be present—the heartbeat.  With increasing physiological relaxation, less conscious internal stimuli such as the heartbeat comes more easily into awareness.
5.     Finally, when each breath is completely emptied, participants are encouraged to cease breath (rather than hold their breath) for perhaps two to four heartbeats (and to gradually increase the number of heartbeats if sensing a state of ongoing comfort in so doing).

In restorative practice, exhalation may be the primary place for this practice.  In exhalation, the chest muscles and ribs/connective tissue are released and “softened.”  [Less relaxed, a “chin lock”/Jalandhara Banda may be simultaneously practiced, on both the cessation of inhalation and exhalation, but this increased focus is not suggested for the above sequence.]

Utilizing the above sequence, even novice participants may report momentarily experiences of an authentic “perfectly peaceful pause.”  Due to the preparatory stilling of the body and coming to awareness of the breath cycle, there should be no sense of holding one’s breath.  Further, the incoming breath following cessation may be experienced as “sweet and rich” [as will be every inhalation when we fully bring our awareness to it].  Perhaps it might be likened to that first breath taken as a child when coming up from underwater (but in this case, having generated a deeply relaxed and still state, is not a “breath-holding gasp,” but rather, something akin to a soft wave or wash of energy).

Such attention to the breath brings one fully into the present moment.  And these “moments” can be repeated again and again.

In the moments of this very brief practice of bahya kumbhaka, a very deep relaxation is “tasted,” perhaps more than sustained.  And yet, now, one experiences a deepened sense of relaxation.  While being a “gentle, gentle yoga practice,” restorative practice is a high-end yoga practice that aspires to offer “uber-relaxation” training that can extend into everyday life, rather than be only a beginner’s point of entry into yoga.  Cessation of the breath is not producing either hypoxia from a lack of oxygen or oxygen saturation from hyperventilation, either of which may affect one’s psychological reaction.   In this gentle cessation of breath following exhalation breath remains rather normal.  In fact, the practice generally stabilizes the breath cycle rather than alters it toward one extreme or the other.  From a Western perspective, a positive reaction may be explained as having been provoked by triggering various physiological changes.  From an Eastern perspective, a positive reaction may be explained both as a practice that “cools the body” as well as encourages the soft ascent of energy through the chakras toward the crown, (with the positive reactions varying from minor changes in more time-limited/relaxation practice to major changes in austere ascetic practice).

Whether intense and enduring or momentary, an everyday sense of urgency, or motives for practice, or more generalized desires may fully disappear momentarily in the practice of kumbhaka.  By incorporating this practice, efforts to “relax” may feel implicitly more “restful.”  Regular momentary practices may provoke sensations found in more intense practices, such as “a perfect quiescence,” “a perfect peacefulness,” or “bliss.”  From an Eastern perspective, because prana ultimately involves access to cosmic energy, intense kumbhaka practices are posited to offer even more elusive benefits such as “longevity,” and “cure for oneself and even others”—through projection of such strong energy across physical distance.

Simply, bayha kumbhaka as a brief emphasis in breath work in a restorative practice session may offer most participants a deeper experience of relaxation. Through repetition, such changes might be introduced more fully into everyday life.  And such practice may offer preparation for varieties of breath work of longer duration/intensity.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Transitional / Intermediary Poses In Restorative Yoga

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Blissful Baby Pose, 2011

OFTEN, AS WE MOVE from one primary restorative pose to another, brief transitional or intermediary poses are utilized to sustain/optimize relaxation.  One such pose is a Side Fetal Pose [or I have heard it termed “Blissful Baby”], involving turning to one side with knees bent and stacked, often the right side unless medically proscribed.  In general yoga, this pose is commonly done after completing the final resting/integrating pose of savasana, in transition to a seated position to close the practice session.  In may be done more frequently in restorative yoga, especially following a shift from a reclining pose [e.g. a supported bridge pose or supported reclining bound angle pose or supported legs-up-wall pose or supported happy baby] to a seated pose.  A couple of breath cycles may be utilized in this pose.  Support such as a blanket between the knees as well as covering with a blanket might be added.

Other transitional poses may involve apanasana, lying on back and bringing knees to chest [followed by rocking side-to-side and small circling of knees to massage lower back and sacrum and sides of hips, as well as imprinting the lumbar curve into the matt], or leaning back on both hands to counter a forward-bending pose, or a gentle [stressing movement of connective tissue vs. muscle] vinyasa sequence of cat-cow-child poses.

In transition, it may also be suggested that participants move slowly—“snail-like”—to sustain relaxation.

