I recently returned from an incredible yātrā (sacred pilgrimage) in India with my teacher and saṅgha where we visited temples dedicated to Śiva and the five elements. One of the countless things I love about India is the immersion into the senses.
The sights of Devī and Śiva were mesmerizing. When I am in a temple I am always reminded of something we teacher told me. Not only am I looking at them they are also looking at me. Being in the presence of these deities that are dressed in dazzling colors and being worshiped with milk, honey and water is enrapturing. There is so much to see it is impossible for me to take it all in. The sounds of the bells, chants and crowds making their way through the temple complex anchor me. The smells of incense, sweat, smoke and flowers keep my awareness in the present moment. The taste of the prasad (offerings) where the food offered to the deity becomes the food we eat, which then becomes us feels like an integration of our experience. The feeling of bodies working in unison, and sometimes opposition, to get that moment with the deity fuels my longing for the reason so many of us are there, to be liberated. The heat reminds me of the power of transformation that comes with being in these sacred places.
Being in India and having the opportunity to visit these temples is a privilege I don’t take lightly. As I learn from my teacher these experiences are wonderful, but the real question is how do they impact our daily lives? It is one thing to have mystical experiences, but how can we use these experiences to go deeper into ourselves and process?
When I returned home my little meditation room felt more alive and potent after being in places where worship has continued for thousands of years. I felt more connected to my senses here and more devoted to the sweet altar that holds my prayers, intentions, sufferings, joys and longings. The loudness stoked my inner silence. The near constant movement strengthened my ability to be still. Sometimes by going out into the world more expansively I can come home to myself more deeply. By going into chaos I can find an even more profound calm.
We don’t need to travel across the world or go to temples to experience this though. We can use our senses in our daily lives to anchor us anytime and anywhere. Notice a sound you hear right now. I hear my heater. One of the temples we went to was dedicated to the space element, the element that holds all the other elements. Can you tune into the space that holds what you hear? Notice a thought you are aware of. Can you observe the space around that thought? Become aware of one of your struggles. Can you also become aware of the space that holds that struggle? When you reflect on the space in and around whatever you are experiencing what happens in your body? In your breath? In your mind?
As I sit early this morning awake from jetlag I am contemplating how to put into words the last few weeks.
I travelled to India with my teacher and sangha where we followed the beloved Ganges River (Gaṅgā Devi) from Haridwar to Her source at the glacier of Gomukh.
We trekked 36 km from Gangotri to the glacier following the hum and power of Gaṅgā and the incredible stillness and quiet of the snow-capped mountains.
We got to witness Gaṅgā in many forms and colors. Polluted, brown and gently flowing to green and expansive to blue, joyful and pristine. We bathed in Her waters and worshipped and revered Her as the source of everything.
I offer this poem as a tribute to my time with Gaṅgā and my teacher who made it possible.
Gaṅgā’s voice is calling me closer and closer. Come to me my beloved. Let me show you how to flow. Watch my effervescence and joy knowing I am you. Immerse yourself in Me. Dissolve into Me. Trust my powerful rapids and my deep stillness. Surrender to Me.
Guru’s voice encouraging me. “Let’s go to Gomukh,” she says with wide eyes and a glorious grin. Let’s trek where the sadhus have gone before us. Gaṅgā is calling us back to Her source. Let’s climb straight to Heaven.
Bring it on! Each step filled with joy and gratitude Around each corner a new wonder to behold Ganga’s hum a constant companion Śiva standing in loving awareness Birch trees and flowers welcoming us to higher elevations Boulders challenging us to stay present Embracing each moment, breath, waterfall, cloud, star and snowflake with amazement. Am I really here?
There She is. Sitting next to Her bubbling exuberance. Bringing Her precious icy water to my face. She nourishes me as I drink Her water through all my senses. The sound of Your voice is forever in my head and heart. The taste of your immaculate water is forever on my tongue. The sight of your delightful flow I now see in every moment of my life. The smell of the crisp, cold air surrounds me like a whiff of Your perfume. Your touch that blesses this body penetrates into my cells.
Thank you for calling me. Thank you for your grace in allowing me to come. Thank you for the bruises and blisters that remind me I was with You. Thank you for showing me You are me and I am You.
How does one befriend their nervous system, and what exactly is the nervous system?
