"Arjuna, he who looks on all as one, on the analogy of his own self, and looks upon the joy and sorrow of all equally- such a Yogi is deemed to be the highest of all."~ Bhagavadgita Ch.6V.31
We were invited by a thin fit looking orange robed Yogi to stand in his cave which he had been inhabiting for some time practicing in solitary in the traditional way. One of the employees from the school translated for us as the yogi explained how he acquired the cave after it's previous occupant retreated into the Himalayas to go still deeper into the practice.
It was pitch black except for a small pit of embers near the far wall. With the little LED light attached to my bag I could take in the small space. Almost nothing inside. Just a little alter carved into the rock upon which rested a couple small statues of Hindu deities, mala beads and what looked like offerings of dried flowers and food. Who could say how many yogis before him had sat humbly in that silent space meditating upon the nature of the self and reality at large. I was humbled to consider the lengths to which some in this vast tradition of yoga have gone for the sake of discovering through direct self experimentation what the human mind is capable of.
For weeks now I had been learning about the astonishing level of discipline the early yogis employed to gain insights into the nature of consciousness. Eating a sparse and modest diet of vegetables, lentils, beans and rice to make the body healthy and the mind steady. Cultivating an attitude of equanimity towards all things. Renouncing possessions, comforts and attachments. Meticulously cutting away from their lives all things that could distract from their ultimate goal of glimpsing ultimate reality, Brahman. I had also been hearing a lot of extraordinary claims about the special powers wielded by sages ancient and modern. This made me really uncomfortable. I felt torn by the desire to swallow whole the notion that a practice, on the level described in the ancient texts, could indeed yield extraordinary results like levitation and the ability to recall past lives. However, my inner skeptic demanded that I question these things.
The fourth and final chapter of The Yoga Sutras talks extensively about the Siddhis or supernormal perceptual states. These Siddhis arise as side effects of disciplined practice and appear to give the accomplished yogi extraordinary psychic abilities. I couldn't read any of it without categorizing it as a kind of dramatic embellishment upon concepts that I assumed must have been quite ordinary. I was not following Roshan's advice to neither accept nor reject but merely contemplate all that I received.
Flipping through my notebook today I found some gems of insight from my wise teacher Krishna. "Success in yoga is not related to specific clothes, reading authentic books or talking about yoga; only through practice can it be realized." A serious practitioner will commit himself whole heatedly to the practice without any expectation of result. Eventually the practice will pervade every aspect of waking life for the aspirant. Only then will the deepest benefits be realized. Krishna's second remark that I found while flipping through my notes made me smile. He made a very contentious statement one day while lecturing. He proposed that, in his opinion, one who is not practicing all aspects of yoga the yamas, niyamas, krias, mudras, bhandas, pranayama, dhyana, asana etcetera; categorically can not be called a Yoga Teacher. In a room full of western yoga teachers this statement unleashed a pretty immediate defensive reaction. The rationale behind Krishnas argument became apparent to me over time as we studied the ancient texts on yoga. The Bhagavadgita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gherand Samita all speak about yoga as a discipline of direct experience. Moksha or liberation comes to the aspirant through practice alone.
In another lecture a while later Krishna again brought up this idea of direct experience being king both for understanding and teaching yoga. He described The Yoga Sutras as "metaphysical speculations on the super sensual or transcendental." The Sutras are not for intellectual debate, he exclaimed powerfully, they are to be experienced." Then I finally decided to do what Roshan had been advocating all along. "Neither accept nor reject anything that you hear; contemplate." I have been revisiting chapter 4 of The Yoga Sutras since the completion of my course and it often reminds me of my Psychology and Philosophy studies in University. It reads like a how to manual for someone seeking to willfully alter his or her perception of reality. Who is to say that once someone possesses that level of self control they can not wield greater influence over their reality?
It's helpful to remember that the early yogis did not have modern scientific equipment to probe the physical stuff of the universe with. The had only their own intellects the tools of observation, inference and reason. What a tenacious bunch they must have been. After all how does a mind hope to use only itself to dissect the inner workings of itself? They were driven by the need to try to understand and so they learned to sharpen that one instrument, their minds, with every means at their disposal. How incredible! How inspiring! How revolutionary!
Because yoga has always been intended to be a discipline yielding insights through direct experience there can be no authority higher than the practitioner herself. I admire the teachers who have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly but they are just guides. The really good ones will often dismiss the adulations of their students understanding the work is done by the student. In essence the practitioner is her own teacher as well as a student. Actually it might make more sense to call a yoga practitioner an experimenter in perception.
