Dec 19 2010

Mind/Body Harmony

Matthew Foley

I had a really phenomenal experience this past Sunday morning teaching a yoga class to a dance group at the College of Charleston. About a dozen people showed up for the class, which took place in a beautiful dance room located inside the brand new Cato Arts Center on the CofC campus. In preparing for the class, I did a lot of thinking about what a yoga practice might offer people who are passionate about dance and creative movement.

One of the central aspects of yoga is cultivating a harmonious relationship between mind and body. Such harmony is of course essential to creating beautiful and graceful movement in dance. In many Eastern spiritual paths, the mind and the body are seen as equal halves of an integral whole. This is the philosophy of yin and yang: things that appear to be opposites – light and dark, tall and short, earth and sky, spirit and flesh – are in fact inseparably connected with one another.

In Western culture, however, there is a very rigid division between mind and body. In the last year, I’ve stumbled upon a number of brilliant Western thinkers who have addressed this division and the disharmony is creates in individuals.

The first is Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on human creativity, who gave a brilliant address at the 2006 TED Conference on creativity in children and whether or not educational systems around the world do an adequate job of fostering that creativity. (The whole talk is worth watching, but the part I’ll be focusing on begins around the 9:00 minute mark).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY

During his talk, he spoke about the fact that almost all schools around the world tend to place a great emphasis on language and mathematics over the arts, particularly drama and dance. He says: “As children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist-up. Then we focus on their heads – and slightly to one side.”

He goes on to describe what type of person this emphasis on head-only education creates, particularly in the form of the stereotypical academic professor: “They live in their heads. They live up there – and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads. It’s a way of getting their heads to meetings.”

Another brilliant thinker I’ve come across in the past year is Alan Watts, who came to popular attention during the 1960’s as an interpreter of Eastern spiritual traditions (especially Zen Buddhism) for Western audiences. In one of his talks featured on YouTube, delightfully illustrated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, he addresses this split between mind and body that exists in the West and how it shapes our sense of self.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAVM_Xk_o9E&feature=related

“I’ve always been tremendously interested in what people mean by the word “I” – because it comes out in curious lapses of speech. We don’t say: “I am a body.” We say: “I have a body.” Somehow we don’t seem to identify ourselves with all of ourselves. We say “my feet,” “my hands,” “my teeth,” as if they were something outside me. As far as I can make out, most people feel that they are something or other about halfway between the ears and a little ways behind the eyes, inside the head. That’s what you call the “ego.” That’s not what you are at all, because it gives you the idea that you are a chauffeur inside your own body – as if you your body were an automobile and you are the chauffeur principle inside it.”

The point that both Robinson and Watts are making is that when we identify primarily with our mind and our thoughts, we disconnect ourselves from our bodily existence. The results are usually disastrous, particularly in our modern culture. We stuff food into our mouths that are deeply gratifying to the mind (products high in fat and processed sugar) but which are nutritionally disastrous to the body. On the opposite extreme, we flock to gyms in order to sculpt our bodies into an idealized mental image of what we should like like – usually based on digitalized media images of the super skinny or ultra buff.

What is lacking is a deep listening to the wisdom of the body. Oftentimes, we only start to listen when we are forced to, usually as a result of an illness or life-threatening condition. Many people then realize that they must flip their entire life-style upside down and start living from a more holistic understanding of themselves.

Many of these people, of course, find their way to yoga classes and meditation retreats.

A great deal of the popularity of such practices as yoga, tai chi, and seated meditation are found in the fact that they help cultivate a holistic way of looking at ourselves and our place in the world. These practices are based on the realization that the mind and body form an inseparable wholeness – just as each individual human being, animal, or plant is an integral part of the interdependent environment in which they live. The process of yoga, in my mind, is a process of extending the feeling of identity outwards, away from the narrow confines of our egos, and connecting with our bodies, our communities, the planet, and the universe.

In the yoga class I taught to the dance group, I continually encouraged the participants to focus on their breath. The breath is an incredible tool for helping us cultivate mind/body harmony. Mindful breathing helps us turn down the volume on our mental noise so that the wisdom of the body may begin to be heard. A yogi or dancer can then begin to truly feel his or her body. They can begin to discover where they are tight or sore, where they hold anxiety or stress, in what movements they feel confident or terrified. This deep listening to the body can give us insight into the ways we live and in what ways we may need to change.