Let’s start by defining what the nervous system is and how it works. The central nervous system (CNS) includes your brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) consists of two branches: the somatic nervous system (SNS) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The somatic nervous system facilitates our voluntary movements. When my fingers do the typing on the keyboard my brain is working with the somatic nervous system to facilitate that movement, and I am conscious and in control of it. The autonomic nervous system facilitates the aspects of ourselves that are out of our voluntary control.
Within the ANS are the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions. The sympathetic nervous system activates our fight and flight response. It also helps us get up in the morning, motivates us to show up even when we don’t want to and brings excitement and passion to our lives. The parasympathetic has two different branches, according to the polyvagal theory. The ventral vagal state corresponds to experiences of connection, safety, peace, openness or receptivity. The dorsal vagal state corresponds to experiences of shutting down, numbing, dissociation or freezing. The vastly complex and incredible nervous system controls and regulates everything we do, from how we think, move, digest, feel, relate, sleep and so on. There is nothing we do that isn’t impacted by our nervous system.
How does one befriend this conscious and unconscious, powerful and subtle, adaptive and ancient system within ourselves? One way is to get to know it. When you meet someone you are attracted to you might find yourself wanting to know more about them. What is their history? What do they like? What are their challenges? As a stranger becomes a friend you get to know them and understand how to be in relationship with each other. The nervous system is a friend who has been within you, maintaining your bodily functions, sending you cues of safety and danger, helping you plan and problem solve, and reach out and withdraw as needed. You might just not have known you have this friend living inside of you who always has your back!
In the same way we might get to know someone new we can get to know our nervous system. Everyone’s system is wired differently due to our unique physiology and life experiences, and the more we get to know our system the more we can learn how to be in a kind and loving relationship with it. We can learn what settles it into ease or what triggers it into feelings of danger. We can learn what it needs in a state of threat and how to nourish it.
As you are reading this tune into your nervous system. What is your body feeling? Relaxed? Tense? Are your shoulders contracted? Is your belly moving with your breath? What are the thoughts and emotions you are aware of? Are you feeling at peace? Are you anxious? Is the mind active or quiet? Do you feel like you are in the ventral (connected, at peace or open), sympathetic (agitated, angry or jittery) or dorsal (shut down, numb or disconnected) state? Do you feel like you are experiencing a combination of states? This is the first step toward befriending the system through getting to know it. Through our connection we can work with it directly to resource it, find the inherent resilience within it and build on that resilience.
According to the dictionary resilience is defined as:
the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
Resilience is the aspect of ourselves that bounces back when something pushes us down, supports our buoyancy in the face of adversity, and gives us flexibility. If I only have one or two ways to approach a struggle (i.e. work harder or shut down) those will work some of the time, but not always. Resilience is a toolbox we can add to, yet we are all born with resilience because we wouldn’t be here without it. Even the things we may characterize as “maladaptive” or “problematic” have times they are helpful and even necessary. For example, sometimes people feel numb after experiencing a trauma. Numbness is the body’s protective mechanism when situations or experiences are too much for the body/mind/heart to handle. Numbness helps the body survive. If numbness is the only mechanism to deal with stress and trauma will this have consequences? Yes. Prolonged numbness can lead to disconnection in relationships, physical injuries (due to not being able to feel the body) and confusion or disorientation when an emotion arises, but numbness is still a form of resilience.
Resilience can also be looked at as a resourcing anchor that keeps me steady and centered in the middle of a storm. These resources can be what you do to soothe yourself, whether that is driving in your car, listening to music, petting your dog, going to a place in nature or talking to a friend. Generally anchors are people, places or beings (i.e. animals or spiritual figures) that invoke a sense of connection, security, ease, peace, or love.
Here are some questions to contemplate around your own resourcing and resilience:
What helps me bounce back when something pushes me down?
Where do I have flexibility in my responses to challenges?
What are my resourcing anchors?
Sometimes these are all the same thing. For example, going for a walk in your favorite park after something stressful happens can support you rebounding from a challenge, it may be a different response than a pattern of yelling at someone and it may feel safe being surrounded by trees as a resourcing anchor.
There are misperceptions about what resilience is as well.