Reclining on back provides a relaxing state as physiology continues to calm, to listen to the body rather than do something, as well as provide an opportunity to shift into guided imagery that either explores body sensations  [e.g., guided body scans} or intuitive responses.  Transitional poses might be held longer and even become primary poses.  Guided Imagery might be introduced, involving perhaps recall of an early childhood memory, meeting a teacher/healer, being in a favorite healing/relaxing place (either real or imagined), imaging the body as opening and/or energizing and/or as grounding more deeply with each breath or floating.  Positive healing affirmations may be suggested as well as presenting concepts such as “thriving” vs. surviving, optimal health, and transformation, as well as one-word “themes” such as surrender, eloquence, oneness/wholeness, and kindness.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Yoga Inversions

Copyright Lance Kinseth, How Do You Save Yourself II, 30x32,” 2006

IN YOGA, a new door opens that is different in mind-body practices: The upside-down world.  In restorative yoga, legs up wall, happy baby, and supported bridge are examples of “upside-down” poses.  In yoga in general, the downward turns of the upper body in downward dog and forward fold, and the complete flip-flops of headstands and shoulder stands offer upside-down elements.   In some yogic practices, the headstand—Salamba Sirsasana—is referenced as the “king” of all asanas.  In yogic circles [not scientifically reliable and valid], such calm inversions have been described as being equivalent to highly aerobic exercises. [This “aerobic” quality may come from the impact of inversions on blood circulation.]

Restorative inversions—“legs up wall,” “supported happy baby,” “supported bridge”—are often favored poses of participants.  They are described as tremendous counters to walking when traveling or standing on one’s feet for much of the day, or as preparation for sleep.  To make inversions even more accessible, a core restorative pose, “Legs Up Wall” [ Viparita Karani], can be modified to legs bent at ninety degrees on a chair or couch or bed.

Inversions enlist gravity’s power in our 80% water body: [The following data is from various sources.]

·      Easing the heart by easing venous return,
·      Draining the lymphatic system: groin and chest, rebalancing body fluids,
·      Suffusing blood into the upper lobes of the lungs where oxygen is in greatest concentration,
·      Stimulating hormonal process by compression/suffusion of blood: thyroid, pineal/pituitary, and limbic, affecting the regulation of metabolism, in a still unspecified manner,
·      Strengthening the core, as well as attesting to increased core strength in more difficult inversions,
·      Increased comprehensive body awareness
·      Producing a calming effect that can [physiology alone: a) increased flowof blood to the brain, b)stimulate endocrine system with particular attention to the pituitary “master” gland, c) lowering blood pressure—by “tricking the body” to presume that BP has risen due to inversion so that the body relaxes blood vessels and hormones that encourage retaining salt and water];
Then, more speculative,
·      Perhaps improving mental alertness and stamina, by exercising the baroreceptors that regulate blood pressure in the brain [Perhaps increased blood flow to brain and perhaps better blood transport to areas of the brain that are active from barorecptors shunting blood to less active areas], 
·      Perhaps stimulating the production of CSF [cerebrospinal fluid] in ventricles of the brain that then flows from the brain into the spinal column [The flexing of the neck may increase the elasticity of neck vertebrate, aiding in flow.],
·      Perhaps reducing “hot flashes,” providing physio-therapy for back issues when gentler inversions separate discs in between vertebrate, improving digestion and sleep and reducing anxiety [especially through physiological changes that reduce body stress],
·      Perhaps [from Asian health perspective], a) drawing “the nectar of the lonely sun” (in the naval area) toward the head [which may intuitively describe altered perceptions resulting from the modification of pineal and pituitary hormonal release—either restricting or increasing hormonal release, and similarly b) drawing “prana” inward toward the organs, and offering humility by lowering the head below the heart that, in turn, deepens a sense of compassion in the service of love,
·      Perhaps, as noted briefly above, offering an “aerobic” effect [aerobics may do some of what inversion does for the vascular system], and
·      Perhaps does something more elusive and individually interpreted—changing perspective and some different insights.

Inversion likely requires some time in poses to allow for the various effects to occur.  This may be as little as 5-10 minutes for basic efficacy.  Restorative inversions can be held much longer.

Contraindications of inversions:
·      Neck and spine injuries, pre-existing and potential [special emphasis needed to be stressed to perhaps reducing the time spent in head and shoulder stands due to possible cumulative effect of pressure.  Restorative poses such as Supported legs Up Wall and Supported Bridge as well as alternatives to inversion poses such as Inversion tables and traction machines reduce or eliminate neck stress.
·      Glaucoma, and existing inner ear problems [infrequently may cause inner ear problems]
·      Heavy menstruation
·      Pregnancy
·      High BP—coming out of inversion may increase BP briefly yet suddenly as blood flows downward.

“Inside” and “outside” and “upside-down;” If things circle or spiral, there is, ultimately, no “upside-down.”  There are only different points in time when phenomena are brought into awareness.  A specific point in time may look at a different aspect.   If blind and sensing an elephant—touching the nose or the body, or the ears, or the trunk, or the feet reveals quite different, yet real, interpretations, but misses the essence.