It's not easy to maintain a home practice. I go through waves of enthusiasm when new and exciting discoveries are made punctuated by periods of lethargy when results are just a lot more of the same. But I always return to the practice. Not just for my health, happiness or connection to a community but compelled by the mystery of it all. I keep finding that the rabbit hole goes ever deeper and I must see where it leads.
Many Culinary Delights For The Mind, Body & Soul
Never Give Up
Always Let Go
The program was in full swing and I was getting close to over the jet lag, I had let go worrying about stretchy pants, the hot humid weather felt nice rather than oppressive and I was really starting to enjoying my new temporary home of Shiva Cottage in Swarag Ashram. No where in Rishikesh will one find meat. The primarily Hindu community is vegetarian so there were many beautiful vegetarian dishes on offer that I enjoyed immensely. In the school we were fed a fully Sattvic diet with three herbal teas per day. I loved the food but found myself starting to crave things from back home around this week three mark.
The hardest thing to live without was coffee. Part of the school policy is to abstain from caffeine while on the premises and preferably for the duration of the 6 week program. The main reason a yoga student does not want to ingest caffeine is because of how it alters the nervous system making one slightly agitated. This means the practitioner is unable to remain fully present during practice. I used to think this was just the kind of old world abstention for the sake of abstention that one sometimes sees in old traditions until I found myself naturally giving up coffee during my 200 hour teacher training in Nelson BC. For some reason my body didn't want caffeine once I had gone deep into the practice. I decided to trust that and I experienced a really beautiful natural stimulation effect from the practice alone.
I knew from the school information that this was coming so I tried to ween myself off coffee in preparation for my departure. I also had the experience from my 200 hour training where I didn't want caffeine so I thought it would be easy. It wasn't. As soon as the travel stress hit I was downing coffee in an airport in-between flights so as to boost my waining brain power during that long journey.
However, once I started the program I told myself, I would give up caffeine no problem. This was actually easier than one would imagine given you just couldn't get it on school premises. I felt really different during my practice. This is when the big slowdown occurred and to this day I haven't quite been able to speed up to my previous frenetic pace. I was walking slower, I was talking slower, I was talking less. I could feel my practice from the inside out. Everything was a little more visceral, a little more raw and wide eyed. Sorry, I feel like that doesn't really explain things well. It's one of those things you really need to experience for yourself.
However, it only took till week three to discover where the cafes offering coffee to the numerious caffeine starved westerners attending yoga training were. And they were good! Coconut milk iced lattes, Americanos, Mochas. These crafty cafe owners had done their market research and knew exactly how to pander to our western yogi cravings.
On one particularly exhausted morning I convinced myself that I really needed a coffee because I hadn't slept well for days and a whole day of study and practice lie before me. It would help me, I argued. In fact it would be good for me. Really, it would be negligent of me not to have a coffee leveraging the brain boosting power of caffeine to focus more on the brilliant offerings of these amazing teachers. So, just like any drug addict, I rationalized jumping off the wagon until it made perfect logical sense.
So I went to The Health Cafe in-between classes with a couple class mates and ordered a coconut milk iced coffee. It was just a tiny glass but it was so marvellous! Paired with these delicious caffeinated beverages one could avail of numerous tasty reasonably portioned organic healthy option deserts like apricot coconut slices, small coco chocolate balls and almond paste sweets. But these seemingly harmless treats were merely the gateway to hard deserts.
Things like nutella pancakes giant syrup covered chocolate balls, banoffee pie and the mother of them all, hello to the queen, were on the back page of the menu at cafes strategically placed around the perimeter of this school buildings. Hello To The Queen is a delicious graham cracker, caramel and banana base topped with a generous helping of ice-cream, whip cream and chocolate sauce. It's quite a shock to the system when your living in an ashram eating Sattvic and drinking nothing stronger than ginger lemon honey tea. Under these circumstances a Hello To The Queen, although tame by western standards, will totally f**k you up.
So I went there finding pasta, pizza, coffee and deserts that by western standards would still be considered very healthy vegetarian small portion options but by Indian yogi standards and my teachers standards completely inappropriate to the aims of our training. I argued irrationally to myself why this was acceptable. At one point I even argued that this was good Tantric Yoga practice. I was merely affirming the validity of this reality and experiencing it in it's fullness. However, there was no escaping the truth because during my deeply introspective practice be it asana, pranayama, mantra or meditation I could feel the difference on the couple days where I slipped.