Resilience is not:
Putting on a happy face
Gritting your teeth and powering through
Not having emotions
Being grateful for whatever happens
Never needing help
Being resilient does not mean there will not continue to be stress and trauma in our lives. Whether it is illness, racism, losing a loved one or arguments with your partner, challenges are inevitable. It is how we navigate those challenges that can increase our ability to thrive instead of just surviving.
We ALL have inherent resilience, even if it doesn’t always look or feel that way. Sometimes our strategies for surviving also cause us pain, yet at some point we needed, and may still need, those tools. Imagine working with a personal trainer who is supporting our body to be strong and flexible. In the same way we train our muscles we can also strengthen and bring adaptability to our resilience muscles. I may notice that I overuse my hamstrings but my quadriceps are underused. I can acknowledge my strong hamstrings while I might challenge myself to strengthen a part of my body that is underutilized. The same is true for resilience training. We acknowledge where we are already strong and we keep adding to the toolbox.
Take a moment to look at the resilience tools you have learned through your life and the resources you rely on. What would it feel like to offer gratitude for the ways you have supported yourself through the challenges and traumas you experienced? Acknowledge the ways those responses helped you navigate difficult experiences and survive. Acknowledge those people, places and/or beings where you can go for support. Resilience is not about struggling through something alone, but knowing where and who we can go to when we need help. Even if you have just one place or one person that can be enough. In this Harvard research study it shows that one strong adult relationship can be a contributing factor in a child’s resilience. We can also have strong relationships with pets, our faith, or a place in nature, and these can be just as powerful. What happens when you think about being grateful for the resilience and resources you already have? What happens when you offer gratitude to your anchor(s)? You might notice something in your body (i.e. a settling or warmth), your breath (i.e. deeper or more relaxed), and/or your mind (i.e. pleasant memories or happiness). It might feel tender and sweet to offer yourself gratitude for the ways you have learned to be resilient, and it also might feel hard or impossible. There is no right or wrong way to feel and if we can come to the practice with curiosity it opens us to the flexibility of resilience rather than expecting something to be a particular way. Your resilience and resourcing will be unique to you, and finding those ways to bolster and support your resilience is a powerful part of the journey.
Everyone who comes into my Yoga Therapy practice desires freedom from suffering. The clients I work with want to be free from the effects of trauma, relationship challenges, depression, anxiety or chronic pain. These are just some of the ways suffering shows up in the body/mind/heart, yet the underlying desire for so many of us is the same: to be free.
There are many approaches to alleviate suffering, and Yoga Therapy is one of them. Yoga translates to union or yoking, when we unite our small self (the body/mind/heart) to our divine Self. We might have different words we use for that divinity: our true Self, the universe, God/Goddess, Buddha nature or Christ consciousness. When there is physical or emotional pain it can be difficult to access this quiet, still, divine place inside. This union, more than any pose or breathing technique, is the aim of Yoga.
Life’s challenges obscure this divinity from ourselves, and when we are stuck in habitual patterns these become the lens through which we see the world. For example, if a parent silenced me as a child I might be fearful speaking to others. If I grew up with not enough I might fear the feeling of hunger. These patterns develop in an attempt to keep us safe, yet they keep repeating even when outdated. In Yoga these patterns are called saṃskāras, habitual grooves we fall into and continue (consciously or unconsciously) for years.
Awareness of these saṃskāras can shift them, however they are deeply ingrained and difficult to shift with awareness alone. Our brains are wired to keep us alive and safe, and these grooves were created in an attempt at protection even if they simultaneously cause pain.
Sometimes working with the body can shift these saṃskāras through breathwork, movement and meditation. Yet many times it can feel impossible to shift these patterns, especially once they get lodged in our systems.
Pairing awareness, meditation, breathwork and movement with discipline can be a key ingredient to making these shifts.
Why discipline? Many saṃskāras, like panic attacks, addictions or feeling unheard, that cause suffering feel chaotic and out of control. Discipline can bring in the elements of steadiness and stability, which then can support the body-mind-heart to move towards even more groundedness and ease.
Āyurveda is the sister science of Yoga and that is the basis for the lifestyle recommendations I offer. There are many approaches to Āyurveda, and this particular approach is based on the book, The Heart of Wellness, by my teacher, Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan. I personally follow this lifestyle and have seen it support countless people’s physical and mental health.
Here are some key starting points to begin a discipline to support your healing
Sleep: Wake-up no later than 6am and go to sleep by 10pm everyday.
