It has been hot. So. Hot. So much hotter than it should reasonably be in June, even in Central Texas. We’re breaking heat records left and right. I think we’re well over two weeks with highs of over 100 degrees everyday. My husband and I, cheap hippies that we are, do not have central air. We do have a window unit in the main living area, and that thing has been on more in the last two weeks than it has been in the entire two years we have lived here. We sleep with four fans on full-blast. We take many showers a day, and it’s so bloody hot that we can’t even get the water cold enough to suit us. It comes out of the pipe lukewarm. That’s no joke. Of course the heat comes with a major drought, and so our yard–and the entire state of Texas, it would seem–is tan-colored, dry and crackling. I’ve caught myself daydreaming of living someplace where there are actual seasons, like Maine, places where it rains more than four or five days out of the year.

This could all get worse. It’s not even July yet.

So what’s a yogini to do, then, with all this heat? The yoga tradition that I study, Viniyoga, roughly translates to mean “appropriate adaptation.” Since my practice is about my whole life, not just what occurs on the mat, I’ve been taking that principle to heart: adapt, adapt, adapt. Here’s a list of the ways in which I’ve been coping.

  • Modify my practice. This is no time to work on developing core strenght. Already, the most moderate of sun salutations has me slick with sweat at 7am. When I do asana at all, either I don’t get up off the floor, or if I do, I move tai chi-slow. I’ve shifted my focus to pranayama, more specifically switching from pratiloma ujjayi, which is heating, to sitali pranayama, which is cooling and soothing. Already the effects have been very noticeable.
  • Seek relief. Almost everyday I go to the river. The San Marcos river is spring-fed, and although it is dangerously low this year, nearest the spring the water is fast-moving and very cool. About an hour of short dips interspersed with stretches of reading on the grassy shore (most recently, David Sedaris) is absolutely miraculous. Works even better if you keep your wet bathing suit on as long as possible afterwards. Also, the free wi-fi and free A/C at our local library have provided an invaluable refuge in these last weeks.
  • Eat light. Seriously. Smoothies and salads are basically all I want and all I can handle making right now. I’ve been obsessed with this one salad in particular. I make it with a can of straight up organic black beans. It is so yummy. It’s what’s for lunch two to three times a week–including today! I can’t wait. I’m also eating lots of fresh fruit, and have figured out that the trusty thermos that keeps my tea hot forever in the winter now keeps it cool just as long if not longer, so I fill it with tea and ice and keep it close at hand.
  • Forget about it. For years now I’ve wanted to learn how to sew, and have finally taken the plunge. I’ve been tethered to the sewing machine for hours most days, and I get so absorbed in what I am doing that I hardly care that I am damp with sweat.

Of course I am sparing you all the ways in which I am not coping, the whining and moaning, the troubled sleep, the eating of too much ice cream. I figure it goes pretty well without saying. But at least I am taking measures that are effective in making my days better, and being consistent with them. That is what skillful practice is all about.

::listening:: The Innocence Mission, Glow

::reading:: The Hakawati, by Rabih Alammedine

::loving:: Watermelon slices with salt; cold showers

::making:: Sorta Soygurt

::wishing:: a new pair of sandals; a trip to the third coast

::digging:: the possibilities of learning a new craft: sewing

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Angela, began the year with a series of classes whose theme was just start over.  This is very timely in January, which ushers in, along with the new year, the dreaded (dreadful?) tyranny of new year’s resolutions. Angela’s message at this time is that there is nothing wrong with wanting to change old habits or start new ones, but that if we are to make the journey a healthy one, we need to understand how difficult it is to alter our habits and that we would do well to build some compassion into the process. We all start out with soaring, exhilarating intentions–I am going to start a yoga practice, learn a new language, eat healthier, start and maintain a blog, what-have-you–but, inevitably (and it is inevitable!) we are going to miss a day, miss a month (or two), and our great hopes are shot to hell, so we might as well quit. Right?

Wrong. In Angela’s words, your level of success in any new endeavor shouldn’t be measured by how long or steadily you were able to do well, but by how well you are able to just start over. Deviations off the path are a healthy part of the practice. Can you have some compassion for yourself, perhaps a healthy chuckle, then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and carry on down the road?   In one of the stories of the Desert Fathers that I cherish, an Abba was asked, “What do you do in the monastery?” His answer was, “We fall down, and we get up; we fall down, and we get up.”

You can make a new beginning–today. No need to wait for January; no need to mourn your losses. The Bhagavad Gita says, “On this path no effort is wasted; no gain is ever reversed.” So here I am, on a June day just before the summer solstice, picking up the pieces of my blog, and, in a spirit of humor and compassion, forging ahead.

