Meditating at the Shala
“Silence is the first and last teacher.”
As the New Year began, I think it’s safe to bet that many resolved to give themselves to this endeavor: To sit on their cushions for a little time each day, to turn their attention to the deep silence within. This sounds delightful doesn’t it? But the reality is quite different. For most, what we find is not silence but an unrelenting mind screaming for our attention like an abandoned child.
This morning, looking out over the shala from my desk where I like to sit in contemplation, I invited silence and within nanoseconds the mind was serving up distractions, providing running lists of to-do activities, and anything it could to get me moving again. This is the way of the mind. I do not try to turn it off. Frankly, I don’t recall ever turning it on. So the mind is not the way to access our deeper self where true intelligence resides.
The way to silence is through the doorway of the senses – not in the usual functioning – but rather through tending to them with one’s attention, consciously inviting a felt experience of them.
Next time you sit try this practice:
- Turn your attention to feeling yourself in contact with the object(s) you’re sitting on.
- Fix your gaze in stillness and locate yourself in the room with your peripheral vision – see yourself, and see the room at the same time. If you prefer your eyes closed then look into the back of your eyelids with the awareness of seeing while simultaneously staying connected to your space.
- Open your ears to hear everything that is available to hear.
- Smell what is available to smell.
- Keep the arrow of your attention in two directions: aware of everything that you can be aware of through sensing – not thinking about – and stay aware of yourself.
- Continue to sense and feel, and relax deeply.
The silence experienced is not void, but rather full – full of presence and clarity. A felt connection to our state of being that sees and knows, free from analysis and memory, where our intuitive wiser selves reside.
Working in the Shala kitchen reawakened and expanded upon an interest that was first awakened by what was then a scarce resource in my life: booze. My first experiments in fermentation resulted in a glass pipe bomb that embedded domino sized triangles of glass into the walls of my bathroom, and peach mush in every conceivable corner of the room. Years later, upon entering the kitchen at Circle Yoga Shala as an apprentice and making the first batches of kimchi and sauerkraut, that interest was re-awakened with a much broader perspective.
Fermentation is magical to me. Billions of microscopic life forms naturally present in the air and on the peels and skins of foods work to transform sugars and carbohydrates into acids and alcohols that preserve and even improve the nutritional profile of the original ingredients. The range of traditional foods that are fermented is astonishing, yet logical when the absence of modern conveniences like refrigeration are taken into consideration. From yogurt and cheese to sauerkraut, chutney, sourdough, kombucha, and even meats, modern society would probably not be what it is without the spontaneous transformation of perishable food from fresh to preserved through the action of yeasts and sugar loving bacteria. This transformative magic bears a striking resemblance to the nature of the work I undertook as an apprentice, and is yet another reminder of how integral transformation is to our reality. Continue reading
It is revolutionary and terrifying to release the control and movement of your breath into another’s control. At least for someone that likes to be in control, which of course, isn’t me.
About a month ago, I was in the middle of my 2nd Yoga Teacher Training Intensive at Circle Yoga Shala that was focused on Pranayama (Breathing Techniques). I climbed the hills of Hwy 7 to the shala with a hybrid of emotions not yet knowing these would be forced to the surface in a room full of individuals due to focusing my attention on breath alone (under the guidance of my teacher, Matt).
On the 3rd day, we began the practice of Kapalabhati – “Skull shining breath.” In the middle of practice, I felt my chest tighten, my jaw clench, and tears flood down my face. Completely perplexed by what was going on, I tried to make myself as small as possible in the room, not garnering attention from anyone. I have always been the “I don’t cry in front of other people” person. Also, I loathe being the center of attention which is obvious by the deep shade of beet red that rises in my face. Yet, here I was sitting in what felt like a crowded room searching my head rather than my heart for why on earth I couldn’t gather myself and stop. I didn’t want to sit through this and show what I perceived to be a weakness. For some reason, I stayed put. I didn’t rush out the door and head off that mountain though I entertained that thought for about 15 minutes. My tears slowed but I knew the minute we circled up to talk about our experience they would return. All Matt had to say was “Why the drop in spirit?” and here they came. What I struggled the most with was my inability to pinpoint the cause of this downpour. I sat there thinking is this what a nervous breakdown is? Have I completely lost my mind? Graciously, Matt moved to the next person. I was really hoping for a break, but after everyone shared we went back to practice. And here they came again, but rather than forcing the tears and the emotions to go back to a tightly closed bottle, I sat there and let them come. I could not do the practice that was being taught, but I did stay with my breath body. The practice came to a close and I wiped my face as we circled up. Holly (my teacher too) came in and noticed my drained face. She had me try and relate what was happening. She observed that even in that moment I was barely breathing, so her only instruction was to breath in my stomach. The rest of the day went on with a screaming headache but with kind love from my teachers and all the other students. Continue reading
My Story of yoga and dance
I was 3 when I took my first dance class and in a couple months I will turn 33. Dance was the only thing I ever knew for sure I loved as a child – well let’s face it, also as an adult – and as I grew older I also knew it was the only thing that had kept me whole in times of trial, though I never could have explained why.