And here's the really interesting thing. I didn't judge myself. I still don't and that's probably how I am able to write this tell all expose now. Yoga is not about becoming perfect through force of will. Yoga is a process of peeling back layers upon layers of misconception and recognizing the truth that we are already perfect. When this realization dawns, even if on the preconscious level, we no longer crave things that are not good for us because we directly experience that sense of connection and are totally fulfilled.
Tis what happened to me during the 200 hour training when I spontaneously gave up coffee. The thing is it doesn't last. It is easier to fall into this realization when we are beginners absent of preconceived notions or expectations about the practice. It becomes measurably more challenging to revisit once we are seasoned practitioners full of our own ideas about the good and bad of things. This is how well intentioned yogis can start to become a little elitist midway through their journey and you start to see bumper stickers proclaiming things like "I will totally kick your asana!" You can tell I am in the neighbourhood of midway through my journey because I have strong opinions about that bumper sticker and what it implies.
And yet it seams that really seasoned practitioners like my very disciplined teachers both in Nelson and India and the wise old sages meandering barefoot though the streets of Swarag Ashram somehow find their way back to the beginner's state of mind. With seeming effortlessness they conduct themselves to the highest standards of the practice and in some cases even according to the traditional texts, which is really hardcore. I don't yet know how they do it but I have seen that it is possible through their brilliant examples. So my practice continues with plenty of observation and a lot less judgement after my experience in India. I am hopeful this is a good recipe to help me progress to a point where judgement will no longer be an issue.
Enjoying the series? Stay posted for Part 4 in my March newsletter!
"External circumstances can only cause you physical pain. Suffering is created in your mind."
India and I were on much better terms after the initial panic and sickness wore off. Once I started my 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training Intensive I leapt enthusiastically into an exciting new routine. Unfortunately I couldn't sleep more than a few hours a night for the first 12 days. Someone had told me that it takes one day per time zone crossed to adjust to the jet lag. I knew I just needed to be patient.
My daily schedule Monday - Friday:
5:30am wake up and personal morning mediation
6:30am herbal tea & Jala Neti (nasal cleansing)
7am morning yoga practice for 2 hours
9:15am breakfast of fruit salad, oatmeal & honey
10:00am mantra practice
10:30am yoga history & tradition lecture
11:45am yoga anatomy & philosophy lecture
1:00pm lunch of lentils, vegetables & rice
2:00pm rest, hand wash laundry, study, explore
4:00pm adjustments workshop
5:00pm evening yoga practice for 2 hours
7:15pm dinner of curry, vegetables, rice chapati, desert
8:30pm personal evening mediation practice, reading
10:00pm lights out
Our first evening gathering as a group I receive the above schedule and a bundle of yoga goodies. A stack of textbooks, notebook & pen and my most prized possession from the training, a woven yoga rug. I had agonized before my departure on many inconsequential little details. One thing I hummed and hawed about for ages was taking my fancy expensive western yoga mat. In the end I decided to pack really light, I mean really... light. So no fancy western yoga mat. Instead I brought a yoga towel and that served nicely on top that beautiful woven rug.
For context it's worth noting that at one time I traveled with multiple suit cases. One for shoes, one for outfits. In the heady days of my European adventure there was occasion for multiple pairs of shoes. I certainly did not want to be responsible for lugging around a lot of stuff while negotiate crowed Indian streets. In a mad departure from my former habit I took just one small suitcase. This was a very good decision not only for practical reasons but for advancing my yoga practice of non attachment as well.
Those first couple weeks I was consumed by a singular thought. It crept up while in postures. It was in the back of my mind during nearly every śavāsana I used precious internet time when both power and internet were inconsistently available to research possible solutions. It was even making its way into my dreams. "Oh my god I didn't pack enough yoga cloths!"
I can't type that sentence without laugh. It sounds absolutely ridiculous in hind sight. Like, really embarrassingly ridiculous. And I would probably not type it at all were it not for the fact that this was one of my greatest insights about myself and the nature of reality during the intensive.
It was really really hot in India in September when I first arrived. The average daytime temperature those first couple weeks was 38 celcius. I have hardly in my life ever encountered that type of heat not to mention the humidity. I was sweating buckets. In the evening the sun would go down at nearly the exact same time we would find ourselves lying in corpse pose after our evening practice. I would feel awful stinging like I was being bitten by the most sadistic mosquitoes you could possibly imagine.
Thing was I was wearing 30% Deet repellant at the insistence of my travel clinic consultant and there were never any bite marks. It just didn't make sense. To this day I'm not sure what was happening but my best theory is this. My sweat pours were stretched so wide open that their contracting as the temperature dropped slightly was actually painful. Anyway, I digress, the point is, I was sweating a whole heck of a lot.
