Creating an altar

altar

I often talk about creating a special place to meditate in my classes, workshops, and immersions. Having a special place that one can go to at any time can create huge shifts or simply bring you back to the present moment if you are having one of those days where the mind is extremely busy. So, I’ve been wanting to blog about my altar for some time. In many ways, it’s extremely personal. But I think it will be helpful to those of you seeking something similar for yourself.

This is my altar. Almost everyday, you can find me here meditating, chanting, or offering thanks and prayers (or asking for guidance). It’s usually before and/or after I practice, but I will also sit here on some evenings. This is my sanctuary. I sit in front of this altar and my body immediately feels at home. The items on my altar change from time to time and I’d say right now, my altar has a “busyness” about it.

Here’s what’s currently on my altar and I’ll tell you why these items are on there. I have a stature of Mother Mary. One of the things I have great appreciation for growing up Catholic, is that the Church holds Mary in such a high regard and I’ve always felt close to her. To me she represents courage and beautiful grace. Next to Her, I have a picture of Buddha and Jesus in a drawing called “Lords of the dance”. This picture reminds me that all spiritual practices and religions, at their purest, are the same…”love one another and show compassion and kindness”. Hanging from that picture is a rosary from the Vatican blessed by the Pope. The other is a red Buddhist knot blessed by HH that I was given on my first trip to India. Ganesha, sits in the middle and reminds me of the obstacles I have overcome, of the obstacles I still face, and reminds me that we all have our obstacles and to act with compassion and kindness to those I encounter. The picture of Neem Karoli Baba reminds me that there truly are Saints walking among us, and that Guru’s do exist and can create huge shifts in the people they encounter. Hanuman reminds me that I am simply a servant to God and that God exists in all who I encounter, so I serve them as well. Green Tara represents enlightened or compassionate action (my dharma, I believe) and reminds me that when I work with those who are hurting and working on their healing, that I can meet them where they are whether is just eye contact, one breath together, teaching yoga or even a smile.

I have three Malas on my altar. One rests on Ganesha and was given to me on my first trip to India (made by Tibetan children in Clement town India.). The second mala made of mostly turquoise, I had made on my first trip to Nepal and spent a great deal of time selecting each and every stone. The third mala (with a thread from Neem Karoli Baba’s blanket and infused with Maharaji’s love) was given to me by Ram Dass at the retreat I went to in December. I have a brass container of water from the Ganges given to me by someone who is very special to me and reminds me that life is like a river…constantly moving and changing and it’s best to just ride it out than fight what I don’t appreciate.

Every color of the chakras is represented on my altar. Right now the two crystals are amethyst and lapis to help with the energy in my 5th, 6th, and 7th chakras. I have three candles. I use one strictly to meditate on and the others just to clear the energy in the room. I swear the purple and blue candle’s flame shows up like a heart. And, finally I have a Ganesha incense holder.

My altar started out really simple and has evolved to this over time. So if you create one, it can be one item, can rest on an already existing countertop, or you can create a place specifically for you. It doesn’t matter. Sitting, quiet, and connecting even for a few minutes…that’s what matters. I hope you get the chance to sit today.

On religion, love, and acceptance

When I was at a retreat recently, I had an interesting recollection of my childhood while I was growing up Catholic in Queens, New York. At that time, everyone I knew was Catholic. All of my friends, neighbors, family…everyone was Catholic. And since I wasn’t exposed to anything different, I simply grew up thinking that this was the way most people were and people who weren’t like “us” were different and on the outside of what was right and acceptable.

In the 70s, there was great fear surrounding cults because, at that time, cults (like Charles Manson) did horrible things. Or, like in the Patty Hearst situation, she became a willing member of her kidnappers (suspected brainwashing or her simply trying to survive was the reason). After those and other instances, anything that resembled a cult was scary. I recall seeing what we called the “Hare Krishna’s” usually in the city, in subways, or at the airports. These groups would wear white, with their heads shaved and would dance and sing and give out flowers. My mother told me that if I got too close, they would kidnap and brainwash me. They looked harmless enough, but I didn’t dare get too close. That said I was fascinated.

