“Your life is a sacred journey. And it is about change, growth, discovery, movement, transformation, continuously expanding your vision of what is possible, stretching your soul, learning to see clearly and deeply, listening to your intuition, taking courageous challenges at every step along the way. You are on the path… exactly where you are meant to be right now…” – Caroline Adams
I was invited to walk a homemade labyrinth on a friend’s property. Honoured and excited by the invitation, I deliberately resisted my natural inclination to hit the Internet to prepare myself for the experience. I have long wanted to do a labyrinth walk and intended to face this new experience with a fresh and unclouded mind. Let it show me – no expectations.
When I arrived, I couldn’t see the labyrinth initially but as we walked down a small slope it came into view carved discreetly into the calf-high grass of a long-gone farmer’s field. The sky, like my mind, was clear and cloudless. The gold of sunshine shimmered in the waving field of grass.
I approached the labyrinth’s entrance, which was freshly mowed and ready. My friend presented a lit stick of incense to discourage mosquitos from getting too close. I puffed out the flame and enjoyed a delicate whiff of sweet grass from the plume of smoke wisping from the stick. With bated breath and thumping heart I entered the labyrinth.
Unlike a maze, which is design to baffle and confuse, a labyrinth is a single path that winds eventually into its centre calling upon receptivity rather than logic. There are no wrong turns, no dead ends. The only decision required for the labyrinth, or spiritual life, for that matter, is whether or not to take that first step.
Based on spirals and circles found in nature, labyrinths all lead circuitously into the centre and back out again. Found across cultures, religions and time labyrinths are an archetype thought to represent the journey of the pilgrim or the spiritual journey of venturing upon the path inward, finding the seat of the soul where transformation occurs and returning home bearing the gifts of transformation to share with the world.
Releasing my breath, I silently began my journey, step by tentative step. The first turn was to the left as the path wound its way around and back again. I walked mindfully with my breath, birdsong and bug buzz in the air, feeling the firm plant of my feet with every step.
Head down as I walked, I saw what appeared directly in front of me rather than trying to determine how far I had come or looking ahead in anticipation of my arrival in the centre. This reminded me that I can only really be with what is, where I am, in the moment, and to look back or too far forward is to lose sight of the journey. When my attention drifts backward or forward, I may trip over the debris in my immediate path or miss the beauty around me.
Staying with each step, I kept my awareness focused on sensation – the light touch of the summer breeze, the delicate scent of sweet grass, the warmth of the sun and the call of a far off rooster beseeching me to wake up. It is in these small but grand moments that our quest is satisfied. It may not be the big answers that will come to us in moments of clarity but perhaps gentle reminders that we are on the right path after all, that we are moving in the right direction, to trust we are exactly where we need to be and not second guess our own knowing and intuition.
Arriving in the centre, I paused at the small bench, sat and reflected on my journey inward to the heart of the labyrinth. I reveled in feeling peaceful and delighted but knew that I must begin the meandering way outward. This too shall pass. I journeyed three times, inward and outward again, step by step.
Heading home, I experienced a flush of contentment and a deep sense of connection to earth and sky and everything in between and beyond. I was momentarily overwhelmed by the ways of mindfulness that are available to us should we choose to accept. All paths with heart that serve to raise our awareness and remind us of our magnificence, ultimately bringing us closer to flow and to each other, lead inexorably to our centre, to our vast potential for healing and transformation.
“And from here, you can only go forward, shaping your life story into a magnificent tale of triumph, of healing of courage, of beauty, of wisdom, of power, of dignity, and of love.” – Caroline Adams
I was asked by a new student recently how long I have been doing yoga. That question usually has me reeling back through the decades, demanding the use of my questionable math skills and the resulting lame answer of “a long time”.
This time was different. “Over 30 years”, I daringly replied. “Oh, you must be very flexible”, she commented. “As flexible as I need to be”, I said.
Yoga HAS been an integral part of my life for a long time. I frequented a bookstore in my teens, the Sunnyside Bookshop, in Ottawa. A magical place bursting with gleaming crystal balls, dusty stacks of tarot cards, brilliant gemstones, tinkley wind chimes, smokey incense and all manner of esoteric literature. It was there I stumbled upon a book by Richard Freedman, Yoga for Health, and embarked upon my lifelong yoga journey.
Yoga classes were hard to find in the early 80s. Most were found through community centre programs and housed in the dingy basement of aging schools and musty churches. We would gather in our baggy sweats with large towels spread out on ragged linoleum floors. Meditation and pranayama were the order of the day with asana being a means to an end – a way to soothe and massage the body into a blissful state of relaxation. “You sink into the movements, you become the movements, you have a joyous and physical experience knowing and understanding your body from a new perspective.” – Richard Hittleman, Yoga for Heath.