The few yoga clothes I did bring were of course expensive synthetic active wear. I can tell you, synthetic does not hand wash worth a damn. Every piece I took with me was absolutely destroyed by my rough attempt to beat the sweat out of it through sheer brute force. It never dried properly and so I just stank like a wet worn sock all day long. This further exacerbated my anxiety about the lovely clean yoga clothes sitting neatly in my closet back home rather than with me during yoga teacher training.
After talking sheepishly to one of my teachers about how anxious I was feeling about being away from home plus how terribly I was sleeping I found myself slipping in the fact that my lack of yoga clothing was making me uneasy. Then I realized, my teacher wears the same yoga clothes every day. A simple baggy white cotton long sleeve shirt and baggy white cotton pants. And he is doing pretty darn good with that.
For my teacher this simple yoga ensemble is a conscious choice. However, throughout India a limited wardrobe is a side effect of real life threatening poverty. And I am freaking out over a lack of stretchy pants. What the hell is the matter with me! My teacher listened attentively and calmly explained that this being the first time I had traveled to the East and alone at that I was was simply experiencing the stress of radical newness. I needed to practice evening meditation for a number of minutes equal to my age. So I did. In my 34 minute meditation practice I came to a realization.
My western capitalist upbringing had me absolutely convinced that I could control the universe with the right pair of technical fabric leggings and colour coordinated weather appropriate footwear. I believed this in the core of my being as if it were a law of nature. Without a thick insulating layer of stuff surrounding me I was feeling quite exposed to the uncertainty of life that pervaded every waking moment of my experience in this very new very different setting.
During insight meditation assumptions must be questioned. They are practically begging to be questioned. So I questioned. Is there truth to this assumption that I wield greater control over my destiny with the right stuff? A memory flashed in my mind from earlier that day when I was walking towards Lakshman Jula bridge shopping for cotton clothes.
A couple Sadhus were just lying in the shade of an archway resting during the hottest point of the day and looking quite content. Sadhus are a type of yogi who vow renunciation from worldly possession so that they can work towards moksa or liberation. They wear orange robes are nomadic and live off of alms, the food donations of strangers.
There they were with nothing but their orange robes and a pair of wooden walking sticks. Meanwhile I was going through the motions of a familiar dance, seeking some comfort in the hunting and gathering of more than I need in-between commitments where I engage in activities that help me pay for those excesses. The Sadhus I realized were not just lying there, they were a meditation in the form of a life. While they were contemplating Brahman, non fluctuating blissful highest reality, I was stressing myself out. Who had greater influence over their destiny they or I?
That weekend our first Sunday activity was white water rafting. I hadn't packed a swim suit as the recommendation on the email I received from the school was to bring bathing clothes. I won't go into the detail of that miscommunication. Suffice it to say I thought bathing cloths was something other than a bathing suit and was quite sure I would find them in India. Anyway, I found some Iyengar shorts and a tank top that were both good for swimming in and relatively conservative.
As we were crossing under Lakshman Jula bridge the guides suggested we jump out of the raft to float in the Ganges. I did so. And as I was floating in that holy river wearing Iyengar shorts, a tank top and a bright orange lifejacket I glanced up at the bridge packed as it always is with people coming and going about their business. A few waved down at me and I back up at them. Most were to busy to notice. I was contemplating Brahman, as I floated with the current of the river. Quite literally going with the flow. There was nothing to do but enjoy the moment. The moment was a cornucopia of delights. Letting go of everything, including the raft which had carried me to that point, I had gained the coolness of the water, the sweetness of the air, and the magnificent blue of the sky. As I type this I can't help but tear up a bit at the memory. This was a kind of yoga of powerful insight but no stretchy pants in sight.
"One should lift oneself by one's own efforts and should not degrade oneself; for one's own self is one's friend, and one's own self is one's enemy."
~ Bhagavad Gita 6:5
This past fall I attend a 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training program at Rishikesh Yog Peeth at a remarkable school located just outside Rishikesh India in Uttarakhand Province. I went for a couple important reasons. Firstly I wanted to deepen my personal practice and learn more about Yoga in the context of exploring the land where it's originated. Secondly, I was desperately in need of a quest. I was in a place in my life where I needed to confirm that I was able to navigate the world independently and thrive. A little part of me believed I could but the greater part of me was absolutely terrified.
