What is an Advanced Yogi?

Recently I led some yoga students through a rather lengthy series of leg-stretching asanas based on Supta Padanghustasana (Supine Big Toe Pose). I traditionally end the series with a one-legged version of Yoganidrasana (ankles behind the head). Of course, most people in my classes feel pretty flexible if their foot ends up within a few inches of their faces—and honestly, that’s really quite flexible compared to the average person on the street.

The orientation and depth of many people’s hip sockets will never allow the full, Yoga Journal-cover-ready expression of the pose, the ankle hooked easily around the back of one’s neck. I’m one of the few people whose pelvis and femurs are made for this and other poses, like Padmasana (Lotus Pose), that others’ individual structures will not allow. I don’t take particular pride in this; it’s not something I earned through hard work. It’s simply a genetic variation inherited from my gymnast father.

The instructions for moving into Yoganidrasana can be confusing to students, probably because the pose has nothing in common with everyday movement. Often I demonstrate for clarity. In last week’s class I demonstrated the version that most people can accomplish—bending one knee toward the chest, placing the ankle in the bend of the opposite elbow and drawing the leg in toward the chest. As I offered the option—somewhat jokingly—of slipping the ankle behind the head, it occurred to me to do what I’ve often done:  Demonstrate.

For a week prior to this class, I’d been struggling with sacroiliac (SI) pain and sciatica. My genetically loose joints, combined with years of practicing accepted alignment instructions that I later found to be inappropriate for my body, along with youthful enthusiasm that inspired me to try every “advanced” pose I could force myself into back in the 1980s, have produced in me a fragile, hyper-mobile SI joint. My SI joint is the proverbial canary in the coalmine for me now. On one hand, it’s quite useful; it gives me immediate feedback when my alignment is ever-so-slightly unhealthy. I’ve learned volumes about SI-appropriate alignment from living with this extremely sensitive and communicative joint. On the other hand, my SI joint misaligns easily and turns excruciatingly painful at the slightest provocation. Sometimes only a chiropractic adjustment will set it right.

So last week, when I had the option to demonstrate Yoganidrasana, I chose the prudent path and opted out. Not only did I save myself untold SI trouble in a joint that was already inflamed. More importantly, I walked my talk. I would never encourage a student to push past SI and sciatica pain. The only motivation I can think of for sliding my foot behind my head would be to prove that I could do it, to show my students what an “advanced” yogi I am.

Redefining “Advanced” Yoga

I’ve long advocated for a different definition of the “advanced” yogi. Defined class levels (Level 1, 2, 3 and 4) seem artificial, limiting and inaccurate to me. Some people come to yoga with bodies that will do almost every pose on the first day. Never mind that their minds are looking forward to their next social engagement while they rise effortlessly into Urdva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow) with straight arms (the requirement for entering some Level 3 classes). On the other hand, a yogi with 30 years’ experience whose shoulder joint is constructed in such a way that the angle of their arms will never allow them to be straight in Urdva Dhanurasana would be barred from this same class. These parameters do not seem useful to me.

For me, an advanced yogi is one who has a two-way communication with his/her body—speaking and listening. An advanced yogi has the experience to know when he/she is too exhausted, injured or fragile to practice a particular pose. An advanced yogi knows that the degree to which you can stretch, the number of Chaturangas (yoga push-ups) you can do, the length of time you can stay in headstand, or having straight arms in Urdva Dhanurasana matters not at all in the grand scheme. An advanced yogi’s ego is in check enough to know that no one’s character is defined by what poses he/she can or can’t do. An advanced yogi knows that just because you can do a particular pose doesn’t mean that you should.

Donna Farhi teaches that advanced yogis are the ones who opt out of doing the most “advanced” variations of poses rather than push themselves to the point of injury. Advanced yogis are the people who know that Yoga is not about performance, but about freedom from the need to perform. I have to agree. My decision to opt out of Yoganidrasana tasted far more of freedom than wedging my ankle behind my head ever could.

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The Rhythm of Change



A half-gallon of curdled milk, a partially eaten veggie wrap, a petrified orange, a plastic bag filled with dark green cucumber slime. These are the relics of a previous life I cleared out of my mother’s refrigerator last Memorial Day weekend. Under normal circumstances, my practical and frugal Depression-era mother would never leave edible food to fester in her fridge. In mid-March everything changed. On a fragrant, Alabama spring day while watering her beloved pansies, she lost balance, fell and fractured her pelvis. She has not yet returned to her home.

A consistent walker for most of her life, my mother can no longer negotiate the fifteen precipitous steps leading to her front door. Four stacks of unopened mail—minus important bills which my sister has culled from the piles-—cover her dining room table. A pencil sketch rests on her easel, awaiting her watercolor brush to bring it to life. A grocery list sits on her kitchen counter. In a single instant a daily routine honed through years of living vanished.

In the wake of her accident, my mother is gradually defining a new model for her day-to-day life. Recasting a life that shifted so abruptly is not easy for an 85-year-old person. In my mother I now see a stubborn resistance to the change her circumstances have wrought. During my visit I heard wistful, wry reminiscences of her former vitality. I heard frustrated speeches against aging. An unspoken uncertainty colored our conversations. She did not speak about what her life might look like in a month or a year, but I knew she was wondering.

When we experience a loss, whether it be the loss of a friend or family member, a loss of a job, a change in our health, or the end of a way of life, it is natural to mourn. It is nearly impossible not to wonder how much easier or better our lives might be had our circumstances continued as usual. But the reality of living is that our lives change constantly. Without loss it would be impossible to grow. It is letting go of the old, that which is no longer needed, that makes room in our lives for whatever is to come.

