Jul 5 2010

The Yoga of Social Action

Matthew Foley

I came to yoga with a strong interest in social activism. As a college student, I was active in campus campaigns, attended anti-war rallies, helped start three organizations, and spent most of my weekend volunteering. In fact, the person who invited me to my first yoga class was a man I met not at a meditation retreat, but at a campus dialogue about race relations.

As I started going to yoga classes more often and learning more about the philosophy behind yoga, I immediately starting asking questions about how yoga related to the world I was dealing with as an activist: politics, poverty, race, gender, environmental destruction, violence, and injustice. I heard my teachers speak about peace and compassion, tolerance and openness, but I wondered about the ability of yoga to be completely relevant in the messy and often tragic events of our world.

Like many people, it took me a while to shake off my conception of yoga as something otherworldly. Our image of a yogi is still often shaped by images of lonely men in caves, meditating for hours on end, their focus set on God, with no contact with communities or people. This otherworldliness still infuses the Western perceptions of many of the spiritual traditions of India & Asia, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.

I sought to learn about individuals who have bridged this apparent gap between social action and spirituality. I read more about familiar names like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, but also learned about heroic individuals like Thich Nhat Hanh, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Cesar Chavez. All of them saw a spiritual practice as the foundation for a life dedicated to serving others.

As I learned about these figures, I also dug into my own experience of walking these two paths. My path of social awareness deeply influenced my yoga practice. Instead of staying stuck in that otherworldliness of yoga, my practice has become a more down-to-earth path over the years. I don’t look for enlightenment or samadhi as some blissed-out haze of detachment from the things of this earth. Instead, I see my practice as being mindful and grateful for the day-to-day – even seemingly mundane – events and people of my everyday life: the brilliance of a blue sky, the sound of my cat purring while I rub his belly, the sound of beautiful music, the joy of being with the people I love.

My yoga practice has also deeply influenced my path as an activist. One thing I’ve learned is how the world of politics and social change can be filled with a strong sense of duality – a mentality of us vs. them, of absolute right vs. absolute wrong. Yoga has constantly reminded me to remember the humanity of the people I may disagree with and to treat them with respect and compassion even as we may debate or argue over what is the right thing to do. Yoga has sustained me personally, helping me keep burn-out at bay, and keeping me from getting too cynical about the world’s problems. I realized that to truly love humanity and this planet was not just to care and worry about its problems, but also to appreciate and take joy in its beauty. It is just as important to stop and smell fresh flowers as it is to attend the next big peace rally.

These interconnections have led me to see that the path of spirituality and the path of social action are not separate. They can merge together as a powerful tool for both personal and global transformation. This is because, according to yogic philosophy, the individual and the universe are not separate.

The physical practice of yoga (asana) allows us to experience ourselves as a whole organism – mind, body, and spirit. The larger philosophy and path of yoga allows us experience ourselves – ordinarily believed to be separate from what lies beyond our skin – as inherently inseparable from the entire organism of existence. This is the true meaning of yoga: union.

This united organism of existence includes our natural environment, our social environment, our political environment, and the environment of our own bodies and psyches. All of them need our attention and our compassion if we are to experience peace, both personally and globally.

I think the yoga community would benefit from a more vibrant and engaged conversation about the connections between practices of yoga and meditation and the interconnected world outside of our yoga studios and meditation halls. I’m not suggesting that yoga classes become soapboxes or group meditations become political action meetings. I simply believe that yoga and other meditative practices can be powerful forces for good on this planet if we seek ways to more deeply practice peace and compassion – both on and off the yoga mat.

~ Matthew Foley


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


Jan 19 2010

Benefit Yoga Class for Haiti Earthquake Relief

Rae

All of us have been shocked and saddened by the news of a devastating earthquake that struck the nation of Haiti on Tuesday, January 12th. Reports estimate that 3 million people have been affected, with as many as 100,000 feared dead. Many people have been wondering how they can help respond to this tragedy and ease the suffering of Haiti.

On Wednesday, January 20th from 6 to 8 PM, a benefit yoga class will be offered at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. A $10 donation at the door is suggested. All proceeds from the class will go to Partners in Health, an agency that has been working on the ground in Haiti for over 20 years. Your donations will go towards vital medical care desperately needed by those impacted by the earthquake.

Yoga, more than just a form of exercise, is a tool for creating harmony, compassion, and peace – both within ourselves and in the world we share. No prior yoga experience is necessary. There will also be a time for quiet meditation and prayer for those affected by this tragedy.

The class will be taught by Matthew Foley, a Yoga Alliance Certified Instructor. Music will be provided by DJ Anwar Staggers.

For more information, please contact Matthew Foley at (803)361-3842 or foleym@cofc.edu.

$10 Donation Suggested

Type: CausesFundraiser
Network:  Global
Date: Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Time: 6:00pm – 8:00pm
Location: Avery Research Center Ball Room
Street: 125 Bull Street
City/Town: Charleston, SC

Jan 6 2010

What is the Goal?

Rae

The infamous question this week….yes, you got it! “SO what is your New Year’s resolution?” My response this year is I don’t have one. My hope is that I continue to be more aware, conscious and mostly present in whatever I am doing, from being with my family and friends to eating a meal.