  • Being assaulted by evil allergy-inducing oak pollen from hell. (Thank God that’s over.)
  • Marveling at my brand-shining-new nephew, and helping out my sister-in-law/hero who was on bed rest for two weeks.
  • Hanging out with my parents who came to visit from Montreal during said two weeks.
  • Witnessing the glory that are Patty Griffin and Over The Rhine live.
  • Practicing Yoga.
  • Writing haiku.
  • Eating kale.
  • Reading the Gita.
  • Enjoying spring.

Aaaah. It’s good to be back. How’ve you been?

I woke up today wanting to go outside. The morning was beautiful: sunny and soft, with a veil of fog drifting in briefly. My husband put me in charge of watering some stuff in the garden, so the dogs, me & my tea headed out onto the damp morning grass. It is such a profound pleasure to see the yard so beautifully green after a year of drought & dogs tearing around had turned it to brown dust. I watered seedlings and small basil plants, greeting potato plants, nasturtiums, cabbages and kale along the way. My task accomplished, I took a stroll around our acre.

Strolling about on the property is still a relatively new thing for me even though we’ve lived here for almost two years. The year we moved in was unusually rainy–it rained every day in July, a freak occurence in Central Texas–and so the better part of the yard was an inaccessible jungle. And then last year was so bloody hot and dusty brown that I mostly stuck to the back porch. Right now the yard is so very pleasant, and so is the weather, that it’s time to break out of old patterns and enjoy it while this delicate balance of near-perfection is being offered to us.

I have noticed for the past several days that I tend to spend most of the day inside, even with this riot of gorgeousness going on outside. It has felt like spending too much time stuck inside my own head: confined, thoughts stuffy, ambitions restricted. This morning I stepped out onto the grass and immediately felt I was part of something bigger, which made me feel light and happy.  I tossed sticks to the dogs, sipped my tea, and looked about for a spot to make a meditation station outside. (I think I found one.)

I remembered last summer when I took a workshop with Donna Farhi, how she told us that, for a year’s time, she made a commitment to herself that the first thing she would do each day, regardless of weather or moods, would be to go out and muck the horse stalls. Every morning she made manure her spiritual practice. This morning out on the grass, it made sense to me.  For the spiritual practitioner, having to get out of the house first thing to tend to the needs of living things other than oneself, whether it be the garden or horses, does something invaluable: it gets you out of yourself, out of your own head, and connects you to the world around you.

For me, the goal of spiritual practice is to realize the unity I share with all living things, and to live more fully in that realization. Stepping outside, hearing the songs of birds, tending to growing plants, creates a context for the nuts and bolts of my practice, for my sadhana which immediately follows. Once on the mat I don’t have to strive so hard to find that unitive state because I have just experienced it directly. My practice just flows sweetly out of that experience.

After my little walkabout, I took my mat and cushion out to the back porch to practice outside. I don’t know whether to attribute it to my outdoorsy morning, but I had a very centered, very present practice that was enlivening and renewing. Though I had to stop often to blow my nose and sneeze (definitely a minor drawback of the unitive state–pollen allergies!), being outside, under the fleeting clouds, feeling the breeze, catching a glimpse of the mockingbird and a pair of scissortail flycatchers, again made me feel part of something larger than myself, which in turn made me feel as though I am wider and deeper than what is confined to the envelope of my body. Sitting in meditation, I came upon some luminous realizations that floated up whole, complete, from some space deep within. On a morning like this, it’s pretty easy to think, Yes, this is what it’s all about, I want to live like this everyday.

But like all lessons worth learning, I expect this one will have its fits and starts. I’ll get lazy, it’ll get hot, I’ll spend more mornings farting around on the computer too much. (Remember my great big walking realization? Yeah, that was short-lived.) But I feel a seed has been planted, and that I can make mornings like this more a part of my routine, more a part of my practice. Maybe all I need are some goats and chickens out there to generate some manure for me to tend to.

In my relatively short tenure as a yoga teacher, I have already discovered that people will respond to hearing about what I do in fairly predictable ways.  One of the responses I often hear is, “Oh, I’d love to do yoga, but I just don’t have an hour a day to do it.”  There are many misconceptions about yoga among the general population (and it is beyond the scope of this post to give even a passing glance at all of them), but this seems to me to be one of the most common and unfortunate ones.

I can see how it would be logical for someone who doesn’t know too much about the practice to think that you need that much time for a single session, since public yoga classes typically last between 60 and 90 minutes. But this is by no means prescriptive. True, in a perfect world, we would all be able to get in an hour’s worth of practice before facing whatever our day holds, but I believe that this is a case where quality is more important than quantity. Some yoga is definitely better than no yoga.

Earlier this week, I had to leave the house at 7am to fight traffic and be in East Austin by 8:30am. I did not get up at 5am to get in a full practice; but instead of giving up on practice altogether, I went into my yoga room and sat on my zafu.  I connected with my breath; I chanted. I did two simple but potent asanas: chakravakasana and vajrasana.  All told, I spent no more than five minutes on my yoga practice this morning, but it was enough to center and ground myself before beginning my day, and it made a difference.