My first evening in India was full on. My traveling buddy, for whom I am endlessly grateful, and I spent 6 hours by car from Delhi to Rishikesh on narrow dirt roads lined with animals, garbage and very poor people sleeping on the ground. Our driver was impressive to say the least. I can't even begin to comprehend how traffic functions in India. To me it was just like a bumper cart alley somehow minus the crashes.
At one point I hallucinated an elephant because I was so exhausted and stressed. It was just a harmless patch of trees immersed in a thick fog. We made it to our destination at 3am. Rolling our ridiculously inappropriate western suitcases through narrow alleys around the sleeping cows and their numerous leavings we eventually found the school and were let in by a very sleepy gentleman in charge of Shiva Resort whom I would later regard as one of the kindest individuals I have ever met.
That first days in Swarg Ashram I was so overwhelmed. The smell of everything was so pungent I could hardly make it the short 3 minute walk from sleeping resort to school without gaging. I got sick on that first day after drinking a freshly prepared passion fruit juice. It was also so incredibly hot and humid that when combined with Jet Lag I was a fragile emotional mess. I felt so soft and sensitive to all the differences surrounding me. I was really concerned that I had made an awful mistake coming to India. What was I thinking!
But on night two I did sleep a little and that next morning I awoke to an entirely different experience. The mild sickness from the day before had abated but left me with a profound sense that India had quite literally entered my body and somehow changed it making me more resilient better adapted. A symphony of crickets, birds, monkeys, dogs, cows, children, mantra & motorcycles beaconed from outside my window compelling me out of bed. The crimson sunrise falling upon the lush green hills looked quite inviting so I ventured outside. To my surprise the air smelled really sweet and I have no explanation for that shift in my perception.
I made my way up to the roof of Shiva Resort where a yogini was silently practicing. The sun was rising late and bright by this point over the foothills of the Himalayas and Swarg Ashram was waking up. A large grey monkey bounded across the roof above me and I was awe struck by the exotic unconventionally beautiful sight of a northern India city sprawled out before me. The spaghetti tangle of power lines, the rough hand built brick buildings, the complete disregard for symmetry and order, the half domestic half wild animals roaming everywhere.
My heart broke open. I could feel layers upon layers of preconceived notions about the world and my place in it cracking apart exposing a part of me I didn't know existed. This malleable soft inner stuff wanted to stretch out in that wild place. It was a melding of the raw organic within me to the un-apolagetic authentic being-ness that is India. I wanted to take off my shoes and practice yoga in that intoxicating setting.
At that moment I fell completely head over heals in love with the experience of India. This was the beginning of the true journey, the moment when I started to trust and see myself as I truly am.
Stay tuned for part 2 in January's newsletter.
This past weekend I had the distinct pleasure of leading the first Restorative Yoga & Ski Retreat at Sunshine Mountain Lodge. The luxurious Sunshine Mountain Lodge was our home base for exploring yogic themes on the mat as well as in the incredible alpine environment of Sunshine Village Resort. This retreat, shared with a group of absolutely inspiring people, was an all inclusive health conscious reconnection to nature based around the theme of getting in touch with the inner Mountain Mystic. I experienced my mystical moment leading students around the big corner on #34. I had asked everyone to explore the concept of non-attachment through an awareness exercise so as to become completely present in each fresh moment of the journey down the mountain. The thick blanket of cloud that had been lumbering through the valley all morning temporarily broke up revealing a vast expanse of wild rugged rocky mountains before me. It was the kind of scene, were it in a movie, would be accompanied by powerful Gregorian Chanting or some equally soul stirring music. I was struck by a sense of absolute preciousness and I was able to give my full attention to it. Gliding effortlessly over ice and snow at 2400 metres elevation amongst these ancient giant peaks with a sense of total belonging and being able to share it with others on a deep meaningful level. I exhaled with gratitude and continued moving holding my heart to the next moment and the next. And so we went blissfully through the white wilderness completely awake.
This photo of Sunshine Village is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Recently I was part of a group of fellow Instructors training to be certified to teach lessons in Sunshine's Side Country, Delirium Dive & Wild West. Every year I have been at Sunshine I have been able able to attend a session in this gnarly terrain with our much revered Technical Director Casey Bouius. Every time it has been incredibly fun, memorable, and slightly terrifying.
Before each session Casey has dropped a slightly cryptic hint about what to expect during the day. The first year he asked me if I was feeling agile which translated to mean we were going to enter the Z Traverse. This is a steep path to narrow for my 165 length skis turned sideways. Bellow the empty space inhabiting the underside of my tails is a very unnerving high consequences drop. I understood that if I slipped I needed to try to drop my hip into the uphill side of the mountain but wasn't sure if I could actually do so in the heat of the moment. It was my second lap ever in the Dive and I remember how every turn I felt so incredibly alive having feared so completely for my life getting there.