Eat: 1. Option #1: 3 meals
Light meal between 7-8am
Heavier lunch between 12-2pm
Light dinner between 5-6pm
No eating after 6pm
Cut out all snacking, sugar and processed foods.
2. Option #2: 2 meals
Breakfast between 9-10am
Dinner between 5-6pm
No eating after 6pm
Cut out all snacking, sugar and processed foods.
Meditate: Meditate twice/day for 15-20 minutes.
These 2 changes to sleep and eating can put you in tune with the natural rhythms of day and night and the internal rhythms of your body. You will also be creating stability from the inside out rather than trying to just eliminate symptoms without addressing the root causes. Meditation can help stabilize the mind, increase awareness, single-pointedness, inner silence while also inviting a broader perspective and the ability to let go.
What if I can’t do this? This is a question I, and many others, had when first starting this lifestyle. With unpredictable meal and sleep times, different work schedules and all that life brings it can seem impossible. Ultimately the body does not care about all the reasons why we can not do something. Imagine not sleeping for 3 days because you had to do something. Eventually the body will take over and fall asleep. When we ignore the body because of what we think is more important there will be consequences. Ultimately, the body always wins regardless of what we think about it, and life, as well as the body, will remain chaotic unless we cut the chaos out.
My suggestion is to give it a try for 3 months. If it is a failure you can always return to your previous habits! What I have seen in myself and many others are dramatic shifts. I have seen people experience energy when there was chronic depletion, reduced depression and anxiety and increased stamina. People have reported a decrease in physical pain and I have witnessed people able to process trauma with more ease. Others have shared they experience more contentment in their relationships and increased body awareness. Paradoxically, creating a discipline can bring more freedom.
Changing our practices and patterns takes time. Be gentle and kind with yourself while also being steadfast in your commitment to healing. It took a long time to create the saṃskāras that keep us stuck, and we need to be patient in creating new ones that can move us toward freedom.
As you consider whether this is something for you I encourage you to ask yourself: what do you want? This question can be a touchstone for continuing to stay committed to the discipline even when old patterns are rearing their heads. Spend some time journaling about what you want more than anything else in the world. From there create an intention that you can say every day and night to help support your commitment to yourself and your healing.
Although Laura Humpf is one of Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan’s long-terms students Dr. Chinnaiyan and the Śabda Institute do not endorse nor are responsible for anything offered by Laura Humpf or Seed Yoga Therapy.
What a journey these last 10 years have been! Going into private practice was never something I was particularly interested in, but it has been one of the biggest gifts. The twists and turns of the last 10 years have been at times intense, at times incredible and never predictable!
I started my private practice in a tiny room in Pioneer Square the same year we bought our home. When we looked at the home, there was an out building in a bad state. I thought, “that could be a yoga studio one day.”
I continued to teach classes on anxiety, trauma, depression and relationship with food, and after a few years my partner and I started to build a studio at our home. Moving my practice from Pioneer Square to my home in Rainier Beach felt like a dream come true.
When my practice moved, Rainier Beach Yoga (RBY) was born. Like going into private practice, I never thought I would run a studio. RBY challenged me in intense and heart expanding ways, and brought me to understand and investigate my own privilege and internalized oppression.
After several years of searching for a teacher she found me. My beloved teacher, Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan (Amma as I call her) lovingly showed me all the ways I was living and working that were not serving me. She challenges me to show up authentically and with integrity and constant freshness. To say I am grateful to her guidance in absolutely every aspect of my life does not come anywhere near to how honored I am to be her student.
The pandemic brought new challenges and opportunities to grow in my resilience by working remotely and closing Rainier Beach Yoga. Putting all my work energy into yoga therapy inspired me and brought new enthusiasm to my work..
10 years ago today, I walked into a blue carpeted space with huge windows overlooking an alley in Pioneer Square, a little fearful, and a little excited. Today as I walk into this bright yellow studio, and look at the cedar tree out the window, I am incredibly grateful for this journey with SYT and look forward to what the next 10 years will bring.
Thank you to every client who has trusted me to be on your journey with you, whether it was for a day or years. Thank you to every teacher who brought me to where I am. I am dust at all my teachers’ feet. Everything I am is because of you. Thank you to my partner for building me the sweetest yoga studio I could ask for. Thank you to my friends and colleagues for being there for me when I was stuck and unsure and for celebrating and encouraging me when I was rocking it. We are all in this together and this past 10 years shows me how deeply connected we all are. I would not be anywhere else than here with you.