YES, Yes, yes, we spend the bulk of our lives “right-side up.”  Standing up on our two legs, and evolving to become “bi-pedal,” likely gave us our contemporary lives as-they-are.  But when we invert and simultaneously feel good, Legs-Up-Wall is trying to tell us something.  Perhaps this upside-down experience is going back way-way back, deeper than we intended—millenniums back in time when our pre-human ancestors, not yet come-out-of-the-sea, dove deep into the ocean, spiraling, or, more closely but still vastly distant, when we hung from trees living in a landscape of “up and down” more than in a horizontal plane with a floor.   

In inversions, especially in restorative inversions, we do tremendous good to ourselves.  We simply feel it in a very relaxed manner in Legs-Up Wall or Supported Bridge or, just a little more intense in supported “Happy Baby.”  Our sensations may go so deep that it is far deeper than childhood, touching something so profound and eternal and healthful that we are drawn here again and again like a moth to a flame.

Invert into Legs-Up Wall, adding a blanket around feet or body, and perhaps a ten-pound sandbag on feet] and more blankets across chest [sort of like a “pressure blanket” utilized with autistic children, because of the positive effect of the pressure in reducing stimuli judged to be overwhelming], and a practitioner can go more deeply inside one’s own body sensations.  With more time given over to this pose, it becomes possible to evoke deeper feelings and memories that ultimately define one’s life direction—what it is for which one is living.  Out of all of the myriad memories that might be recalled, key events that are a part of one’s ongoing life script express directives.  


Copyright Lance Kinseth, Jeff Harris Design, 2011

IN EVERYDAY LIFE, when all seems right and in a “groove” of sorts, we might believe ourselves to be in a state of harmony.  But in everyday life, most moments do not seem to fall into place in such a harmonious way, making the experience of “harmony” elusive, and once lived, quickly lost.  And when life takes a hard turn with the death of a loved one or in the face of a life-threatening illness, life can seem to have, unquestionably, become disharmonious.

There is another sense of harmony that endures, even when life seems far from calmness and in balance.  There is a harmony to be found in the storm.  Life in harmony is a roller-coaster ride vs. stasis, balancing and then rebalancing.  If we are fortunate enough to seem to “win the battle” over disease or some loss and recover some sense of harmony, it is more of the upswing of the roller coaster, and the downfall lies somewhere ahead, and likely not that far ahead. 

Authentic harmony may be present even when it seems like disharmony.  Authentic harmony is very yin-yang, involving both halves of the circle.  The wind-battered tree is beautiful and “photogenic” because of its struggle.  Chan master Wansong Xingxiu writes, “The cold pine’s sick branches are even more outstanding for their sickness.” [“Commentary for Case 94: Dongshan is un-well,” Book Of Serenity, Thomas Cleary (trans.) Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1990, p. 406] 

Trauma offers insight-provoking information and concrete “initiation” that is crucial to thriving.  In disease and disorder and disarray, a question such as “What is offered by trauma?,” opens a gateway that may change perceptions of dilemmas.  Efforts to excise disorder may tend to keep the problem more problematically alive in our thinking both as something that we can’t rid ourselves of and, once gone, held as a reminder to fend off future problems and “survive.”  However, efforts to look at the “limit” rather than aspire to excise it may open a negative barrier to reveal an opportunity.   Chan master Yun Men said, in responding to a question about “distinctions between days,” responded,  Every day is a good day.” [Thomas Cleary & J. C. Cleary, “ Sixth Case: Yun Men’s Every Day is a Good Day,” The Blue Cliff Record, Boston: Shambhala, 1992, p. 37]   

Siddartha Gautama suggested that perhaps the best thing that we have is our knowledge that when breathing in and out we become aware that we are breathing in and out, and to enjoy each breath, and perhaps to smile to it. [the Anapanasati Sutra, “the Mindfulness Sutra,” in which “Anapana = “breath” and sati = “mindfulness,” is cited in Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle Of Mindfulness, Boston: Beacon Press, 1976 (revised edition), p. 7]. 

Myriad volumes, beyond anyone’s capacity to read, have been written on that which the Buddha was trying to convey.  But in the legends of the Buddha’s dying, he is reported to have said that he had nothing to teach, that the pathway was in each of us, and available to open and optimize.  A mythic recount of his words states, All things pass away.  Strive for your own liberation and diligence.

We have come to believe that we want more and that we need more.  When our lives seem perfect, when we seem to have everything, there is still something missing.  When we face a crisis, it seems obvious that something has either been stolen, or has strayed, or is more deeply lost.  And yet, all of these changes, either “good” or “bad” are more like yin-yang faces of a coin, or like facets on one diamond.  Each aspect offers a gateway to the whole picture.

