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  • 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.

My dear friend Caitlin is leaving Austin for Berlin, and while I have not reconciled to this fact yet, still some manner of merriment was in order before her departure. What better excuse to break my lenten fast than to bid farewell to my girl who is moving to the land of sausage and wheat beer? We chose Enoteca’s as the site of our farewell repast.

I don’t think I’m managing my fast too well: I know I’m lacking in protein, and feel certain that this is why my cravings have been so strong. I don’t recall ever wanting to eat so badly a burger or steak (or better yet–a burger AND a steak!) in my life. For days before our lunch date I was ogling and drooling over the online menu, getting a head start on what would surely be an agonizing decision between the pressed mushroom panini and the open-faced bacon, avocado & tomato sandwich.

I had the panini. It was delicious, Cambozola cheese oozing seductively out of perfectly grilled slabs of white flour. But soon after the first bite I got a distinct WTF? memo from my body. Exactly what was I expecting it to process? While I didn’t utter the words low-prana food–and I totally could’ve, Caitlin being that rare sort of person in my life with whom I can discuss such things as sattvic vs. tamasic foods with our mouths stuffed with pasta and cheese, which is why I cherish her–they did occur to me, and I certainly felt as though I was ingesting dead, if delicious, food. (For a more in-depth discussion of the energetic properties of food, please read this article.)

The night before lunch at Enoteca’s, I made a lovely dinner of rice, lentils, garden kale, everything smothered in caramelized onions. It was a feast of such simplicity, the only seasonings being olive oil, salt & pepper, garlic, lemon, and red pepper flakes, yet its delicate earthiness, its manifold flavors, almost literally made my body sing. It was sooo good–good, clean food. I enjoyed it again just as much as leftovers for dinner after the Enoteca lunch.

Be careful what you let in the door, folks. Vegan diets, however temporary you originally intend them to be, might just end up unpacking their bags and staying for good. At the very least they are quite likely to muck up your enjoyment of a perfectly delicious mushroom panini, rendering the eating  much less pleasurable than the longing for said panini. But, since the longing itself doesn’t break the fast, I suppose it’s fair game to keep indulging in that.

At the end of the meal at Enoteca’s, I asked the waitress to bring me the most intensely almond-flavored almond cookie in the joint. The amaretti she brought me was divine: both intense and ethereal, soft and crispy, a sighing, lip-smacking delight to the very last crumb.

So, moral of the story: just let me have my longing, my lentils and my cookie, and I’ll be a thoroughly happy lady.

Bluebonnets. Cattle egrets. Springtime returns to Central Texas in pinks and yellows along the increasingly green ditches, in great flowering carpets on the side of the highway. This is my second real spring here, the second to follow a full winter in Texas, and it is as suprising to me as last year’s.blue-bonnets

The winters here are mild, and moderately green. It only freezes for a handful of days a year, and then, never hard. The dominant tree in the region, the live oak, is an evergreen, shedding its small round leaves, hard and slick as leather, in the spring as the new year’s leaves come in, and so keeps its green mantle the whole year round. It’s such a surprise, then, when the pale electric green of new growth sprouts in March, to realize that the eye has been starved for green. But spring here is no less a relief for following a mild winter–the whole body sighs with relief at the sign of the whole creation show kicking off another year’s performance of renewal and regrowth.

I have observed a very similar phenomenon in my own practice this past week. The prior week had been all dullness and drudgery, rote or skipped practices and the like. But last Saturday I returned to the mat eager, full of fresh energy, and emerged grateful. Though my practice had been in dormancy for just a few days, that fresh new growth made me feel just as joyful as I have been in years past, greeting spring after a long, hard Canadian winter.

Happens that I don’t realize until sated again how deeply starved I have been for green, for new growth, the freshness of wildflowers, riotous songs of birds, or real deep time on the mat. It is such a profoundly happy fact that the cyclical nature of seasons, of practice, always will bring you back home, where the old is new again.

My practice sucked today. I am afflicted with some form of low grade allergy/cold, which causes my nose to run like a leaky faucet. Really, it’s only a minor annoyance, but I find that whenever I feel the least bit poorly, the experience heightens and worsens when I get on the mat. It’s been a drag-ass sort of morning–to be honest, it’s been a drag-ass several days–with a quiet, overcast sky. It took quite a bit of willpower to get to the mat at all, and when I did, it was to soon feel very crummy. It wasn’t too long before I ditched my flow plans in favor of viparita karani (elevated legs-up-the-wall) with extra chest-opening action to help me breathe more freely. That worked pretty well. There was no way I was subjecting myself to alternate nostril breathing, so instead I just settled into meditation. Well, I settled my body into a seated meditative posture. Though I likely looked calm and collected on the outside, the rest of me carried on feeling crummy. The heart-opening action of viparita karani allowed me to get in touch which the fact that along with feeling sickly, I also feel stuck and sad. The impulse to bolt from the cusion was strong, but instead of giving in, I convinced myself to just stay there, and to soften around the feelings that were coming up. I bolted out of there gratefully when I heard the chime announcing the end of my meditation time, but still, I had stayed the course. It might seem like a very puny victory to have successfully sat on a zafu for 16 minutes, but I’ll take it.

I am a passionate knitter.  There are several kinds of knitters, the two main types being product-oriented knitters and process-oriented knitters. Product-oriented knitters are primarily driven by the thought of having finished projects to wear or give away. As a process knitter, I am more interested in being engaged in the act, the process of knitting. I had a conversation recently with someone who is married to a knitter, and said that it shocked and hurt him to watch his wife rip back dozens of rows when she’d found a mistake. All that work for nothing! But to the process knitter, after the initial short pang of pain when one realizes the mistake, ripping back is no big thing because although it may appear as though we wasted time knitting all those rows that will be lost, the whole time we were knitting we were enjoying the activity, enjoying the process, and this cannot be lost.

A yoga practice can be much like this. There are days, sometimes whole weeks when it feels like ripping back rows. But, like the process knitter, what the yogi or yogini wants is to be engaged in the process of practicing yoga. Great practice days are just that–they are great. But we trust that the process is larger and more important than what happens on the mat on any given day. Ninety percent of a successful practice is showing up and being present to what you encounter on the mat. On a day like today, dragging myself to the mat, being easy on myself, and being present to my runny nose and feelings of stuckness and sadness is my practice. Not that it really feels like it. But I am grateful for the lessons of knitting, that I can at least talk myself (and write!) into believing that it is so.

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