Since the 1920s my mother has let go of a lot. A lifelong artist, my mother began her career before entering grade school, copying renderings of caricatures she found in books. During grade school she drew paper dolls for herself and her friends. In high school and college she gave up paper dolls for figure drawing. Later on, this art form would evolve into a career as a fashion artist for an upscale Cincinnati department store. Still later, she would give up her career in commercial art to return to drawing paper dolls for her three daughters, and to design and paint sets and costumes for school plays. Finally, as she released us into the world, her art would blossom, evolving from tightly representational oil paintings to fluidly rendered, award-winning watercolor studies of shadow and light. She can no more easily return to copying caricatures than she can return to her childhood body.

Our very lives are a continuum of receiving, releasing, receiving and releasing. Thousands of times each day our bodies naturally draw in and release the breath. When we inhale we receive the vital oxygen that enlivens all the cells of our bodies. When we exhale we expel toxic waste in the form of carbon dioxide. What would happen to our bodies if we only inhaled? What if we chose only to accumulate and never to let go?

When Chogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, spoke in Salt Lake several years ago, he made a statement that has stayed with me. He said, “Freedom does not come from acquisition. It comes from letting go.” In the same way the long since perished vegetables in our refrigerator occupy space that could be filled with fresh, vital foods, the habits we grasp onto for security stultify us. We can not move forward in our lives when we cling to the past. When we set our habits, our beliefs and our ways of living in concrete, we become trapped by them. Letting go of what is no longer appropriate in our lives releases us to all possibilities.

No matter how affectionately we might recall our youth, would we really want to go back? Early in my yoga study, I practiced intensely and attained the strength, flexibility and technique required to accomplish many of the most advanced yogasanas. Twenty years later, even though I might fondly remember those times of physical accomplishment, would I really want to return? What I have let go in terms of extreme practice has made room for a more mature, more satisfying awareness of the subtle energies that govern my body’s essential vitality. As a result my practice has gained integrity, and my body has become stronger and more balanced.

As we live and grow, our understanding becomes more refined. Out of the process of continual drawing in and letting go, compassion and wisdom grow. Compassion grows as we experience the sadness that often accompanies letting go. As we come to peace with the reality and rhythm of constant change, wisdom grows. Each forward step on our life ’s path requires us to let go of what is past. The process of living rests in the delicate balance between letting go and starting anew.

Recently as I looked at an ancient black-and-white photo of my mother at age five, I saw that while she is still the same person, she is also different. The same body that animated her spirit as a child carries that spirit today. But in many ways it is not the same body. In the past 80 years that five-year-old frame has grown to adulthood and borne three daughters. Her black hair has turned white, her skin has loosened, her gait has slowed. But I have seen the wise and determined visage of the child in that photograph a thousand times, throughout my mother’s life. The spirit that lives in that completely remodeled body remains intact.

When the young prince, Siddhartha, first ventured out of his gilded palace as a youth, he was faced with what are called the Four Heavenly Messengers. These messengers – old age, sickness, death and a wandering monk seeking awakening – called the future Buddha to his destiny as an enlightened teacher. In him the question arose, if our bodies are all subject to old age, sickness and death, where is happiness to be found? In his six years of searching, the Buddha found that happiness was available to everyone, when we let go of searching for it in those things that are not permanent, which is everything in our conditioned experience. When we rely on our bodies, our careers, our friends and family to make us happy, we set ourselves up to suffer. Ultimately all must be released.

In 1993, during a period of my life when I had let go of what seemed like the very foundations of my being, I asked my teacher, Pujari, “If there is nothing for me to hang on to, if everything I love will one day leave, what reason is there to stick around?” He answered: “To live your life fully and completely. To follow your path with loving care and mindful awareness, to learn the freedom of letting go. To develop wisdom and compassion in the process.”

This we can do no matter what the condition of our bodies. The same wise spirit that peered out of my mother’s five-year-old body dwells in her at 85. This spirit, her innate awareness, can guide her and help her to find the joy in this current phase of her life. There is no one that does not have the ability to live in joyful awareness. It resides within and without. It becomes available to us when we choose to live our lives mindfully, when we pay careful attention to our lives as they unfold, rather than dwelling in thoughts of how much better our lives used to be, or how much better our lives would be if only we were richer, more attractive, had a better job or relationship, a nicer car or house. The list of ways we find to put off living joyfully right now is infinite.

My hope for my mother, and for all of us playing out our lives in this time, is that we can learn to dance harmoniously with the rhythm of life, the rhythm of drawing in and letting go. It is helpful to reflect on your own life, recalling the things you once enjoyed that have disappeared from your life. When you released worn-out habits or beliefs, what became available to you? How did you grow from your many experiences of letting go? These reflections can help you to meet the multitude of let-go experiences still to come with wisdom and perhaps even a sense of joy and adventure.

Happiness comes from enjoying your life right now. Pay attention. When we live mindfully, even the most mundane tasks of our daily routine can be joyful. When we give our complete attention to the present realities of our lives there is no residue left to cling to when it is time to let go and move on. Being fully present with our daily process of receiving and releasing brings the equanimity that allows us to flow with the cycles of constant change.

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Teacher, Know Yourself


It is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know oneself. ~ Lao Tzu

I’ve been fortunate to learn from so many knowledgeable yoga teachers over the past 30 years. My first teachers, Olivia Cita Mason and David Riley, as a physical therapist and doctor, planted a seed of curiosity about anatomy in me, and introduced me to the Iyengar system. The late Mary Dunn inspired through her knowledge and enthusiasm. Judith Hanson Lasater has, among many other things, shown me how to be a teacher. From Donna Farhi, I learned how to uncover the Self through the process of discovering the underlying physical patterns that express themselves in my every movement.

From my mentors, Pujari and Abhilasha, I learned the most direct way to know myself—through fearless mindfulness in 25 years of extended meditation retreats. All these teachers, and several others, have shared different avenues that lead to the core of who I am, and by extension, who we all are.

What Makes a Good Teacher?