Even more important than quality or quantity is consistency. Doing five minutes of yoga on most days will allow you to reap infinitely more benefits from the practice than doing one hour-long session weekly.  Although it is possible to enjoy the benefits of a yoga practice from the very first moment you step on the mat, you only really begin to experience its transformational powers when you practice regularly.  This can mean doing as little as I did earlier this week; I”ll even go further than that and say that, for a beginner, simply sitting on one’s mat for five minutes a day would be enough to reap some of the benefits of practice. This is by no means the only practice you should ever aspire to, but it’s a damn fine place to start.

I am reading Wild Mind, a book on writing by Natalie Goldberg. She draws a lot from her Zen practice to flesh out her vision of what writing is all about, and this story she relates about her late Zen teacher speaks directly to the matter at hand:

When someone complained about getting up at 5am for sitting meditation, Katagiri Roshi said, “Make positive effort for good.”

This is what we do when we step onto the mat, even if just for five minutes: we make a positive effort for the good–our own, and the good of people and things around us. This is why a week-long of daily five minute stints on the mat adds up to more than a single hour-long session: sure, you’ll have done less asana, and probably won’t have gone as deep in five minutes as you could have in a whole hour, but you’ll have stored up many days’ worth of making a positive effort for good. You will begin to create a a new rhythm, a healthy habit, and it is these seeds, tenderly and regularly tended to, that will bloom into a fully beneficial and transformative practice.

Try it: find quiet spot. Sit down comfortably, and close your eyes. Notice your breath. Notice your body. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Don’t try to change a thing. Settle into the moment. Spent five minutes doing nothing. Now slowly get up, and mindfully go about your day. You may wonder, Is this really yoga? You bet it is. Lather, rinse, repeat, every day like brushing your teeth.  Go ahead. Let me know how it goes.  See if it doesn’t begin to change your life a little.

180px-leonard_cohen_2181My husband and I spent a rapturous evening last week in the company of the inimitable Leonard Cohen at the Long Center in Austin. Even though Cohen is my hometown’s hero (like him, I was born in Montreal) and I spent my sullen late teen years listening to his music, I hadn’t stored up a whole lot of excitement in anticipation of the concert, thinking of it more as my husband’s night, as he is a huge fan. I knew I was in for a wonderful time, but I wasn’t prepared for the warm wave of love and admiration that swept over me the moment he stepped onstage: I was floored.  I went in an empty vessel, and was filled to overflowing. It was the kind of concert from which one emerges changed, with perceptions broadened and deepened.

What struck me the most, more than his impossibly sexy voice, his dapper suit & hat, his generosity and flawless showmanship, was the quality of his presence. Here is a man of 74 years, and alive, awake, visibly vibrating in every cell of his body. I wondered after the show, how many times has he performed “Suzanne”? How does he manage to bring such freshness, such immediacy of emotion to material that is over 40 years old? I knew I was looking at a man with a deep, deep practice.

In the late 1990s Cohen spent 5 years at a Zen monastery in California, where he was ordained as a monk. Though not a word about Zen was uttered during last night’s concert, I couldn’t help but think about it as I beheld a man of such intense, solid, rooted presence. As a practitioner of Yoga, I thought, I want some of that. I want to be that present and alive to what I am doing, grounded in the moment and shining as he was on that stage, though what I might be doing wouldn’t be to thrill and dazzle a theater full of people. It doesn’t matter what you do; it doesn’t matter what your practice is. Cohen himself once said that it wasn’t Zen that attracted him, it was his teacher; if his teacher had been a Benedictine monk, that is what he would have become. In the end what matters is that we choose a vehicle, stick with it, and go deep.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

These words from Cohen’s song “Anthem”, which I’ve seen quoted in various spiritual writings, echo through my head today. I’ve begun a study of the Bhagavad Gita, that ancient sacred Indian text, and have been reading closely the chapter on the Yoga of Action, or Karma Yoga. In it, the lord Krishna speaks to Arjuna, a warrior conflicted about having to do his duty, which is to fight his relatives,  saying:

It is better to do your own duty

badly, than to perfectly do

another’s; you are safe from harm

when you do what you should be doing

(Stephen Mitchell transl.)

The cracked offering of Cohen’s song chimes in with Krishna’s words. The light comes in when we are fully present to what we are engaging with in each moment–no matter how flawed we might perceive ourselves to be, however short we fall of our own expectations. If we can make of ourselves an offering, if we can make an offering of our actions, not only will we shine as Cohen did onstage, but also perhaps we can be a gift to others, as Cohen was to us that night. And, judging from the way he bounced in and off the stage like a kid, fedora and all, we’ll have a grand ol’ time doing so.