The second year he proclaimed that he may have a surprise for us. The surprise was hiking in our ski boots over a narrow scree path with just enough snow to make it slick but not enough to make it navigable skis on. To our left a steep rocky slope resembling a cheese grater that ended quite abruptly in a cliff. However, at the end of this we had the honour of first tracks that season in Cream under a perfect bluebird sky. So this year when he said lets make our way back up for "the technical lap," I knew that meant it was going to be something harrowing followed by something amazing.
We traversed the Galaxy Ridge to the G4 Entrance and as Casey peered over the edge he furrowed his brow and declared the condition of the entrance to be pretty sporty. It had been quite a few days since our last snowfall and powerful Chinook winds had scoured the existing snow into the consistency of styrofoam. Part way down lay two large rocks that took up half the already perilously narrow ridge. And of course this entrance had the requisite drop into certain bodily destruction lingering menacingly in my peripheral vision at all times.
As I always do it these situations I pictured the worst case scenario in full gory detail, took a deep breath and then repeated my sticky situations mantra "No that's not what's going to happen!" Then I stepped in... When I got to the rocks I made a poor decision about how to get over them. I found myself stuck on the upper rock with my left knee in my left armpit while the right foot dangled just a few millimetres shy of the snow. I could hear Casey calmly encouraging me so I stretched a little further than I thought myself capable, thank you yoga, and made it to the staging area. One of my colleagues was there to great me with a good job Christine and each colleague to follow received the same heart warming congratulations.
In fact, I reflected at that moment how it was the company of my colleagues and the way we all had each other's back that was this year's reward for the risk taken. I had the overwhelming sense that I was part part of a tribe up on that mountain. Each member made bolder by the support and encouragement of the group. In my head I could hear the lyrics to Fire in Your Eyes by Chase & Status:
Always been a warrior
from back when I remember
now we stand together
I have never been a solo adventurist. Some people are and thats totally cool, however, I enjoy having a team to share the spoils of victory with. This day was a perfect example of precisely that type of situation that I live for. Just enough challenge to leave me and my tribe walking a little taller an with a slight swagger and we head off into our normal lives having just achieved something magical. A moment of pure mindful presence shared as a collective.
I was first introduced to self inquiry meditation during my first listening to Lama Surya Das's audiobook Natural Perfection on cassette tape in the early 2000's. Having gotten rid of all my tapes long ago it was such a surprise when this audiobook accidentally made its way back into my life via Audible.com. With a smile I acknowledged the elegant way in which the universe always gives me what I need when I need it most. I took the hint and set about the work of practicing in this beautiful tradition of Dzogchen Buddhist meditation once again.
Rushen, which means subtle discernment, is a practice to help the meditator break out of his or her conditioned responses to the world through a process of self inquiry. One of the most difficult aspects of mediation is the relentless chatter of the mind as you try to become quiet. After getting to a place of relative calm focus you suddenly remember that you need to pick up almond milk for tomorrow's breakfast smoothie and then you start to think about washing the blender and remembering how annoyed your husband got last time you made your smoothie at 6:30am and so on and so fourth until it's 5 minutes later and you have totally wandered off track.
Lama Surya Das teaches that the trick is not to try to empty the mind in meditation, rather to develop a level of detachment from the projections of the mind where you can become an observer to all those thoughts, sensations, memories, and plans without getting caught up in them. In Self Inquiry meditation these seaming distractions actually become the tools for self inquiry. For example as you start to notice your mind drift to the awareness that your foot is itching painfully you ask "who or what is experiencing this pain?" A rather indignant answer may come like "I am experiencing this pain." Then another question can be posed to probe deeper. "Who am I?" With each new answer ask another question.
After a while in this practice you may come to realize, as I did with a great shock, that nothing is really as it seams. The narrative of your existence is a composite of culture, upbringing, and human bias. These things, like a filtered sunglasses, distort your perception preventing you from experiencing absolute reality what is called in the Dzogchen tradition The Innate Great Perfection.
I have experienced it twice. Both times it was just a flash and then I was drawn back into thoughts pertaining to the this and that-ing of life. I can't explain to you in words what it was like to have a glimpse of the world without the overlay of all my assumptions because as I type this I am operating from within that distorted view. I did however completely identify with the quote by Indian poet Kabir that Lama Suraya Das included in Natural Perfection.
Kabir sang, "I glimpsed it for 15 seconds, it made me a servant for life."