Beyond the human, in the non-human realm of biota and even physical events, myriad, exquisite lives are lost every moment, and quadrillions of snowflakes melt, and a beautiful architecture of waves in every lake and every seacoast collapses.  Even this dissolution is remarkably beautiful and wondrous.  That which is truly astonishing, is our ability to dismiss this process that is operant in us and in everything that we experience.  Everything around us, especially those events that we overlook and even disprize, is teaching us something very important if we will simply listen and awaken.  This listening and awakening is the direct experience of harmony.  There is, finally, no temple to construct, nothing solid enough for even dust to finally settle upon.  There is just this harmonious flow, like wind and water and our own breath.

Body-mind practices offer this opportunity to access harmony in each moment by following longstanding pathways that have devised “special ingredients.”   Their special “ingredients”/components may involve such things as quietness or softness that allow us to encounter a sense of harmony that is there on a good day of practice as well as one that doesn’t measure up to expectations.  Sometimes in a body-mind practice, some physical pose or movement that was uncomfortable may suddenly become not only comfortable, but also a favorite.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Cool Fire

Copyright lance Kinseth, Vital Energy / Seiki, 2011

The J-strokes of fireflies’ flashes,
 Lost in the universe,
Visual love songs made of cool fire.

NOW, IN SUMMER, when abundance is the norm, when life is bulging at the seams, the Northern Hemisphere already begins its slow tilt away from the sun.  And yet, the hottest days are likely still to come to the top half of the Earth—the Dog Days of summer begin, with sultry heat—the time for the Earthen yang magic of fireflies and fireworks, while Earthen yin is at work in the Southern Hemisphere, there, in the equivalent of January. 

Now, in summer, the roiling sun has become an outspreading cool fire of new fledglings leaving the nest, their feathers still drab, importantly, to not stand out.  The owlets, the eaglets, the “sparrow-lets,” and lower down, with their noses to the ground, young squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits and insects and the up-swelling complexity of flora.    

But the heart of this month, in the heartlands of the Northern Hemisphere, lies, perhaps in its softness, yielding.  Looking closely, the perfect leaves of spring are beginning to yield some of their perfection, tattering in their dance with wind and hail and insects.  And yet, loss is gain for the whole, with leaves becoming insects and insects becoming birds. 

The sky down-reaches with lightning and walls of storms and the rivers overfill.  The willows and grasses on river’s edges bow to the swelling water and live and thrive.

Morihei Ueshiba said,
IF YOUR OPPONENT strikes with fire, counter with water, becoming completely fluid and free-flowing.  Water, by its nature, never collides with or breaks against anything.  On the contrary, it swallows up any attack harmlessly.
[from John Stevens and Walther V. Krenner. Training with the Master: Lessons with Morihei Ueshiba Founder of Aikido, p. 127]

In body-mind practices, calmness softens us like willows alongside swollen rivers.  And in each return, in each new day of our own aging, in the “tattering” aging brings us as it brings to leaves, we soften.  We quiet and calm.  We cool.  We yield.  Like willow against the current, we bend.  We are less flippant.  In calmness, we listen more acutely to the world and to the immanent landscape of our bodies.  We yield to the current as we begin to experience being a facet of a larger current, a larger fire.  We “swallow” the attack of high-paced energy of everyday life and fall inside a larger landscape.

The calmness of body-mind practice energizes us like a cool fire.  We begin to acknowledge that we are more than ourselves, and that we are more than we have allowed ourselves to imagine.  And this view begins to be actualized within our fast-pace everyday.  We may live more as a cool fire—less reactive, opening.

We may begin to spend more time in grace and wonder.  Perhaps the world becomes more magical, but a real magic rather than an illusory one.  In my homeland, every July is punctuated with exclamation by fireflies.  Magically, without thinking, these fireflies create a literal “cool fire.”  Present in childhood, our regular returns to calmness and quietness recover this magic found in childhood, and sometimes in a deeper, more subtle form of wonder and appreciation.  And that which we discover in the fireflies may be opened in every turn, perhaps in drops of rain or insects in evening backlight or in the smile of another. 

Many are familiar with Loren Eiseley’s parable, “The Star Thrower,” wherein starfish that are beached along with myriad other starfish are thrown back one-by-one into the sea by a beachcomber.  Why bother?  The beachcomber answers, “It is important to that starfish.” [See Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, NY: Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1978/1979, pp. 169-185.]  In calming and quieting, we can see a cool, lucent fire of details that express a vast process that is without end.  Our appreciation of life-as-it-is deepens, and our compassion to optimize this process outspreads calmly, like a cool fire, with lessened discrimination, to that firefly and to that fledgling and to that person.