When the body and mind begin to move and function as one, we become more effective in what we do, we become more graceful and effortless in our actions, we become less worried and anxious in our inner lives. This is obviously helpful not just on the yoga mat or on the dance stage, but in all aspects of our lives.

So the question is… What might your body be trying to tell you? And if you start to really listen, what changes would begin to happen in your life?

~ Matthew Foley


Dec 15 2010

Family Yoga!

Willis Tant

There is a class at Jivamukti Yoga on Sundays at noon that is called Family Yoga.  It is intended to be for all people of all ages and can be shared by any and all family members.  The teachings are simple and useful, there is a sense of fun, and songs that help students easily learn the movements.

It is my favorite class that I have the honor of teaching.  I am often so touched by family togetherness that I am moved to tears.  There have been students who bring in their sisters who visit from out of town, there have been father-son moments, and grandparents and small children who delight us all.  But most regular has been one family, who, come almost every Sunday, because they make it THEIR Family time.  Their time to BE and grow together!  Their time to stretch, and breathe, and SEE each other.  Often they go on a picnic or to the beach or even to the grocery store together afterwards.  But for that one hour, every Sunday, they practice together.   I revel in their beauty every week. 

Last Sunday they were telling me how they invite other families to join them, how they spread the word because they have experienced such value from the practice together.  They inspire me and I am so grateful to their dedication and enthusiasm.  They humble me and are a living example of light.  So may this, my first blog, be a sincere offering to this family who has shown me so much love.  Thank you. 

And thank you for coming to practice yoga together in my presence so many times over.  We invite more Charleston yoga families to join us! And look forward to growing, being, and seeing you more often.


May 11 2010

Yoga & The Art of Listening

Matthew Foley

One of the classic texts of the Yoga tradition, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Within these teachings, Patanjali lays down a quintessential definition of “yoga” that has become a bedrock of modern Yoga practice. In Verse 2, the Sutras read:

YOGAS CITTA VRTTI NIRODHAH

Which can translated in various ways:
“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of consciousness”
“Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff.”
“Yoga is the stopping of the turnings of the mind.”

Well, what on earth are the “fluctuations of consciousness,” “modifications of the mind-stuff,” or “turnings of the mind”? And why should we be concerned with them coming to an end?

The turnings of the mind are our habitual mental chatter, the interior monologue running through our brains almost every moment of every day. It is the voice that constantly proclaims its like, its dislikes, its judgments, and its comparisons. It is what carries on our inner autobiography; our feelings of being a good or a bad person, beautiful or ugly, a success or failure, worthy of love or deserving of contempt. It is what worries and obsesses about the future, as well as lives in pride or shame over the past.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this mental chatter. But it tends to create a problem when we habitually identity ourselves with this stream of thought.

Ask yourself this question: where do you most strongly experience your sense of “I”? If you were to say “I exist”, where do you most feel that coming from? Your big toe? Your arteries? Or perhaps your spleen? No, most people (at least in our culture) would answer that “I” is most strongly located somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears. Located ourselves primarily in the head, we connect our identity with the stream of thoughts passing through the mind. This forms our most basic sense of who we are.

From the time of some of our earliest records of human history, human beings have sought through various contemplative practices to bring this mental stream to a stop. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, ascetic practices, drumming, dancing, and singing can all become paths towards turning down the volume of our inner chatter so that something else, something deeper, might be heard. Why? Is it a form of intellectual suicide? Does it mean becoming a mindless bump on a log? No, not at all. By such an attempt, human beings have sought a way to peace, profound happiness, and liberation from suffering.

They realized that the reflective nature of our thoughts – our ability to think about our thinking, and even think about our thinking about our thinking – leaves us in perpetual anxiety about our lives and actually creates an illusory barrier between ourselves and the world around us.

When we give all our attention to this constantly critiquing voice in the head, we subtly disconnect ourselves from what is happening right in front of us. If you are in the midst of an experience and are busy the entire time judging and commenting to yourself on everything – the warmth or coldness of the room, the quality of the company around you, other things you could be doing at this moment – then you aren’t really living in that present moment. You are “stuck up in the head,” too self-conscious to fully be engaged with the experience you are having. It is a little like constantly checking your phone for missed calls or texts while on a first date – it shows you aren’t really interested.