The Apostle Paul shares with us in the letter of Philippians encouragement to set our goals. He expresses, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers and Sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and reaching towards what is ahead.  And I press on toward the goal.”  Some of us continue pressing the rewind button on the video cameras of our minds, like a horrible scene that doesn’t go away! Some of us fix our eyes of what is to come, “when I have this much in the bank, then I will be happy.” How many of us just press on toward the goal?  Or even know what the goal is? First let’s define a goal…“The end toward which effort is directed.”  Synonyms for the word goal are, “target; purpose, object, and intention.” Ah HA, now those are familiar words we hear in yoga.  Set your intention for this practice. Or is it a practice? Shiva Rea stated in an interview on her DVD of Fluid Power, “I don’t practice yoga any more, practicing yoga is like practicing the violin as if you have to achieve perfection. So, I don’t practice yoga, I live yoga, I am yoga.” So in essence within yoga we yoke or join with the Spirit of Life on and off our mats. The goal is simply to BE present with the I AM.  Present within a posture, as we position our bodies to receive the fullness of life. The goal that Paul is talking about is living a life of purpose, BEING in relationship with God. It is not about being perfect; if we were to be perfect then we wouldn’t need Divine intimacy or saving Grace. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit or Prana within our bodies wouldn’t need to be obtained if there was not a goal.  So this year perhaps we just continue onward to forget the past, reach toward the future, and press on toward the goal.   The goal of yoga is to create harmony with mind, body, and soul. Let’s connect with prayers and poses.

For how to get in and out of the poses go to www.yogajournal.com and there will be links with descriptions and photos of the poses below.

Breathe in and out:  “I forget the past”

Our hearts hold on to past wounds, back bends are postures that can release stale and stagnant energy. Postures/Asanas that open the heart and draw the shoulder blades on backside of heart release the past;  the heart bolsters forward and is open to the future. Maybe something comes to mind in this pose, acknowledge it and then release it.

Some Back bends to exlpore-Bridge, Wheel, Cobra, Upward facing Dog, Bow

Breathe in and out: “I reach towards what is ahead”

Standing Mountain Pose with arms reaching towards heaven

Child pose reaching arms long with hope

Warrior II reaching arms equally to the back and front symbolizing the balance between faith and action

Breathe in and out: “I press towards the goal”

In Downward Facing Dog press the heel of the hands and feet into the earth, experience the balance and connection with the Creator of the Universe who holds you up. As your head releases below your heart feel your brain being bathed with new vitality; a fresh start. Fix your eyes on the goal, an internal/external positioning of your whole body with purpose and BEING.

May we grow deeper in love with who The Spirit made us to be in this new year.

Peace and Health-Rachel Glowacki, RYT/HYT


Dec 16 2009

Prayers and Poses

Rae

“Tis the season to go crazy…. fa la la la la la la la la!”  Thanksgiving is over and the lights are on and out everywhere, the rush has started and in the craze of worrying about gifts, cards, family and how to afford the gifts can easily put us in a bad mood. BUT “tis the season to be jolly,” right? YES…despite the anxiety driven commercialism of Christmas, we can slow down and embrace the reason for this season.  The reason for the season is to extend abundant love for another and celebrate the birth of Christ who is The Light, Truth and Way.

 

We just started the Advent tradition in my family and we are on day six and it has truly set our days in motion with purpose. Traditionally Advent is celebrated in the evening, but we gather in the morning to center our day, to symbolize the light of Christ overcoming darkness. The wreath is a visual reminder that God’s love is eternal and never ending. There are three purple candles that represent royalty or the coming of the King. For the first three weeks we light the purple candles, the first week we light one purple candle, the second week we light two purple candles and, the third week we light all three purple candles. On the fourth week we light a pink candle that reminds us of God’s love. On Christmas day a white candle is placed in the center of the wreath to signify God’s purity.  Every morning we sit around our table and follow this simple reading by St. Andrew’s Church that centers our day. One of us lights the candle and repeats, “May the Light of Jesus Christ come into this house.” We add our minds, hearts, thoughts, and bodies. Then we all say together, “O God whose word all things are made holy, put your blessings on this wreath, and may it remind us to slow down our hectic pace and make our hearts ready for the coming of Christ your son and our Lord.”  We take thirty seconds because my kids are four and two, to sit in silence and focus our gaze/drishti on the light. Then together we say the Lord’s the prayer.

 

It has been such an enriching experience for us as a family and myself personally that, I  have incorporated the candle meditation into my classes, as each student lights each other’s candle and looks at each other in the eyes and says, “The Light in me, sees the Light in You.”   This is the English translation of “Namaste,” a greeting in Sanskrit that literally translates, “I bow to you.”  It is a way to not only greet your fellow neighbor but also honor the person’s spirit within. I often end classes with, “I bow to the Divine Truth that has created each and every one of you.”  We all are created in the image of God, designed and hand crafted with gifts and talents to offer the world. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).  During this season of gift giving, may you find the time to slow down and perhaps reflect on the special gift that you are, designed in the image of God. Jesus came to earth in the body to teach us what love looks like and He invites us to go to Him in our bodies with praise and thanksgiving, as we offer our bodies in prayer with poses.

 

Son Salutation to the Lord’s Prayer

Created By JeanneAnne Copleston, HYT

 

SUNRAE YOGA 020          SUNRAE YOGA 001

Peace and Health,

Rachel Glowacki, RYT

www.sunraeyoga.com