As a young adult, dancing, teaching and working in Washington, DC, I found myself drawn to yoga as a supplement to my dancing. Too poor to afford classes I landed a work/study job at a local studio in Adams Morgan. In exchange for classes the owner tasked me with transcribing the many notebooks that she had accumulated from her training in India. Previously I’d only known yoga as a series of postures and the experience of those on my mat. But as I typed, I slowly began to see, through her short-hand, the underpinnings of an ancient tradition, embodied in the wisdom of generations of yogis, and how deliberately that wisdom had been given to me – – – as if it had started to “wink” at me from the depths of history. Continue reading
An early start
When asked, I typically start my formal search around age ten, reading the Bible cover-to-cover for the second time and deciding on two things: one, that I was not a very good Christian and two, that I was going to be a minister. In hindsight, since I left the church a few years later, I can conclude that I was at least correct about the first.
After a twenty year hiatus, during which I pursued my degrees in engineering and worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs, I encountered meditation in the late 90s while working on my doctorate. While taking the free “yoga” classes at the university in an attempt to increase flexibility while training for marathons, my daily diligence apparently impressed the instructor and she invited me to her meditation group. At that meeting, her teacher quickly realized that my diligence was not yet in the right direction and he simply advised me to keep doing yoga. However, another member of that group presented a slide show that evening about his retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village and I found myself thinking that it looked like fun, immediately followed by the question, why exactly does that look like fun? Since I had little money at the time, a trip to Plum Village was not possible, but I did end up reading several books, reconciling myself with my Christian roots, and later moved to California to work in Silicon Valley, where I had money, but no time. Continue reading
Read, the Shala’s Kitchen Apprentice and Yoga Teacher
A mirror of the cook’s mind
The kitchen, when viewed through a certain lens, is a mirror of the cook’s mind. How well is it organized? How efficient is it? Does it maintain its own existence in equanimity or does it fall into disarray?
As I have worked in the Shala kitchen, I have experienced the multi-tiered processing of my mind. Often times thinking tends to be linear, that is, from A to B. When thought flows in a linear process we concern ourselves with ostensibly separate parts and generally do not notice the “big picture” until something has gone wrong. But in the kitchen thinking must morph into a web-like structure, networking thought and process together into a cohesive whole. This type of understanding allows for our thought processes and our subsequent actions to spiritualize— or to manifest and align according to what is actually happening. Continue reading
Lucy, Head Yoga Apprentice Extraordinaire
So I want to tell ya’ll about being an apprentice at Circle Yoga Shala. Now, I am a city girl, from St. Louis, Missouri, and “ya’ll” is not in my usual vernacular, but it seems contextually appropriate. Besides I like the all-inclusiveness that ya’ll connotes.
The rhythm of the farm
The apprenticeship program flows in the same design plan that everything here at the farm/yoga shala moves: there is a rhythm, and everything sustains everything else. The garden demonstrates this principle of self-sustenance, and it was where I spent much time and energy with Lou Ann, my teacher in all things growing, harvesting, and decaying. For a garden to feed up to 14 people, it has to continually work from within and without. So while one plant may be delicious to eat, it may deplete the soil of certain nutrients, which means another plant has to co-exist there in order to replace those nutrients. (Or nutriments as the Buddhists say). Excrement is an excellent material for composting and feeding a garden, as are food wastes. I became very familiar with liquid and solid wastes, and I can now spot a harlequin beetle or a Colorado Potato Bug from ten paces. With a hearty “om mani padme hum” or an “asalam alaikum” I dispatched many unhelpful garden insects. Continue reading