If I was ever asked to pick one quality that makes a good teacher, I’d say, unequivocally, “a teacher who knows herself completely.” Of course it’s important for a teacher to know her subject. For a yoga teacher, these are essential:  understanding of yoga’s underlying philosophy and intention, knowledge of anatomy and physiology, knowledge of asana and pranayama and their effects on the physical/mental/emotional bodies, and knowledge of how to sequence poses in order to create the desired result. All these things are relatively easy to learn, and don’t necessarily require a whole lot of self-reflection. But to teach spontaneously and compassionately, with the wisdom to see each student as a multifaceted, already complete individual, you must know yourself.

How to Know Yourself

Knowing ourselves sounds easy. But to know yourself requires that you see and accept all aspects of yourself, those qualities we like and those we don’t like. We must accept all our limiting beliefs, skewed perceptions, prejudices, judgments, healthy and unhealthy desires, and—something that’s equally difficult for many of us—our infinite beauty and capacity for love. If we do not at least begin this process of understanding who we are, and who we are not, we will project our limiting beliefs, perceptions, desires and prejudices onto our students.

How do we get to know ourselves? Delving deeply into our bodies and minds in Hatha Yoga practice is one way. Spending time with an impartial mentor, teacher or counselor who is willing to reflect ourselves back to us is another way. These two things, along with mindfulness practice under the guidance of my teachers, have been my way.
Angarika Munindra said, “If you want to know about something, look at it.” I love the directness and simplicity of this—no bells and whistles, nothing you need to remember or believe.

Once, on a mindfulness retreat many years ago, it suddenly occurred to me that in my practice I was doing no less than being relentlessly, fearlessly, with Truth. Riding the ever-changing moment, simply being with whatever was occurring at the time, while it seemed way too simple to be so profound, anchored me in all that is verifiably true. It did not matter if what was happening in the moment was a life-changing insight; overwhelming sadness, anger, fear or love; or four measures of a Strauss polka endlessly running through my head. No matter what is present, it is what is true.

Mindfulness and the Power of Choice

To know the nature of the ever-shifting mind—all of it, the pleasant and unpleasant—is to know ourselves. To know what motivates us, what we crave and what we avoid, and to accept these patterns and recognize when they are arising, gives us the power of choice. We can operate automatically from these motivations, or we can choose a different way of seeing and behaving in the world. As teachers, we can recognize when we are seeing our students through the filters of our own preferences, or we can choose to drop these filters and see them for who they are—but only if we know ourselves well enough to know there is a choice.

To know yourself is a lifelong process. Our deepest, most powerful motivators do not live at the surface of our being. Uncovering them takes time. But the good news is that while the process is humbling and challenging, over time we take our deeply held misperceptions less and less personally. Recognizing them becomes a joy, because we know that with recognition, comes the beginning of choice, and the painstaking but enlightening work of rewiring ourselves.

If you teach, find a teacher who can truly see you. Look around until you find the teacher that can be your perfect mirror. Most of all, whatever you practice—Hatha Yoga, Pilates, meditation, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, hiking in nature—practice with presence and patience. To know yourself takes a lifetime.

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Slowing Down



It’s not easy to walk fast on the beach. Sand yields so willingly to the pressure of a footstep. With each sinking step you must first unearth your foot in order to take another. Solid ground requires only momentary contact; sand invites us to linger. Perhaps this is why people who live in beach cultures have developed a reputation for living slower paced lifestyles.

On a recent trip to Baja, I set out one morning to walk on a deserted beach in a remote area of the peninsula. Walking at my normal pace, I enjoyed the vastness of the ocean, its continuous low roar and its shifting relationship to the sand and sky. My gait naturally slowed as I began to align myself with the rhythm of the sand. I began to notice the piles of debris—tangles of white shards and brown seaweed surrendered to the beach as each wave receded into the ocean.

I’d seen ocean debris many times before, of course, on other trips to the Pacific. I noted its familiarity as I continued my walk giving it no further notice. Then a gleaming, fist-sized conch appeared. I stopped to pick it up. As I admired its perfection—there were no chips or breaks—I began to look more closely at the debris on the ground below.

Here were smaller shells, vibrantly colored, iridescent, unimaginably beautiful. The longer I squatted in the sand examining the debris, the more exquisite its contents became. Even the tiniest shells—the ones you would never see while speeding by—were gorgeous, painted and lacquered with care as if by miniature artisans. The longer I stayed the more magnificent the scene became. I mused that if I stood there long enough I might be able to discern the character of each grain of sand in the exquisite pile of debris. I was grateful I had nowhere to go, no important task to accomplish. I remembered the sublime beauty of slowing down.

I was originally introduced to the practice of slowing down on my first vipassana meditation retreat many years ago. This is where I first learned the formal practice of walking meditation. We began by walking a bit more slowly than usual and gradually, with intention, slowed down to a sub-snail’s pace, gaining perhaps six feet of ground in a period of ten minutes. All the while we experienced and noted increasingly subtle sensations of a step.

As the days went by the practice of slowing down began to filter into everything we did—eating, brushing teeth, washing dishes, showering, drinking a cup of tea. I remember musing that we all looked like zombies from “Night of the Living Dead.” Later I came to realize that in this deliberate slowing and profound sensing was perhaps the first time I had been fully, consciously alive.

The understanding of the richness of slowing down came to me suddenly after days of practice, in the simple, yet exquisite act of reaching for a doorknob. The feeling of my hand moving through the air, the cool smoothness at first contact with the knob, my fingers curling around its round body—the sensations were surprising and fascinating. At once my mind became more inquisitive, more creatively alive.

“We are all sensation junkies,” said author and meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein on a retreat I attended at Spirit Rock Meditation Center last year. We are a culture that craves stimulation, a culture of speed and excitement. As a people we are attracted to driving fast, being scared out of our minds by films, watching competitive sports and listening to loud music. These things are easily appreciated within our context of speed, and they are exciting and stimulating to us. Feeding our sensation habit helps us feel more vital.