Śaucha is an aspect of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, and translates to cleanliness or purity.
Śaucha can be looked at from multiple angles. From the most obvious level we can apply it to physical space and the body. As Marie Kondo has taught, having a tidy space that sparks joy can shift our relationships with the spaces we inhabit. Similarly, I relish the feeling of a shower after backpacking for a few days. The feeling of a clean body after being covered in dirt, sunscreen and sweat is one of the most refreshing feelings. A tidy space and a clean body can do wonders for our physical and mental health.
Śaucha can go much deeper though as we look into other areas that can be cluttered. Time is a big one for me. I commonly feel I do not have enough time, but how am I spending the precious time I do have? How much time am I on social media? Watching the news? Engaging in conversations I don’t want or need to be a part of? When I think about cleaning up time I have to take an honest look at my priorities and how I am, or am not, aligning with them.
Relationships are another aspect of Śaucha. What are the necessary relationships in your life? What do you continue out of obligation or habit? How often do you say yes when you want to say no? This comes back to priorities. Who are the people who are priorities in my life? For me, these are the people the nearest and dearest to my heart. They are the people I can’t imagine my life without. When I prioritize these relationships I can give even more to them because my energy is not scattered or exhausted from being pulled in many directions.
Our mind is also a Śaucha practice. A meditation teacher once compared tooth brushing to meditation. We wake up and brush our teeth, and we also “brush” our mind with meditation. Taking time to clean our mind with meditation is a powerful practice, and like with our teeth we don’t do it just once. We have to keep brushing our teeth to keep them clean and healthy. The same goes with the mind. In general it is helpful to find a meditation practice and stick with it instead of doing a different meditation each day. Even meditation can become cluttered if we are trying to do too many techniques at once. Here is a free meditation course taught by my teacher, Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan, and some guided lovingkindness, centering in presence and yoga nidra practices.
Speech can be yet another Śaucha practice. I love the teaching: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? If I truly applied this to every word I said I would barely speak! It is helpful to ask myself why am I talking? Is it to make me feel good about myself? To appear smart? So I am not uncomfortable in silence? When I declutter my speech I can be a better listener. I think less about what I am going to say and focus more on what I am hearing. By listening more, I have found that when I do speak it is more beneficial to myself and the person I am speaking to because I am more present and mindful.
What I have personally found with the practice of Śaucha is when I declutter areas I have some control in other stuck areas can soften. When my space, relationships and time are decluttered I notice I don’t hold onto things as tightly. Some of the traumas that have been lodged in my body for years shifted. Relationships that were strained healed. When I am not holding onto so much stuff, people or obligations, I can more easily allow things to come and go.
I have historically resisted decluttering thinking of it as a waste of time. However, as I have put it into practice it has paradoxically given me more time, energy, space and ease in my life. It helps me access quiet in the mind, a sense of calm in my space, a deeper connection to my body and a sweeter connection to the people in my life.
Do you have a Śaucha practice? What does it look like for you?
Pick one aspect of the list above (space, body, time, relationships, mind or speech) and spend some time journaling.
1. What is your relationship with this?
2. When you contemplate a Śaucha practice what arises?
3. What are your priorities in regards to this?
4. What are you willing to do to move one small step closer towards those priorities?
Pick one thing (i.e. meditate each morning for 10 minutes, pause before speaking, making your bed, etc.) and commit to that until it becomes a habit. Then go back to either the same area or explore another aspect of decluttering.
Kṛṣṇa, one of the beloved main characters in the Bhagavad Gītā, is the most brilliant psychologist my teacher shares, and this ancient text can teach us about how our minds work as well as how to work with the mind so we are not at its mercy.
The Ladder of Fall
In Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gītā Kṛṣṇa shares with Arjuna, his devoted student, that our senses bring our attention to objects of the world. Through this attention, we become attached to the object. Through this attachment we experience desire, and anger arises from that desire. From anger, our judgment is clouded and our memory is affected. When the memory is confused our intellect is destroyed, and finally, we are ruined. When we are ruined we fall down the ladder to the very bottom.