It is interesting to look back from modern postural yoga as it can sometimes be now – where the end is asana and your practice is only as good as your last pose. Where pushing and strain and competition are rife. Where ego has found its limelight in the seaside, bikini-clad glorification of “the pose”.
The practice of modern postural yoga has evolved inversely proportional to my human journey; it was quiet and reflective when I was young and is now brash and outward as I age – yet somehow, deep down, it all remains the same. My own practice has evolved with my body and my body with my practice. I practice asana now to remain fluid and at ease in my movements and physical activities and study yoga philosophy to find ease and peace in my life.
In classes, I promote body awareness, moving with ease and optimal function, finding balance between stability and mobility and a whole lot of self-discovery. We develop the ability to see ourselves from new perspectives with compassion and innate wisdom and hone the flexibility and strength of body, mind and spirit to foster the suppleness we require to weather the climate of our lives and emerge whole, intact and firmly connected to all that is.
Next time I am asked “how long”, I will say “forever”.
“Svadhyaya , or self-study, is about knowing our true identity as Divine and understanding the boxes we are wrapped in. The process of knowing ourselves, and the boxes that adorn us, creates a pathway to freedom.” D. Adele
Taking a week hiatus from teaching this Christmas allowed me to do all sorts of unwrapping, not just the gifts, but ultimately of myself, shedding bits of skin here and there. And it is as messy as it sounds. After weeks of hectic energy, chaos and shedding, I am replenished – new and fresh and ready to begin again.
We are taught and led, or should I say, misled, to cover and disguise our inner light in so many sorts of wrappings – jobs, responsibility, social masks. We learn to equate our self-worth with bank accounts and possessions, the things we can wear to show the world how valuable we really are, the things that keep us perennially distracted. But the world doesn’t care, not about that. Every layer we unravel, every time we dare to look a little bit deeper, every growth pang we feel brings us that much closer to our essence; our true selves.
As the light peeks through and becomes stronger, accouterments start to pale. What really matters to the world is the willingness to be authentic and the courage to reveal and share our own inner divine. Marianne Williamson wrote a powerful “call to arms” for this essential process.
During my practice today, working with agni sara, harnessing and igniting the inner fire and connecting with energy, I felt real. It is a place we can tap into when are muscles are weak, our brain fatigued or heart heavy- a place that will always hold us strong, centred and grounded. A place from which to share.
“Seeking and avoiding are expensive uses of energy” D. Adele
Contrary to the task this week, to notice when we seek pleasure or avoid discomfort, I tend to the reverse. Interestingly, after observing my thoughts and actions, I notice I seek discomfort and avoid pleasure. Could this be symptomatic of my Roman Catholic upbringing? Those years in a blue tunic and unbearable leotards? Of harsh, unyielding nuns in crisp, black habits? Of weekly mass and chronic confession? Of scraping the bottom of my nascent life to dig up something to disclose to the priest that proved I am somehow worthy of divine absolution but not much else?
Not too long ago, when I was pining for a bit of travel, listening to my mother describe a glorious Baltic cruise, I abruptly encountered a limiting belief. I was told that these things too will come to me but not until I “have suffered enough”.
By seeking suffering, I am misguided in believing that rewards will somehow arise from this state. My experience has taught me that suffering only pulls me deeper into the morass and away from the light. We are spiritual beings here on this plane to enjoy the bounty of earthly pleasures and, as in Buddhism, we are to release suffering in equanimity.
I feel the taut grip of guilt when I seek comfort and pleasure -when I am doing what brings me joy. I am slowly and mindfully learning to sink into ease and to stop swimming upstream and to redefine my life and myself outside of the paradigm of struggle.
Regardless of what we seek or avoid, these actions can blind us to the moment and the immediate richness of our surroundings. In class last night, in the profound stillness of savasana, I allowed the moment to envelope me, and in that gap, there were no demands, no debts, no worries – just deep, blissful serenity.
“Santosha invites us into contentment by taking refuge in a calm centre, opening our hearts in gratitude for what we do have and practicing the paradox of “not seeking”. D. Adele
Seeking contentment in the next moment, or the next, or the one after that. How this describes me, always preparing and planning but never really arriving anywhere. I have prided myself on my consummate planning abilities, no detail overlooked, imagining that I can foresee the future and know precisely what I will do when I get there.
I will be happy when … I am earning more and weighing less. I will be productive when I can take refuge in a proverbial room of my own in and wallow in my writing. This is merely existing with blinders on, if not a full blindfold. As I sit in the fragile dawn light, cat curled beside me, in the deep quiet before the household comes to life, I can glimpse contentment. This moment is perfect. This is my room.