Boorstein observed that even in meditation practice, where we direct our intention to stopping long enough to observe our own mind-bodies we often rate our meditations by the intensity of our experience, and look forward to the sitting when something sensational happens. She challenged us all to settle back into the moment and look more closely at what is actually present right now instead of lurching ahead looking for something new and exciting to emerge.

In the same way the tangled mass of debris on the beach can be transformed into a fantastic landscape, the sensations of living in our body-mind, those that become apparent only when we pause, can be quite compelling. Through meditation practice I found the subtle energies moving through the body and the sensations associated with various emotions to be fascinating upon close inspection. When we are willing to slow down enough to look deeply new worlds open up to us that are profoundly satisfying and enlivening.

However, practicing slowing down on a meditation retreat, where it is encouraged as a vital part of the process, is quite different from trying to calm the speed of our daily lives. In 21st-century Western culture, having a full schedule is considered to be a sign of virtue, and taking time to relax, a sign of weakness or sloth. It is, in fact, fun to engage in activities that stimulate, but living in a state of constant activity, with no time to slow down or stop, is not a state of balance. It is from the ground of balance—the ever-changing centerpoint between action and rest—that we live most gracefully in the world.

It is arguable that stress is the plague of our time and culture. Many of us maintain the lightning pace of our lives via adrenaline. Whether by caffeine or sugar or purely by the speed with which we must negotiate our schedules, our adrenal glands and nervous system work overtime to keep us on track. The adrenals are meant to help us through occasional stressful situations, not the steady onslaught of a packed schedule. Without occasional rest, they wear down. When they wear down we become tired and feel stressed.

Slow movement may alter our physiological balance in a way that is replenishing to our nervous system. Roger Cole, Ph.D., a yoga teacher and research scientist who specializes in the physiology of relaxation, sleep and biological rhythms, speculates on the benefit of slow movements, such as yoga and tai chi, on the human nervous system. “They provide steady, gentle, pleasant input to the nervous system from kinesthetic sensors in the body (muscle spindle stretch receptors, golgi tendon organs, joint position sensors),” he says. “Just as when we get a massage, this could help induce reflex relaxation of the muscles and make us feel mentally safe, reducing the ‘fight or flight’ response the brain (and thereby reducing the levels of stress hormones circulating in the bloodstream).”

The fight or flight response is largely the domain of the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that is concerned with involuntary function in the body). In my informal, experiential research practicing yoga for the past 21 years, I’ve observed that slow, mindful, movement awakens the parasympathetic side of my autonomic nervous system, which smooths the jagged fight or flight response elicited by the busyness of my days. Incorporating even small amounts of slow, mindful movements into our day can align us more closely with our balance point.

Perhaps the physiological benefits of slowing down might even increase our ability to accomplish what we need to do. My experience is that when I take time each day to drop my schedule and do something completely unrelated to work or to do nothing at all, I come back to my responsibilities with more clarity and equanimity. Some days may allow an hour to slow down, others may not. On the more tightly scheduled days I might simply take a leisurely walk around the block, practice one or two yoga asanas, wash the dishes with special care, savor my dinner or mindfully drink a cup of tea.

It doesn’t matter what I do; what matters is that I allow myself to visit the moment fully, to experience its richness and beauty. The amount of work accomplished is less important than the spirit and care I bring to what I do. Slowing the pace of our lives transforms the mundane into the transcendent. It teaches us how much there is to appreciate in simplicity.

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Sequencing: It’s Not Just Cool Choreography


In 1989 I went to India for a three-week intensive with B.K.S. Iyengar and his daughter, Geeta, at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune.  Mr. Iyengar had just turned 70, and Geeta was officially handling the majority of teaching duties, but until the last week of the intensive, B.K.S. appeared every day and taught much of every class. During the last week, he traveled out of town to teach a class for one day, leaving Geeta to teach on her own.

Because most of us were preparing to board a plane for the long trip home, Geeta led a class designed to prepare us for flight. The class was uncharacteristically mellow—even though it included an active practice with standing poses. The class was so relaxed that when Geeta ended it without Savasana (Final Relaxation), I felt completely—surprisingly—clear and at ease.

I had experienced Savasana-free classes with American teachers before. Without fail, I felt jagged and edgy after such classes. But Geeta’s class was sequenced with nervous system balance in mind, and for the first—and only—time in my 30 years of yoga practice, no Savasana was needed.

More than any teacher I’ve experienced, Geeta’s sequencing is instinctual, based in a cellular understanding of the practice. Her Savasana-free class was just the most dramatic example. Geeta’s sequencing honors the practice’s original intention. Asana (the physical practice), has evolved over the centuries as a way to create a supportive physical environment for the mind to become quiet. Asana is designed to calm the nervous system, to move us from the sympathetic (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic (rest and digest) aspect of the autonomic nervous system.

While each pose has an inherent specific effect on our body/mind, these effects are not set in stone. They can be subtly or significantly altered by the way we approach each pose, and by the way we sequence poses together.

For clarification, as I write about sequencing, I’m not writing about the choreography of a fast-paced “flowing” yoga class. Rather, I’m writing about creating an arc that includes a balance of active and passive, heating and cooling, stimulating and calming qualities, an arc where one pose leads to and feeds the next. At the end of a practice, my hope is that each person feels clear, energized and at ease, not simply exhausted from a workout. And as a teacher who has not yet acquired Geeta’s sequencing wisdom, I end every practice with a nice, long Savasana.

Each asana has multiple characteristics to consider when I think about how to place it within a sequence. Here are a few of the questions that I ask myself as I move through a sequence:  Is this pose heating or cooling? Do I intend for this sequence to lead to a particular challenging pose or set of poses? If so, which asanas, in what order, will lead my students to the most easeful expression of the more challenging ones? What poses do I have time for, considering that I want to make sure there is plenty of cool-down time before Savasana?