There are days when, feeling a little blue or tired, I can walk through the entire day in a sort of “blah” feeling, wrapped up in whatever crummy feelings I’m going through. If someone were to ask me later how my day went or what I did or saw, I might draw a blank on the contents of the day. I was so wrapped up in my mental “stuff” that I didn’t really notice the beautiful park I drove by on my way to work, or the smell of the rain during the afternoon, or the way my cat stretched himself as I opened the door coming home. This mental chatter keeps us from, in the words of Ram Dass, “being here now.”

Awakening to life therefore involves turning down the volume on this inner noise and instead listening more deeply to what is really going on.

For instance, if you are in a conversation with someone and you’re the one doing all the talking, you aren’t really connecting at all with the other person. You aren’t really having a conversation; you are having a monologue in someone else’s presence. It also means that you probably won’t learn or grow much from that conversation, because you’re just repeating what you already know. But when you become silent and listen, allowing the other person to speak, you expose yourself to new perspective and points of view. You grow, you evolve, you expand.

Well, life is the same way. We could think of our every day lives as a conversation with the world. If we are the ones doing all the talking, by means of our constant internal judgments, comparison, and commentary, then we aren’t really listening to what life may be trying to tell us. Even in prayer, when we are supposed to be seeking answers from God, most people in our culture pray by talking the whole time. Thus it has been said that whereas prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening to God.

So, let us try a meditation of deep listening. You may want to read this first and then go and experiment.

Find a comfortable seat, whether in a chair or sitting in meditation on the floor. Close your eyes and place your hands comfortably in the lap or on the knees.

Bring all of your attention to your sense of hearing. Imagine that you are one giant ear and your only purpose is to hear. Listen to the sounds around you. Maybe you hear a bird chirping outside, or cars driving some distance away, or the sound of faint music in the background.

Whatever it is, just listen, with no judgment, commentary, or interpretation. As Alan Watts once said, “The sound of the rain needs no translation.”

When thoughts begin to arise in the mind, treat them as just another thing to listen to. There is just a deep listening.

What you may begin to notice is that within the quietness of mind, the most ordinary sounds of every day life take on a staggering quality of beauty. The sound of the wind becomes a music just as beautiful as those played by orchestras. The flowing sounds of ocean waves become poems for the ear.

If you listen deeply enough, you may notice that in the midst of such beautiful sound, there is no sound of one listening. That is because there is no real separation between the knower and the known, the experience and the one having the experience. This lack of separation, which was only an illusion in the first place, is the experience of “yoga,” which literally means “yoke” or “union.”

Yoga is a practice of deep listening, turning down the volume of our mental noise, so that we may hear the wisdom of the Universe more clearly.

~ Matthew Foley


Feb 10 2010

Yoga and Music: To Crank Up or Mellow Out

Harry Dinwiddie

Recently, I received a complaint from a student about the music choice I had chosen for savasana. I had never received a complaint before about my playlists, but this one had said it was not yogic. The song, granted, could be seen as offensive (which I warned the class prior to playing it) but the message was positive and needed, in my opinion, to be shared with the class. The songs I play in my classes are not the soft music with Tibetan bowls or anything played by Krishna Das. My music is typically music I like and associate with. Currently this is a lot of indie rock and a lot of these songs are loud and fast. Occasionally I will throw in some hip hop or a playlist dedicated to 90′s alternative music. But the idea that a song is not yogic to me is ludicrous. Its not the music, the beat or the meaning that is important. Its the focus one has toward the music.

This brought up an interesting topic that is usually overlooked in our practice. That is music’s place in yoga classes. Traditionalists could say that there shouldn’t be any music. Contemporaries could say use it as it adds to the flow of the class. When I started out teaching, I believed in the former and that music deserved no place. Yoga needed a place to be sacred and nature is the most sacred sound. Today though, I see it completely different. Music should be used as it enhances our practice and actually challenges us further.

Yoga has the ability to allow our minds to focus. This actually is a much harder task than even the hardest of poses or sequences. Think of your mind as a muscle and focusing on one object for a certain time requires constant practice. This exercise is often in combat with our monkey mind and any thoughts that pop up to interrupt our practice. An hour yoga class becomes rather difficult to focus the entire time but constant effort and practice allow this focus to sharpen itself.