I pick up my pen and my notebook and begin to write. I put on my new, purple yoga pants. Comfy, flowing, one-size yoga pants; the purchase of which provides fair wages directly to the producers in Nepal. Sitting on my mat and all is well, all manner of things are well.
This is a constant theme throughout my life. The nice girl, smile, be polite, be sweet, don’t bother anybody, put up and shut up, etc. Looking back over my life from this vantage point, I wonder if I was nice as a child for approval or survival? In those years truth is an especially nebulous thing. We are fed the truth of our caretakers and, to ensure our well-being, we must swallow these truths without resistance.
Hitting the teenage years we start to observe, and perhaps integrate, the many truths presented in the world, outside our families. Slowly, the truth pablum we were weaned on may develop a different taste. We may want to spit it out and make way for the delicious new truths that tempt us. In forming our identity at this stage, we try to jigger appealing new perspectives together in some sort of cohesive way. We still live amongst our family of origin, but may be moving away from their beliefs and views – a potentially painful process.
This is when “being real” starts to hit the proverbial fan. We start to express our nascent views and takes on truth, sometimes to be accepted and applauded, other times to be ridiculed and scorned. Experiencing the latter further drove back my own ‘realness’ and nourished the habit of being nice instead. My nice was born in fear – fear of not belonging, fear of ridicule and shame.
Funny thing is – being nice isn’t so nice. The yeses were coming from a dark corner of my heart. I did what it took to be accepted and embraced all the while harbouring a deeply etched scowl on my heart. Resentment percolated easily as my efforts were rarely appreciated or valued. I became a giver and the takers saw me from a mile away! Relationships were toxic out of the gate.
After a while, being nice becomes more difficult and the resentment it breeds starts to ferment. It becomes blatant that nice will no longer do and imminent survival hinges on getting “real”. If we answer a request dishonestly, there is a tainted quality to it. Choosing mindfully and from the heart enables us to both take care of ourselves and be honest with those around us.
The pendulum swings as we practice becoming real instead of just nice, seeking the balance of the middle way. How real do we want to be? I can be straightforward (some would call it blunt) because I like to call it as I see it. I laser in on the truth and turn away from lies and hypocrisy. Sometimes this is heavy handed and needs to be tempered with ahimsa (non-violence). If the truth is thrust about like a hot poker and not coming from a light heart; what is the purpose?
The purpose of being “real” is to treat ourselves and others with kindness, to make decisions with light from an open heart and to honour all those who may cross our paths.
This morning I unintentionally stepped into this week’s task. Living in a condominium is nothing short of oppressive – in my particular situation. A set of neighbours enjoy policing every inch of the “common area” and taking it upon themselves to determine who can do what when where. This behaviour has evolved into serial, petty, passive-aggressive acts that seem to be undertaken for the express purpose of inconveniencing and annoying others.
When we moved in 3 years ago it was immediately clear that our rights were being mercilessly trampled on. I retreated for months feeling bullied and threatened. My throat clenched and stomach roiled every time I bumped over the little hill heading toward my front door. I owned my unit, but not my liberty!
We are situated in the south end of a small Ontario town surrounded by trees, a river and a pond teeming with life. We fall asleep to the burbles of bull frogs and awaken to a symphony of song birds. After finishing my coffee on the back deck this morning, I grabbed my yoga mat, a camera and a corn broom. I swept off one of the wooden landings on the stairway down to the pond, aimed the camera at the droopy heads of a scattering of red trilliums and headed back to my mat.
During my practice, my drishti fell upon the gnarly bark of a tree, a fallen branch half buried in last year’s leaves, the sun glimmering on the pond. Afterward, I sat in silence in the dappled sunshine and soaked it all in. It felt like vacation, it smelt like vacation and I was home!
Gratitude flowed through me. I do not own the trees or the birds or the ducks but they are at my doorstep to be enjoyed whenever my heart allows. I can express my liberty in ways that cannot be stolen. I can choose to be free or I can choose to give my power away. Living as a visitor brought home the joy and abundance all around me and the flimsy shadows of trifling annoyances can be easily overlooked as they merely flutter past in the sunshine.
I just began exploring the yamas and niyamas, “the rare gems of wisdom that give direction to a well-lived and joyful life”, in more depth with a fellow yogi and kindred soul. We will post the musing from our journey on our respective blogs. The book, “The Yamas and Niyamas – Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice” by Deborah Adele is our guide. Her compassionate words and provocative questions bring the elegant sophistication of yoga’s ethical practice firmly into the relevance of our daily lives.
I begin my entries with the yama, “Asteya – non-stealing, which calls us to live with integrity and reciprocity”.
Both quotes I used are borrowed from Deborah’s lovely book.