When I was 13 an older boy who lived in the neighborhood either joined or was “taken” by the Hare Krishna’s. His name was James and he was gone for a few months. When he returned, he was different. My neighbor went to high school with him, and I would ask him about James, as I was extremely curious about what had happened to him while he was gone. My neighbor told me that James would sit on the front lawn of the school with his shaved head, pray and eat herbs and led a very quiet, peaceful, and happy existence.

That was my exposure to anything I would call “eastern” during my childhood. As I got older, either intentionally or unintentionally, I married a Catholic man, raised our children Catholic and was an active member of the Catholic Church until the sexual abuse scandal really took hold. As I transitioned away from a religious practice, I moved into a more spiritual practice and started doing more yoga (and the rest is history). With the help of a very good teacher, and in addition to the practices of yoga, I was exposed to places, experiences, and new teachers that not only exposed me to the “other side” but allowed me to go deeper and do a great deal of healing, heart opening and introspective work. Over time, I have become more and more open in my heart, my way of thinking, and my ability to practice the art of devotion. My love and devotion to my teachers and God are well documented and, in my opinion, are beautiful and pure, not unlike the love of a parent to a child, which is selfless, unconditional and of the purest intentions. I understand that some people have a limited way of thinking, not unlike I did as a child (which I was taught) and may not understand this type of devotion as it is different to what I was exposed to in my youth. But those relationships have laid the foundation for who I have become and I am extremely grateful (and lucky) to have had them.

People often ask me, are you still Catholic? And I say yes, but I don’t practice the same way other Catholics do. I would say my relationship to Mary and Jesus is stronger now than ever because I have seen Christianity from a different view (I highly recommend reading books by non-Christians about Christ…..fascinating). I have also studied Buddhism and Hinduism but don’t see myself being able to fully embrace either because I think it’s extremely difficult to do that, as so much of it is cultural. That said, there are westerners who have had success in doing so. I actually see, not only similarities within these different practices, but true practices I can call upon as needed from all of them (and I do). It’s like I have all of my bases covered.

Around the third night of the retreat, I had a flash back to the Hare Krishna’s and thought, even though these people don’t look like the people I remember at the airport, there was a joy and love that looked and felt so familiar. Here I was in the thick of it….and I liked it! I remember thinking, how unfortunate it was that I had that fear instilled in me, at such a young age, and how limiting beliefs have prevented me from opening my heart in ways that are so pure and authentic. As I have become more and more aware of this, I try to have as much of an open mind as possible and hold those in my heart who are unable to see my behavior and me in a way that they can relate too…and dare I say, judge me accordingly. At this point in my life, however, it becomes less about who understands or even likes me, and more about who I am in my heart (which is not and cannot be my ego). The heart has to win all battles. There is no longer a choice.

I am surrounded by amazing people in an amazing community (both within and outside of my yoga family) who are so supportive and love and accept me as I am. I’m so lucky and grateful to them but I’m especially grateful to those who may challenge my intentions. Those are the ones that I hold dearest in my heart. And to all of you….I thank you.

Namaste.

On being a mom…

on being a mom

Being a mom…..

How do you know when it’s the right time to start something? For me, I think it’s something I have to feel. For the most part I am a very logical thinker, which is a skill that often serves me well. It’s when I need a more intuitive look at something, where the end result isn’t so cut and dry, that I have gotten myself in trouble. Doubt creeps in, fear creeps in and those feelings can dilute my ability to know what’s right.

Sometimes I have to throw logic into the wind and trust my instincts. This is a new practice for me and one I started a number of years ago. I think it started when our oldest became a teenager. Here was kid who was perfect in every way (at least according to my definition, at the time, of what perfect was). As he asserted himself to gain more independence, and I lost more control, I had to revisit what my role was as his mother. I mean, really, do we want to orchestrate their every move? There comes a point where a shift needs to occur and they have to learn life’s lessons for themselves. Some kids will do this without having to experience it. Others need that live it to determine if some things are right for them or not. And, this is where we need to let go as painful at times as that may feel.