I’d like to focus on the first of the above questions for this month’s column. What do heating and cooling mean in terms of asana practice? Poses that are heating (bramana), stimulate the nervous system and generate internal heat. Many standing poses, backbends, core poses (including arm balances) and some inversions are considered to be bramana. Poses that are cooling (langana) calm the nervous system and cool the core. Savasana, forward bends, seated twists, some inversions and even some standing poses are langana. Both types of poses are essential for a balanced practice. You can download this chart for a more specific explanation of which poses tend to be heating and which tend to be cooling.

When I sequence a practice, I like to begin with warm-up poses that gently mobilize the spine and joints. Then I move progressively from less bramana or challenging poses to more bramana or challenging poses. I leave at least the final third of a practice, sometimes more, for langana poses, moving from less cooling to more cooling so that my students can slide easily into deep relaxation.

During Geeta’s Savasana-free class, she talked at length about how even though each pose has inherent bramana or langana effects, the intention with which we approach each pose influences its effect on our body/mind. If we approach heating poses with an attitude of calm and curiosity, we can temper the heating effects. If we approach cooling poses with forcefulness or ambition, they can heat instead of cool.

The accompanying scale of bramana to langana poses is adapted from a chart authored by longtime yoga teacher Richard Miller. Of course, there are many more poses than those that appear on the chart, but you can use the examples to represent the various classes of poses. I hope this chart will be helpful in sequencing your personal practice or your classes if you are a teacher.

Of course the wisest way to approach sequencing a practice for its most balancing effect is to practice mindfully on your own—focusing your intention not on accomplishment of poses, but on the present experience of each pose. While the science of sequencing can be taught, the art of sequencing arises out of our personal exploration.

For the next year, my Pose of the Month column will progress like a sequenced practice. Coincidentally (or not), the sequence will harmonize with the yin and yang seasons of the year.

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Pursuit of the Perfect Pose



I stand, feet three feet apart, arms outstretched, ribs and spine extended laterally, on the unforgiving concrete floor. Triangle pose. A confusing chorus of the sharp, insistent voices of two teachers and two assistants bounce about the room. Instructions are being yelled out so quickly that I feel I can’t possibly perform them all. Every ingredient necessary for a perfectly aligned yoga pose is being offered here. If only I could piece it all together before they tell us to come out of our poses. The teacher slaps the inside of my left knee. “Wake up your knee!” he barks. Fifteen minutes later I still feel the sting. The tingling is not really painful, and I have to admit my knee is awake.

Since I began practicing yoga in early 1982 I’ve been pushed, pulled, slapped, scolded and made an example of—both as a model yogi and as a body fraught with flaws needing to be fixed—by more teachers in more classes and workshops than I can begin to remember. One teacher even yelled at me for not folding my sweatshirt properly. Even now, my hopelessly hyperextended knees cause consternation in almost every class I attend.

Images of perfect yoga poses abound. We see them on the covers and in the pages of yoga magazines, and in advertisements for commodities from Hyundai to lingerie. Lithe, muscled bodies bend and extend, seemingly impossibly, and with impeccable form. These are the images to which we feel we must aspire.

For years I studied tirelessly, practicing with great earnest to accomplish difficult poses and to perfect my form within them. I learned that attention to form has its benefits, and that conscious alignment provides a solid foundation for yoga practice. Awareness of alignment prevents injury. It allows the fluid systems of the body, such as the blood, lymph, synovial and cerebrospinal fluids, to move more freely. A consciously aligned body creates a balanced ground for the mind.

Still, as I began to succeed in attaining “perfect” form in the most impressive of postures, I found that perfect form—like the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect relationship or the perfect income—can not bring lasting happiness or peace. Another illusion shattered.

The root of the illusion seems to lie in concept and language. First is the concept of perfection. Perfection is too often rigidly defined by brittle parameters which set a static standard that can not tolerate deviation. Whenever the concept of perfection overlays an endeavor, the results of our efforts, no matter how inspiring or beautiful, will almost always fall short. A rigid definition of perfection tends to solidify and stultify creativity. There is simply no room.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed learning from teachers of many different traditions. Each tradition defines its methods and philosophies, often in ways that are diametrically opposed to those of other traditions. Often even the ideologies of teachers within a tradition seem to be at odds. So whose concept of perfection are we to trust? If we accept that one tradition’s philosophy is correct, does this make all the others incorrect? Does it make sense instead to develop our own conscious inner reference system and to trust what we know to be true from our own experience?

I’ve come to understand perfection to be more fluid. It is a process rather than a static goal, and its definitions shift in each changing moment and vary from person to person. Each individual’s genetic inheritance is different, as are the physical habits they’ve cultivated over a lifetime. It is neither possible nor appropriate for us all to look like the photos of “perfect” poses we see in magazines and books.

As a yoga teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to see that there are as many forms of perfection as there are people. Each triangle pose I observe is completely new and defies definition or judgment. Each person’s expression of a pose is a perfect expression of his/her Self in that moment.

In Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, the names of all but a few of the traditional postures end with the suffix, asana. It is asana that we practice when we arrange our bodies into specific forms designed to awaken various anatomical and physiological systems, and to free the movement of subtle energies. The most widely accepted English translation of asana is “pose” or “posture.” For me these words evoke the image of a concrete statue— a frozen form that can be aspired to and performed, and whose perfection can be lost when we dare to deviate.

Another definition of asana, the one I have come to prefer, is “rest.” Here the intention points to resting in the truth of what we are experiencing in each moment of our asana practice. We learn to relax into where we are. We can give up the struggle to attain something we believe is lacking in our experience. We can see and enjoy our intrinsic wholeness regardless of how our asana appears from the outside.