I’ve been noticing how this “ladder of fall” happens regularly. Last night as I went outside I felt the warmth of the sun on my skin. I saw the blue sky and the sun. I became attached to the warmth, the sunshine, and the comfort in my body. I started to desire more time in the sunshine and more warmth. As the evening progressed and the sun went down I could feel a slight chill and with the chill a slight irritation. I wanted to be warm still, and I was agitated at the temperature change and sunshine fading. For that brief moment, I forgot that I will be warm again, that the sun will come back and that nothing lasts forever. I went down the mental path of, “I am always cold” even though just a few minutes earlier I was warm. I lost my intellectual understanding in this moment of the impermanent nature of everything. Everything comes and goes, but my mind was stuck and I was “ruined” at that moment.
This also happens in relationships. For example, your friend or partner says something you don’t appreciate. Attachment and aversion are 2 sides of the same coin. If you are feeling an aversion for an object (words from another person can be seen as subtle objects) it is because there is an attachment to a different object (i.e. different words that might offer validation or support). As the words come out of their mouth you register speech with the sense of hearing. Our past experience can create an attachment to words of encouragement or words supporting your point of view. When we don’t experience this, there can be a strong desire for them to change their words. When you experience something other than the fulfillment of your desire, anger arises. “How dare you talk to me like that,” you might say internally or externally. When angry your focus can be solely on ways this person is disrespectful. The memories of when they have been kind and loving erased at this moment. Your intellectual understanding combined with this person saying something unskillful temporarily displaces your love for them. It is at this instance when we complete the fall.
Does this ladder of fall sound familiar to you? How do you experience it? I have gone about my day noticing the ladder of fall in small and big ways. Awareness of this ladder is helpful. I am learning when I use, “always” and “never” I am usually on the ladder of fall. My memory is clouded in those moments. I can go back up the ladder by focusing my attention on the senses. When I take a step back and witness my senses, I can notice a gap between the sense experience and the attachment (or aversion) to that sense experience giving me a chance to potentially avoid the fall.
Look around. What do you see? Can you notice the experience of seeing before you are aware of the thoughts about what you see? For instance there is a red pillow in front of me. When I look at it it brings up thoughts of my dog, and I feel happy and softening. Before the narrative popped in, which happens so quickly, I just saw the color red, a rectangular shape and a soft texture. What do you hear? Can you listen to the sounds without the stories about the sounds? What do you smell? How do you experience the smell before the stories of arise? What do you taste? What do you feel? Can you put the experience of feeling in words that are not rooted in good/bad, right/wrong, or like/don’t like? As I type I feel pressure in my wrists, tightness in my throat and softness in my back. When I go to label the tightness is bad and I want less and the softness is good and I want more I have started down the ladder of fall.
My teacher tells me, “everything is made of the 5 great elements.” Earth, water, fire, air and ether. This makes sense to me intellectually, but not in an embodied way. How are my thoughts the elements? How are my emotions the elements? What about that recent interaction or that thing I love? What about that thing I hate?
I generally feel like a separate being. I don’t mistake myself for the pillow behind my back or the person I had a conversation with. Part of the View my teacher shares with me tells me I am not separate. I am the same as the pillow behind my back and that person I talked with. I trust my teacher and therefore trust this wisdom, but this is not something I truly understand. I believe the rishis and sages who came before me and the lineage that says I am non separate. I have faith in it, yet I can’t feel it.
I was recently doing a meditation with my teacher and she guided me to think of someone I loved. I thought of her. She offered the inquiry that this person is made of the 5 elements. My teacher tells me she is with me all the time. This is, yet again, something I believe because I believe my teacher, but not something I grok. We are far away from each other. She is in Michigan while I am in Seattle. We can talk on the phone or interact on zoom, but even that feels separate. Even when I am lucky enough to be in her presence I do not see myself as her. After the meditation it struck me. If I am earth and she is earth she is with me always as earth. If I am water and she is water she is always with me as water. For a moment I felt her with me and understood she is always with me. Every time I feel something, if I can identify it as the elements, then I can know that I am her and she is me. It was a small window into the non-separation this path teaches.