It was this experience that put me on a different journey. I needed to reconnect with myself so that I wasn’t focusing on everyone else. Quite honestly, it was driving me crazy and I was miserable. It’s funny how life can hand us a situation that may seem painful, but is really meant to help us grow. So, I’ve been getting to know myself, which has been great. It’s kind of like reconnecting with an old friend, you know the kind you really like, but then don’t know why you didn’t keep in contact. It’s also like finding an old piece of silver that, with a little buffing, can be shiny again.

In doing so, I have a new clarity on what I want to do. I’m throwing caution to the wind and putting my energy where I think it needs to be which is helping myself and others heal. The thought of failure doesn’t occur to me, I think, because I probably don’t have the same definition of success and failure as others do (like my engineer husband–but my discussion on the benefits of marrying an engineer will have to come at another time). I now focus on enjoying the experience instead of judging it. I’m a yoga teacher, I’m creating support groups for sexually abused women and I am finding it to be very rewarding. It’s changed my perspective on so many levels.

Now, as I look at my children becoming young adults, I look at them as individuals creating their future and I just get to watch for the most part. It’s really freeing and so much more enjoyable. Honestly, they have as much to teach us as we do them. Recently, I thanked my oldest son. I said, “you know if it wasn’t’ for you I wouldn’t be doing what I’m dong right now. And I just want to thank you”. He looked at me, like a deer in headlights, not quite knowing what to say, and finally said, “uh, you’re welcome?” Two years prior to this moment, that would have been an entirely different conversation. So, I guess timing is everything.

Inspiration from Maui

mauipic

I just got back from a very beautiful retreat in Maui. One didn’t have to look very far for inspiration, whether it be listening to the brilliantly inspiring speakers or watching the beautiful sunsets (sunsets are my favorite…sunrises are pretty great too). A favorite take away for me, was from the Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg. This particular quote, goes something like this, “we all want to feel connected to one another and in order to connect, we need to see everyone as equal and believe that everyone matters. We cannot connect through hatred and anger. We can only attain this through love…love of oneself and love of others”.

Ahimsa

Ahimsa is one of the Yamas in yoga and it means non-harming. To me Ahimsa is about making sure that whatever I am doing, thinking, or saying isn’t harmful to others or myself. It is especially important that over the next 60 days that we are checking in to make sure we are practicing in a manner that serves us and doesn’t hurt us. If on any day we feel like our body needs a rest (and our bodies will need rest), then it makes sense to take a therapeutic or restorative class. That part for me is the most simple. Where it gets tricky is when I am practicing, and maybe I cannot do what I did yesterday or last week (and I may not know why), or I am just tired, then self judging can step in which is harmful, or we look at the person next to us who seems to have the most perfect practice, or we begin to wonder or become annoyed at the teacher because we don’t feel like doing what they are asking. All of this is harmful to ourselves, and potentially others as whatever we are even thinking gets put out energetically to the universe. At the beginning of class, consider creating a mantra or a thought pattern that you quietly say to yourself…something like “I will do my best today without judgment or criticism of others or myself”. Because the root of what Ahimsa means to me is compassion. And you must start with compassion towards yourself, if you hope to be compassionate towards others.

And then, settle in, and enjoy the ride. Know that I am hear to help you in any way that I can.

When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace

pranayama

I begin every class inviting people to notice their breath. Many teachers do this as well, but because I work with audiences who have stress, anxiety, PTSD, and depression, among other things, the breath is one of the essential components that we always come back to. I also want to give students an opportunity to notice how their body feels when they are completely at ease, which is what I attempt to establish in the beginning of class, so that they can pay attention to sensations that invoke a sense of peacefulness as that is what they want to take with them when they leave class. What’s tricky about this is the fact that the breath can actually be anxiety provoking for certain people depending on their life experience, especially as we begin to move it around the body where we may change the direction of, or limit, breath flow. For example, during a twist, the breath becomes limited as we reduce the amount of space that the breath can flow into. So it’s important to notice with each movement how the body responds. And because many people have extreme difficulty with focusing on the breath all together, noticing these subtle changes are often missed.