With this shift of intention, asana practice becomes not just a mechanical performance of a pose (or an exercise in frustration if our bodies are not willing to go there). It is a way to become familiar with our wellspring of equanimity that does not depend on “perfect” conditions. Each time we tap into our own center of peace, even when the physical sensation accompanying an asana is quite intense, the peace that is intrinsic to us becomes more accessible to us in the rest of our lives. A pose is something that we do; asana is something that we are.

I experience asana to be a living, breathing process. Each time I step onto my mat there is potential to learn something new. What is most helpful, more than a strong or flexible body, is what Zen master Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind.” In his classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

The mind that does not know is curious and open to explore what is being presented in the moment. The mind that knows all, or the body that has attained “perfect” asana, does not need to look further. When I practice from beginner’s mind, it does not matter how many times I’ve placed my body in the shape of triangle; there is always potential for joyous discovery. My inspiration to practice lies in the fact that there’s always something new to learn. And it is precisely in the understanding that there is no definable perfection to attain that I remain excited by and committed to practice.

Maybe perfection is better experienced than defined. If so, how might the expression of perfection look and feel? I see it in the student whose body dances in perfect, peaceful rhythm with his/her breath. I see it in the faces of students—in the calm of their eyes and the barely perceptible incipient smiles that well up from within. I feel it in the warm wash of quiet joy abiding in every cell of my being.

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Of Tulips and the Transitory



I wish tulips bloomed all summer. Two weeks of glory is far too little. During their spring performance I find myself making excuses to sit among the tulips lining the walk leading to my front door. I can’t resist shooting tulip photos year after year, hoping to preserve them somehow but knowing that two-dimensional images can never do them justice.

I love everything about tulips—the simplicity of their form, their unabashed brightness. I love their tenacity, how their leaves lance the near-frozen ground in the gray days of February to begin their annual emergence. They appear reliably each year as if by grace, often having multiplied. Walking out my front door into their chaotic color reminds me of all there is to appreciate in this world.

Perhaps if tulips bloomed all summer their presence would become less special. Perhaps I could walk right past them without noticing, let alone marveling at their wide-open gullets singing to the sun. Perhaps I would no longer admire how their silken petals fold into themselves like a fine kimono each evening. Maybe they would become as pedestrian as the sight of grass or asphalt.

During the past year a good friend left this earth unexpectedly from a heart attack. A few months later another dear friend died suddenly while taking a leisurely walk in a canyon. Another succumbed to ovarian cancer. My beloved cat, Cleo, passed away a few months ago. My mother fell and fractured her pelvis in March. Like the tulips, our glory days are fragile, our lives all the more precious in their brevity.

The understanding that all things are impermanent is central to Buddhist thought. Impermance is listed as one of the three characteristics of all conditioned phenomena, along with the understanding that all things are ultimately unsatisfactory (because of their impermance) and devoid of self. It is said that the Buddha’s last words to monks hovering around his deathbed were: “All things are impermanent. Work out your liberation with diligence.”

The late Zen master Suzuki Roshi, author of the spiritual classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind said: “Nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and color. One thing flows into another and cannot be grasped. Before the rain stops we hear a bird. Even under the heavy snow we see snowdrops and some new growth.” All things are in constant flux. As the tulips wither, the irises emerge.

It is a very human habit to grasp after what we find to be pleasant. When we hold on to the pleasant we experience disappointment when it goes away, which it always does. How many wonderful experiences have we had in our lives? Where are they now?

“ Nothing is worth grasping because nothing lasts.” says author and meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein. “It is all empty, without self. Knowing that nothing is secure, that there is no solid place on which to stand, we can let go, let be, and come to rest.”

This does not mean we can’t enjoy the pleasant times in our lives. In fact our experiences are much more enjoyable if we are living them fully, appreciating their momentary presence.

The reality of impermanence was one of the first insights I had when I began meditation practice. As my mind began to quiet I could see for myself that the physical/mental/emotional sensations I felt were all in constant flux. As I learned the freedom of letting go, phenomena in my present reality, whether physical, mental or emotional, began to pass through with even greater speed. I was no longer hindering their movement by holding on.

This insight has changed my life in many ways. I no longer grasp on to material things I don’t need and habits that no longer serve. I fall into the trap of self-referencing my experiences less often. How can I define myself by something that does not stay?

Still, some things—relationships—are much more difficult to release. Even though I’ve lived with the truth of impermanence for many years, I still feel let down at the ultimate deterioration of tulips as they move into dormancy. I mourn the loss of friends and relatives who have passed to the other side. I fret about my mother’s condition.

Recently a friend e-mailed me about her relationship with her three 15-year-old cats, who serve as her friends and confidantes as only four-leggeds can. Each morning my friend greets her cats by saying, “Good morning. Look, aren’t we lucky? We have another day together.”

This moved me deeply. What a wonderful way to relate to those we love. Instead of living in the fear of someday losing them, why not be grateful for the time we have with them right now? Why not greet those we love with genuine appreciation rather than worry, or worse, indifference?

How often do those closest to us become an expected and under-appreciated part of our landscape? How often are we mentally traveling when our families or partners are talking to us? These are the relationships that most deserve tending. It is our close relationships that ground us, that give us ballast when our lives are least stable.

A year before her passing, I found out that Cleo’s condition was terminal. Thereafter I resolved to focus on her presence in my life. While I noted the subtleties of her changing state, I chose to let appreciation for her presence override my tendency to worry. I greeted her with gratitude each day. Intention is powerful. Appreciation has become a part of my daily practice.

I have begun seeing my close human relationships this way as well, although I don’t always voice it. Humans often perceive words such as these as gratuitous sentimentality, especially if they hear them every day. Animals aren’t embarrassed by a truthful expression of emotion, and they readily return the sentiment.