There are two ways to focus during a class. The first is to focus on one thing. This could be an intention, your breath or your movement in your poses. The idea is to never leave your mat and allow all other distractions to not even be a concern. The second way to focus is to accept and welcome the entire environment around you and allow yourself to move freely through it. It may seem like a farce to say to focus on your environment, but allowing yourself to use all five senses to equally take in everything and be amazed by your surroundings is a way to shift your attention to the present. All distractions than are natural and cease to become distractions. Focus itself than is either attention on one thing or all things.

Music itself than becomes a way to hone your focus. Whichever focus is chosen, music can play a part. If the chosen focus is to concentrate on one point, music is a challenge to not focus on it. Think of meditating. Meditating is great when it is completely silent but a struggle when there are tons of outside noises that can distract. Is life silent? Does the world stop making noises when you want to sit? The answers are no. Meditation and focus require a challenge of sorts to keep us strong in what we want to focus on. Music than becomes a challenge to maintain we keep our focus, so that it may make us stronger in our practice. On the other hand if the focus is drawn to the equality of five senses and the present, music becomes part of our environment. When this occurs, the beat gets into our head and the music takes us. We become a part of the song and it lifts us to whatever feeling it is giving us, whether it is slow or fast.

Usually, I offer a choice of songs for savasana. I ask the class “Happy or beautiful?” These refer to two songs I absolutely love and fit perfectly for final relaxation. They are Sigur Ros’ Festival and Ara Batur. These songs emit the wonderful feelings for finishing a great class. It was these two songs that made me want to use music the way I do and without apology. Songs can lift us, move us and put us in places we are uncomfortable with. It seems like yoga and music are similar in that fashion. Why wouldn’t they be shared together?

 

Harry Dinwiddie will be exploring mixing music, yoga and art as he will be teaching a new class at Eye Level Art at 103 Spring St. Tuesday nights at 6:30 starting Feb 16.


Jan 11 2010

Yoga As It Applies To Me

Sarah Finn

For me, yoga is a practice.  It is not a performance, not an on-again-off-again thing, nor is it perfect. In this practice I have found a lifestyle–a way of moving and flowing and being that keeps me and my ego in checkity-check mode! 

We all have them–egos that is.  But what do we do with them?  To me, humility is huge.  Humility is being brought to my knees after falling down a time or twenty in handstand and getting back up.  It is coming right back to my mat with a smile and tear after my mother’s death, expressing that loss in the form of movement and receiving energy from the practice.  It’s moving deeper into my faith after many sleepless nights, on hands and knees in deep prayer and meditation after a longtime relationship fell apart, then picking up the pieces (or lessons) from it all, understanding and taking what I need from that moment, inhaling a deep breath, then moving on.  Most can relate…right? 

I believe yoga should be accessible to all types of hearts, souls, bodies, and minds.  Many of us start our yoga journey on the mat…we then take the choice of conscious movement and intention and apply it to other areas of life–eating, socializing, sharing, speaking, loving, and connecting.  On the mat, we deepen our understanding of compassion for ourselves and then dedicate that same expression of compassion to the rest of the world as a whole.  Personally, if I come to class and take care of myself, then once I roll my mat up and go back out onto the street and see someone who needs a hand, a dollar, a ride, or a meal, I feel more open to give.  And in turn, when I am down, I feel deserving of receiving that same love. 

Power Yoga also pushes me to my edge, takes me right out of my comfort zone and challenges me. This too is a HUGE help in my life off the mat.  When I am in a situation that is uncomfortable or challenging, I no longer run away or get pissed off, but rather breath and see the lesson in it all.

The practice of yoga is so humbling and beautiful and whole.  Yoga can touch all areas of our lives, leading to a greater understanding of liberation from attachment, faith, connectedness, love, and so much more.  I believe a strong dedication to the physical practice–every day on the mat, moving energy and cleaning out the body–is a huge tool in creating a sense of balance and well being.  I really could go on and on, however, I have a class to get too so with that being said… I hope to see you on the mat soon or on the street for a chat and hug! 

 

Namaste People!

Sarah Finn

Charleston Power Yoga

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