Thursday, 17 July 2014


My teacher, the spiritual leader and humanitarian, Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī, visited New York last week, to my great happiness. Amma gives her blessing in the form of an embrace; in the last 30 or so years, she's hugged around 30 million people all over the world. You may have heard the Sanskrit word darshan used to describe this embrace; darshan can be translated as auspicious sight. I like to think of it as meaning a glimpse of the divine—or simply, love—as witnessed and felt by the eyes of the whole body and soul. Suffice to say, these hugs can be a profound experience indeed.

Equally profound are Amma's talks at these occasions. She communicates deep ideas and concepts with warmth, humor and simplicity. What really struck me at this year's gathering was how she spoke about patience. Patience is the foundation for all growth, she said. One can't peel open the petals of a flower to make it bloom; the unfolding must be unforced, the revelation arrives in its own sweet time. She spoke also of our tendency to look for happiness outside ourselves, when its real home is—well, at home. Inside.

This may be a familiar idea—certainly it's discussed a lot in yoga classes—but it's not always easy to let its truth unfold. We want to hurry up the process, hurry up the happiness: Give us all the joy of summer, now! Our physical practice, asana, and breath work, pranayama, let us sail towards this idea a little more smoothly. With practice and care, we can begin to let the poses come to us, let the breath come to us. As BKS Iyengar writes, the breath must “be enticed or cajoled, like catching a horse in a field, not by chasing after it, but by standing still with an apple in one’s hand. Nothing can be forced; receptivity is everything.”

I've been working with opening up in this way: exploring backbends to open the chest and reveal the heart; gently stretching the quadriceps to facilitate this and also to open the stomach meridian which may need attention in summer; and, crucially, slowing down; easing into summer's ripe, luscious, yang fullness, rather than rushing in. Letting oneself take restorative postures—yes, even in the morning! Moving into cobra pose, inch by conscious inch, and back again. Here is a sequence I've been enjoying. May it bring you joy, too.

Suptavirasana summer sequence

Begin in virasana on a block, opening stretches w strap. Tadasana, warm up/bring synovial fluid to joints espec knees. Sivananda-style sun salutations (back knee down to open through hip flexors). Adhomukha to crescent lunge, pushing down into back foot to protect knee and low back. High lunge with bent back leg to open quad, then straighten—flow w breath. Vira 2-high prayer flow. Trikonasana. Prasaritta padotanasana with fingers interlaced to open chest and shoulders, lengthen spine. Salambasana, Dhanurasana. Sphinx. Frog. Cobra, super slowly. Forearm dog. Sirasana. Child's pose. Suptavirasana using block and bolster (option one leg at a time for beginners/those with sensitive knees). Twist supported with bolster. Child's pose with bolster. Suptabadakonasana. Savasana.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Freedom Day

This is my sixth year living in the States, and every Independence Day I think about this notion of freedom—so prized and so specific-seeming, in America. As I understand it, Independence Day seeks to celebrate the country's freedom from subjugation, and affirms its people's right to happiness. These are noble ideas, I think. But I've also seen these principles turn into a sort of "Ha! We beat you!" attitude. Our minds are quick to jump to a place of dualism—the place from which most of tend to function, most of the time. We think everything makes more sense when it's neatly stacked into opposing poles—black/white, good/bad. etc.

I've been watching this happen in myself, with some amusement, during this World Cup. The competitive "instinct" that I thought I'd mostly sloughed off over the past few years has come surging back up, and I've found the cheering and the boo-ing quite thrilling—even as I've been aware that this can only happen by dint of my perceiving difference and division. When we pick a side, we become bound to it; attached, even weighted down by it.

Yoga means union in Sanskrit. It refers to an enlightened state where we don't see difference; we're all in it together. We don't try to impose structure on time; by being present, we've moved beyond past and future.

Being present, even for just a moment, you may find you relax; it's a relief to not have to consider all those things that happened in the past or might happen in the future. And as you soften a little, compassion comes. The feeling is expansiveness. Expansiveness in the mind, body, and heart. Freedom, if you like.

Resisting the urge to identify with your thoughts and stories ("I am this kind of person, with that kind of job, and those kinds of relationships" etc.) allows us to ease up. Being sweet to ourselves does this, too. My friend, the yoga teacher Seth Lieberman writes, "Be easy with yourself, take care of yourself, and allow all the feelings and thoughts and emotions to happen with less should and what it is supposed to feel like now."

BKS Iyengar puts it beautifully in his book Light on Life:

"A great boon of yoga, even for relative beginners, is the happiness it brings, a state of self-reliant contentment. Happiness is good in itself and a basis for progress. An unquiet mind cannot meditate. A happy and serene mind allows us to pursue our quest as well as live with artistry and skill. Does not the American Declaration of Independence talk of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? If a yogi had written that, he would have said Life, Happiness, and the Pursuit of Liberty. Sometimes happiness may bring stagnation, but if freedom comes from disciplined happiness, there is the possibility of true liberation."

Rumi's poem No Room for Form speaks to this sense of infinite freedom: "No room for form / with love this strong" (click past the jump to read the full poem). I have found Varadamudra to be conducive to this serene open feeling; with the right palm raised and facing forward, the left held open, you're expressing courage and compassion, liberation and acceptance.

Have a beautiful, happy Freedom Day.