I am learning that there are many ways to express appreciation to humans—a kind word, a warm smile, a reassuring touch, the gift of listening fully, an offer to take on a task that might ease a friend’s burden. Finding ways to show appreciation is a wonderful use of creativity.

Appreciation has become a practice, one that has brightened my world. I suspect it may also have some effect on those I love—human and non-human. I know that appreciating the tulips won’t stop them from withering, but it does keep my heart from withering. Look at your life and the blessings it holds—friends, family, community. Enjoy what is here and now. What flowers are blooming in your life?

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Mudita: Empathetic Joy



So still. How can she sit so still? Here I am on a meditation retreat, supposedly cultivating peace of mind, but instead I’m agitated, spinning unhappy thoughts. And there she is, a beacon of peace and light. She’s the picture of enlightenment. If only she’d fidget a little. Oh well, at least I’m not moving around as much as the person behind me.

This script, with many frustrating elaborations, played in my head many times a day in the first few weeks of a long meditation retreat I attended some years ago. The feeling beneath the chatter was quite familiar—the restless gripping of envy and self-doubt, a combination that feeds on itself. The more I compared myself unfavorably to others, the worse I felt. The worse I felt, the more I compared myself unfavorably.

It was hard to miss the irony of a meditator dwelling on comparisons of his/her sitting practice to that of another. Yet in the careful observance of the contracted, restless agitation of the comparing mind I began to understand this as a pattern that I had nurtured. How much do I do this in my life, I wondered. How often do I feel threatened by another person’s success? How would it feel to be happy for the peaceful person sitting in front of me instead of wishing for her to feel discomfort? Do I really believe that her success and happiness diminish my own? Is it true that her discomfort will somehow elevate me?

I remembered growing up in a family with two sisters—one known for her talent and intelligence, the other loved for her beauty and effervescent personality. I remembered the relentless comparisons by relatives and teachers. Which one is the smartest? Which one has the best personality? Which one is the most musical and which is the most artistic? While it’s easy to recognize the frustrating unquantifiability of these traits and the futility in relying on them as a way to define onesself, nonetheless I had developed a profound habit of self-evaluation based on comparisons with others. And I suspected that this habit is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of Western culture. Sitting on a meditation retreat with no distractions, the suffering inherent in this kind of thinking was undeniable. We all have talents and life callings that are unique unto ourselves. Comparison is not only futile but painful.

We live in a society that believes in winners and losers. We spend many hours watching competitive sports. We are happy when our team wins, and we hate the other team when they win. We compare our own successes with those of our peers. We often envy and resent the success and happiness of peers as if they are taking something away from us, as if there is a little stockpile of success and happiness somewhere and they have taken more than their share, leaving less for us. The other person’s success is a reflection of our lack thereof. Or is it? Is it possible that the amount of love, happiness and success available to worldly beings is not finite? How would it feel to rejoice in the happiness of our fellow humans?

The Buddha said, “In a battle, the winners and losers both lose.” It is easy to understand the loss of the losers, but the winners? The winners lose because those around them envy them and become resentful of them. Eventually their position is challenged until their power is lost. The cycle of winning and losing is continuously changing and appears not to be a reflection of one’s absolute superiority or inferiority.

In Buddhist psychology, the third of the four brahma viharas (divine abodes, or god-like qualities that exist within us) is a state called mudita, or sympathetic joy. Mudita is defined as a rejoicing in the happiness of others. (It is interesting to note that there is no word for this concept in our language.) The Buddha called mudita a “rare and beautiful quality.” It is a boundless state that responds to others’ successes not with withdrawal or envy, but with active delight. Cultivating the quality of mudita helps uproot the unhappy states of envy, judgment and comparison. It is also said to be the most difficult of the brahma viharas to develop.

If mudita is such a beautiful state, why is it so difficult to cultivate? Hindrances to sympathetic joy are many and powerful—comparing, judgment, envy and avarice—and connect directly to a lack of understanding of our interdependence with the world around us. Maybe, instead of diminishing the supply of happiness in the world, another person’s happiness contributes to the well of happiness available to all of us. And just maybe, our own joy in response creates even more.

The tendency of human beings to judge others according to our own preferences is a quality that hinders our ability to generate mudita. Again, this is a way of defining others in reference to ourselves. When a person makes a choice that we would not make and it brings them happiness, how do we react? Do you have a friend who has chosen to live an austere lifestyle, while you enjoy living lavishly? Maybe someone you know enjoys the glitz of Las Vegas, while you would rather spend time in the silence of the Escalante. Maybe you have a friend who has chosen to have children, while you have chosen to remain childless. Or maybe someone you know loves a type of music, film or art you can’t stand.

There is a tendency to discount someone’s happiness when it is derived from an activity or lifestyle choice that is not our preference. Do others’ choices really threaten the validity of our own? Or are their unique tastes and choices simply a complementary color that makes the fabric of humanity even more magnificent? When we begin to see others without self-referential judgment, we can learn to celebrate their happiness and respect their choices—as long as those choices are not causing harm—without judging them. Our negative judgments of others do not elevate us. Instead, they serve only to create unhappiness for ourselves and those around us.

How can we begin to unhook ourselves from the tendency to judge or to cultivate comparisons and envy? Like the other brahma viharas (see “Lovingkindness” in the November 2001 Catalyst and “Compassion” in the January 2002 Catalyst), mudita can be practiced.

In 1994 I attended a 30-day vipassana retreat during which I began to understand the infinite nature of all the brahma vihara states. In each of the four weeks we practiced a different quality—lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. A profound shift in understanding came when I began to experience the infinite quality of these states.

The traditional practice is to extend the brahma viharas to ourselves first and then to others. In the weeks of intensive practice I observed that sending lovingkindness, compassion and sympathetic joy to others did not diminish my supply. In fact, I was able to see that the more I shared, the more these states began to fill me until I could not contain them. They had to be shared. I realized that love and happiness are self-generating and self-replenishing. They are not qualities you need to acquire from somewhere else. They do not increase when we keep them to ourselves. Rather they are qualities that are strengthened and multiplied in the sharing.