What I recommend to students is to commit to noticing the breath as much as possible, not just during yoga class, but also throughout the day. If someone’s mind is extremely busy, then I invite them to lengthen the inhale or exhale which gives the mind something to do and notice. I suggest setting their iPhone alarm, or purchase an application that reminds them to breath. Because if we develop a pattern of noticing the breath, we can become more aware of those subtle changes as we move about our day and this will allow us to shift our breathing to a pattern that serves us and helps the body relax. Then over time, those sensations that invoke a sense of peacefulness begin to become the norm.

How is your body feeling? Are you reacting? Are you stressed? Do you have anxiety at this moment? Notice your breath. Your breath will tell you every time.

Satya

“No Words can reflect truth unless they stem from the spirit of non-violence”~unknown (although I think it was Ghandi)

Today, I am focusing on another one of the Yamas which is Satya or “truth/truthfulness. Satya and Ahimsa (non-violence) which we covered last week, can and need to work in harmony with one another. To me it means, yes we need to be truthful, but we need to show discernment when dealing with people’s feelings and always approach truth from a compassionate space which goes in line with the Buddhist teachings of “right thought, right speech, right action”.

This can relate to our practice and our everyday lives in many ways. In order to practice Satya with others, it requires a more mindful approach to how we interact with each other meaning, it offers an opportunity to be more responsive and less reactive. It actually requires us to think before we speak and to live this way requires that we have a filter and, quite honestly and more importantly, it requires us to slow down.

Slowing down in our practice and listening to our bodies (they actually have a lot to say if we pay attention) allows us to make the right decision that is “true” as to what we need at that moment (which may be different than what our body was telling us yesterday). If we remove the filter of the ego (which shows no mercy as it often tells us to go, go, go), then we can access that truthful space.

Speaking our truth is another way to look at Satya. Because I work with many who have been unable to speak their truth, it’s something I like to talk about and it’s something I work on for myself. Honesty and truthfulness can be very healing. Often we don’t speak our truth out of “fear”. That fear can manifest itself in the form of shame, fear of disappointing someone we love, or fear of not being loved etc. Speaking our truth often takes more courage than other forms of Satya.

So let’s practice this week being true to what we really need while being honest about what our bodies are telling us.

Svadhyaya

svad

Svadhyaya is one of the Niyamas and, traditionally, is an act of self-reflection that is inspired through any spiritual or inspiring text. This particular practice is essential to my own growth because without reflection I could not continue to heal and evolve in the ways that I believe I am meant to do.

Svadhyaya gives us an opportunity to dig past the “veils” of the human experience to go deeper, allowing us a glimpse of who we really are. I say a glimpse because most of the time, that’s where I am. I get glimpses but not always a true reflection of self. Sometimes it’s a matter of trusting my “listening” which can be the struggle as all of our experiences go through the human body with all of it’s distractions. So I continue to practice knowing that some days it will be really clear and on other days it will be a train wreck. Regardless of the experience, I HAVE to show up. Whether or not it’s perfect or a train wreck is irrelevant. It’s all a part of the experience (and, from what I’ve learned, train wrecks, although painful, can often provide the deepest and most enlightening insight). No matter what shows up on any given day, I have to sit with all of it, stay detached from all of it, because that IS the practice.

On a more practical level, any kind of self-reflection is good. This is a practice that has been a lifesaver for me as I use reflection to help me through trying times. In order to do that, I need to get quiet and open my heart so that the negative emotions don’t misguide me, which allows me to stay in the pure place I need to go in order to really get to the root of the matter. Reflecting on an event or conversation, as well as the emotions and feelings around the conversation, is where the lesson lives. That said proceed with great care because it also requires honesty, courage, and immense self-compassion. It is not a practice to take lightly because we can be so critical of our self, that instead of reflecting, we end up beating ourselves up which is not at all helpful. So if this practice is new to you, then go about it gently, like maybe reading something uplifting and inspirational and then sitting for a bit. In doing so, little by little, it’s possible that you’ll experience growth and shifts. The more you practice, the clearer it all becomes.