Parivrtta Hasta Padangustasana is a powerful pose for developing a specific type of rotational core strength that we use all the time in skiing. As the legs turn to redirect the skis across the fall line the oblique abdominals start to work to maintain a strong and stable aligned stance while the lower body twists under the upper body. Like coiling a spring tight this action of twisting that is inherent in skiing creates a lot of energy. As soon as the muscles that maintain the twist are softened at the end of the turn the energy is released and the body naturally unwinds back to a neutral, skis heading down the fall-line position. Any skier, with training and time, can learn how to harness the energy created through this twisting action to propel themselves from one turn to the next. The first step is developing a strong core. Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana is both a balance and a twisting pose. It strengthens the oblique muscles while stretching the outer leg. Both of these effects will improve your performance on the slopes.
How to do it:
Start in Tadasana Mountain pose. Spread the toes of the right foot to connect the 4 points of the foot (big toe mound, pinkie toe mount, inner and outer edge of the heel) to the yoga mat. Bend the left knee and take hold of the left big toe with the first two fingers and thumb of the left hand. On the next inhale start to extend the left leg straight forward. This is Utthita Hasta Padangustasana or regular hand to big toe pose.
If you are still working to straighten the left leg, if you feel you can not extend the leg without rounding the lower back, or if balance is a struggle then keep working this version of the posture for as long as it takes for you to feel comfortable, strong, and stable. There is no rush in Yoga. We move at our bodies natural pacing and through the practice we slowly transform the body until we can safely and comfortably move onto more challenging postures. I can not emphasize this enough.
To move into the revolved version of the posture, Parvrtta Hasta Padangusthasana, bend the left leg and take hold of the left foot with the right hand, left hand on left hip. Again start to extend the left leg and twist the torso to the left. If you feel strong here start to extend the left hand towards the wall behind you. Ideally there will be one long line from the left fingertips to the outer edge of the left foot. Hold for 5 - 8 cycles of breath and repeat on the opposite side.
A great modification for this posture is to use a chair against a wall. Stand in front of the chair with the chair back agains the wall and the seat facing you. The heel of the extended leg will rest of the chair back with the four points of the foot pressing firmly into the wall. It can be helpful to cushion the chair back with a blanket first. Withe the standing leg firmly rooting into the ground and the extended leg firmly rooting into the wall it is possible to gain the stability to experiment with twisting in opposition to the extended leg. The hand does not need to come all the way to the outer foot for the posture to be effective. Place the opposite hand on the shin bone of the extended leg same as you move into the twist reaching behind yourself with same side arm out stretched. Hold this posture 5 - 8 cycles of breath each side and practice weekly to strengthen the oblique muscles and lengthen the IT bands.
For more information on this posture visit the video section of thespiritualskier.com to watch a demonstration of this posture.
I can't believe I have been a member of the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance for fifteen years already. A lot of innovation has happened in the sport during that time but it pales in comparison to the amount of change the sport has seen since the beginning of the CSIA. Recently I attended the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance fall convention gala dinner. This year we celebrated the 75th anniversary of our organization. We watched a fantastic video presentation showing the evolution of our organization through the decades.
In the 1930's skiers had to hike up for every run. There were no lifts or groomers. The first thing I noticed was the massive grins on their faces. I guess the act of sliding down a mountain has always been magical regardless the effort involved. Skis were wooden with metal binding that didn't release and the boots were leather. We are so spoilt now with high speed chairlifts, Gortex and shaped skis it's hard to conceive of what skiing was like in those early days. Watching the footage it was clear those pioneers had found the stoke in a far more raw interaction with the mountain than most of us are used to today.
I was also so impressed by the technical proficiency of CSIA members in the 70's and 80's. back then skis were long, heavy and straight. To pivot required the strength of tree trunk sized thighs. I watched totally slack jawed as my predecessors jump turned entire faces with apparent ease. I can assure you that ain't easy. I'm currently up to 34 jump turns in a single pitch and by the end of that I'm winded to the point of not being able to talk.
Perhaps the coolest thing about that video was how unchanged the Canadian Rockies are these past 75 years. Much of the footage was shot right here at Sunshine Village and Lake Louise. Aside from a few new chairlifts and the odd building the landscape is the same. In that sense it was so apparent how the mountains have witnessed a vastly incomprehensible stretch of time and we are but a brief flicker in their midst.
With tremendous respect and a little reverie I watched those innovators of my sport totally shredding my home hill with a disposition that was part mad scientist part test pilot. Now when I ski those same trails I can feel their wild exploratory spirit lingering in the rocks and trees. I feel a part of a proud heritage, one of the oldest ski instructor associations in the world. In that great tradition my colleagues and I go out every day to see if we can learn what is possible on skis.