In that same meditation she then invited me to think of someone challenging. As I brought this person to mind I could feel the contraction (earth), recoiling (fire and water) and tightness (earth) in my throat. When my teacher said this person is also made of the 5 elements the disdain I was experiencing softened. All of a sudden it wasn’t so personal. This person is the 5 elements and so am I. We are the same. It softened the contraction when I let go of the stories of this person doing this or that “wrong” and acknowledged the truth of this person and of myself. We are exactly the same. The elements that create him are the same that create me. Yes they are configured in different ways, but the elements that structure us are no different. I can get lost in the way things are structured that create different features, behaviors, thoughts and beliefs. When I get caught in this it increases my sense of separation. When I feel separate I suffer through judgement, comparison, confusion, longing or despair. When I drill down into the elements things are not personal and I get a glimpse of the web that connects every single thing in the universe.
Since that meditation I have also been applying this to myself. When a thought arises instead of getting lost in it I sometimes observe it as air rising up in my chest or the fact that whatever arises comes and goes back into the ether. Sometimes my thoughts feel heavy like earth or hot like fire. Other times my emotions feel like a tsunami of water or a light breeze. As I begin the lifelong process of integrating my beloved teacher’s words, “everything is made of the 5 great elements,” this opens a doorway to freedom, spaciousness and deep connection.
When you have a feeling what is the quality of the feeling? Is it hot or cold (fire)? Is it heavy or light (earth)? How is it flowing? Like a waterfall or a gentle stream (water)? Does it feel subtle like a breeze or gust moving through you (air)? Can you feel the space that holds all of this, the space where the feeling arises from and returns to (ether)? What happens when you observe your feelings through the lens of the elements?
Tapas is one of the aspects of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, which translates to austerities, heat and self-discipline. Tapas can be any discipline we commit to, whether it is doing art, going to bed at a certain time, journaling or taking a daily walk. I am a fairly disciplined person, but also I rebel against it in the name of being free to do what I want when I want. As I committed to a discipline offered to me by my teacher I am seeing how tapas can be a doorway to freedom. I have more energy and time. I feel less overwhelm and depletion, and I am less scattered. There is paradoxically more ease in my life with the addition of more structure.
As I think about starting a discipline, especially as we go into winter I am struck by the many things I have started and not finished. This can lead me down a path of believing I failed. A meditation teacher once shared with me that every time you meditate you put a little money in a piggybank, and that money accumulates each time you do it. It doesn’t come out the bottom on the days you forget or rebel or oversleep. Discipline is not about perfectionism or gritting your teeth to make sure you get something in. It can be done with sweetness and even surrender and ease. When you miss a day, can there be a discipline of forgiveness and trying again the next day? When you don’t get to your commitment can you not give up? I remember quitting smoking almost 20 years ago. I was a terrible quitter at first! I would quit for a week, then smoke again. I believed I failed so I would smoke regularly again until the fire for wanting to be free from cigarettes returned. Then when I inevitably slipped I would berate myself for not being strong enough. Each time I “quit” though I was showing myself that it was possible and each time my discipline and resolve got a little stronger, and on maybe the 110th attempt I finally quit for good. Can your discipline be strong and soft, focused and relaxed, steady and flexible, firm and kind?
What tapas do you want to commit to? What tapas are you all ready doing that is serving you?
Here are some ideas to stoke your discipline fire I have heard from friends, family and clients who are using these tools to move through the next few months and beyond.
Get outside daily.
Massage your skin with scented oils or lotions. My current favorite blend is lavender and sandalwood.
Do intentional transitions, in particular if you are working from home:
Commute (i.e. walk around the block before and after work).
Change clothes after work.
Burn candles to make transitions from work to personal or vice versa.
Burn sage or other herbs at the beginning or end of your day.
Place a cloth over your computer at the end of the day.
Have designated work hours.
If you have a room you work from close the door at the end of your day.
Learn a dance routine. This summer I learned how to floss!
Take a bath.
Have an orgasm.
Pet an animal.
Do one yoga pose each hour. I like to do handstands or child’s pose between sessions depending on my energy.
If you are curious about an Ayurvedic discipline I can’t recommend Kavitha Chinnaiyan’s book, The Heart of Wellness, enough.
Something that has been invaluable to me in maintaining a discipline is community. If you are committing to a practice this fall and winter who can you share it with? Who can you be accountable to? Who might be interested in doing it with you? Also, never underestimate the power of a sticker chart! If you have a discipline you want to share with me let me know. I would love to hear.