Worlds can not describe the pain I am in. Seventeen centimetres of blower pow in twenty four hours plus opening day for Delirium Dive and I am stuck at home with a raging head cold. Noooo......! This could have been avoided had I not let my self care regimen slip. Please learn from my mistakes so that you can enjoy face shots rather than kleenex burn this season.
One of the main lessons Yoga teaches us is balance. We have an innate sense of balance not only the kind that allows you to stand on one foot but the kind of equilibrium finding that tells us when we have too much stress in our lives to function. Due to a culture that ever increasingly prizes productivity above all things we have learned how to ignore the signs that our lives are getting out of balance. Even after fifteen years practicing yoga and studying eastern philosophy I occasionally allow myself to get a little to busy and loose my practice. Now that I have noticed how far I have drifted I can enjoy the fun of returning to the practices I know will be effective at boosting my immune system. The following three practices I was pretty consistently observing last season and I did not get sick once between January and July.
1. Five minute morning meditation ritual
Every morning I set aside at least five minutes where I can sit quietly observing breath. A very simple way of doing this is to feel the belly expand with each inhale and contract with each exhale. It can also be helpful to repeat silently to yourself the words inhale exhale to keep the mind focused. Sometimes I will use that five minutes to scan my body and look for signs of fatigue or stress. I then imagine that I could breath into that place and with each exhale I let go of whatever is trapped there.
2. Return to a modified Sattvic Diet and daily supplement regimen
The Sattvic Diet comes from Ayruvedic Medicine and is also known as the Yoga Diet. Ideally this diet is comprised exclusively of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, lentils, whole grains, unpasteurized dairy and natural sweeteners like honey. I personally add a couple small servings / week of lean locally sourced animal protein most often elk, bison, or turkey as I feel my body needs extra protein when I am skiing five days a week. I also have a really difficult time finding unpasteurized dairy products here in Canada so I try to minimize my dairy intake substituting with Almond Milk. My tailored supplement regimen is something I have been developing for years consulting Nutritionist, Ayurvedic Doctors, and GP's for advice. What works for me may not be appropriate for you it's always best to ask your doctor. I take vitamins B, C, D, as well as Spirulina, Calcium / Magnesium and the occasional bit of Melatonine. I don't drink a lot of alcohol but I do drink a lot of tea especially green tea.
3. Commit to 8 hours of quality sleep
Because I am awake every morning by 6:30am I make sure I am in bed by 10pm so that I can fall asleep by 10:30pm and get at least eight hours of sleep. Often in the dark part of the season my body will start to crave more sleep and I am happy to oblige. If I am having trouble falling asleep I listen to a Yoga Nidra, or (yogi sleep) album. This is a relaxation meditation practice designed to aid sleep. I almost always remember my dreams when I fall asleep this way, a sign I have made it into REM sleep.
Today I am pulling out the big guns. I am heading into my practice space for a 90 minute Yin session followed by a 30 minute mediation session. I am drinking tulsi tea with lemon and a little bit of oregano oil. Tonight I will dream of skiing and tomorrow I will be on the mountain hopefully back to full strength. See you up there ;)
Please feel free to share your comments or questions below. I love hearing from you!
Last night I had the opportunity to attend a pot luck gathering of ski and snowboard affecianados. Following a delicious feast I presented a short workshop introducing my new sequence 5 poses for knee stability. As I was describing the many benefits this short yoga practice can bring to not only the body but the shredding ability of the practitioner I realized snow sports are one of the only activities where people don't warm up or stretch beforehand. When you consider the incredible forces put on the body by these activities this is quite unbelievable. The group broke into a conversation about how for some strange reason if your seen doing stretches on the mountain in your gear people think your strange. We concluded that really it's more strange not to take care of your body properly so you can enjoy the slopes to the fullest. After all, most people who are serious skiers and riders wouldn't dream of headding out with improperly tuned equipment. And yet the most expertly tuned boards can't help you if your muscles don't move smoothly through their full range of motion. This is what the 5 poses for knee stability sequence is really all about. It's a 10 minute practice that tunes up the body so it's ready to perform allowing the body owner to enjoy an epic day. After the session we watched the movie The Dream Machine. Everyone dreams of deep days and epic untracked lines. It takes practice to become skilled enough to tackle the big lines. By keeping the body well tuned it will be there for you through the learning process until one day you find yourself on top the gnarliest line of you life and ready to charge!