You can begin practicing mudita by bringing to mind someone you care about who is experiencing success and happiness. Bring your focus to this person’s current source of happiness. Reflect on their joy and success, and say to yourself, “May your happiness continue forever,” or “May your happiness not diminish,” or “May your good fortune continue.” As you begin to feel connection with the person’s happiness you can extend well wishes to others you know. You may even want to extend mudita to someone you know who is currently suffering. Here, you can focus on whatever part of this person’s life is happy.

You can also practice mudita by celebrating the success of someone you don’t like. It is common for people to wish for the unhappiness of those we don’t like, and to be especially frustrated when we observe that they are happy. Here is where an understanding of compassion and the suffering that visits everyone’s life is useful. Observe your mind state when you want to deny the happiness of someone you don’t like. Do you really wish for this person to experience only suffering? How does it feel to wish for someone only to suffer? What kind of environment are we creating in our own minds? In contrast, how does it feel to allow for someone’s current success, knowing that at other times in their lives they—like we—sometimes experience pain and difficulty?
It is helpful to remember to be patient with yourself in this and any other meditation practice. Sympathetic joy can be a challenging practice, especially if the habit of comparing or judging is one you have cultivated over time. I have found though, that the rewards easily surpass the challenges.

Mudita is a pure, profound and liberating state. Developing mudita unhooks us from envy, avarice, comparisons and judgment, which underlie the unhappiness of the human condition. In the celebration of the happiness of those around us we create a brightness of mind and heart that benefits ourselves and everyone whose lives we touch.

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Metta: The Practice of Kindness



“If only it were all so simple. If only there were evil people somewhere else insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who among us is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?”
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Eight years ago I walked away from a difficult relationship that had nearly destroyed me. In the ensuing months I lived in a world of extreme anger and resentment at the astonishing disregard I felt my former lover had shown me. Daydream hours were spent reliving all the injuries I had suffered. I invested a great deal of creative energy into thinking of subtle ways I might “get even,” or at least make him realize what a jerk he had been. While I had no intention of acting on my plans, I convinced myself that I had earned the right to indulge in these unseemly fantasies. In my thoughts, this person was unabashedly evil. I had a right to be angry, I told myself.

By the time I arrived at the Last Resort a year later to attend a 30-day vipassana meditation retreat, much of the heat of anger had cooled. Even so, one day early in the retreat I found myself again indulging in familiar negative thought loops and feeling their attendant resentment. As I felt my heart hardening, my stomach twisting, a silent voice—I believe it was my own—said, “Wait a minute. Who’s suffering here?”

I’m not sure who said it first—I heard it from singer/songwriter Chuck Pyle—but one of my favorite quotes is, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” As I understood the pain I’d been inflicting on myself while indulging in my righteous anger the desire to engage in it lifted completely. Great relief and extraordinary peace took its place.

While I cannot condone my former lover’s behavior and would no longer choose to place myself in harm’s way for the sake of being in a relationship, I feel no ill will toward the person who harmed me. After spending a year poisoning myself with angry and resentful thoughts, I know that’s not where I want to live.


The Dalai Lama’s physician, Tenzin Choedrak, spent nearly 22 years incarcerated by the occupying Chinese in Tibet. While in prison he was regularly subjected to torture and lived with the understanding that at any time he could be killed for no reason. Still, despite the unimaginable difficulty of his life, he was able to triumph—not over his captors, but within himself.

Instead of poisoning himself with negative thought he guided himself with four points of understanding: 1. our enemy teaches us patience; 2. we are all connected, and our enemy carries the seeds of Buddhahood; 3. hatred never ceases by hatred; and 4. the wisdom of letting go of pride and self-righteousness.

There is a difference between accepting that anger is present and allowing it to run its natural course, and asserting our right to hold on to it. Self-righteousness, such as that which breeds the hawkish language of our leaders and that which has served to justify my own self-torture, feeds anger. It solidifies our feelings of ill will. Sure, we have a right to indulge in anger. We also have a right to hold onto a red-hot coal, but at what point do we admit we are being burned?

The Antidote

When you want to develop a skill, you practice. This principle applies not only to worldly endeavors, but to qualities of the heart. If we practice anger, we become angry. If we practice good will, we become loving.

The texts of Buddhist psychology recognize four brahma viharas, or divine abodes. The brahma viharas are considered to be god-like states within us that we can develop through specific practices. The first of these states is metta, which translates as lovingkindness or friendliness. Practicing the quality of metta deconditions the contractive states of anger, resentment and ill will, allowing us to meet all beings and experience from a foundation of love and acceptance.

What distinguishes metta from other forms of love is that it is not dependent on outer conditions; it comes from within ourselves. Therefore, how we feel about someone does not depend on him or her. It depends only on ourselves and whatever perspective we have chosen. When we believe that how we feel depends on others, we are giving away a great freedom, the freedom to choose for ourselves how we want to experience our world.

Lovingkindness is not something we must obtain from others. Rather, we generate it from within ourselves, and its supply is not limited. The more love we offer to others, the more we have to give.

Metta is the simple wish for ourselves and others to be happy. It has the unique benefit of softening and expanding the heart. When we practice lovingkindness, we create the space to respond to life’s vicissitudes with clarity, which helps us to choose wisely. When we choose wisely, our lives are more harmonious. The quality of metta encourages us to meet all experience, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, with benevolent acceptance.

Practicing Kindness

The Buddha said the proximate cause for unconditional love is the recognition of the good qualities in ourselves and others. Every human being is a constellation of qualities—pleasant and unpleasant, skillful and unskillful. While it is healthy to open our hearts to all we see and feel, we can choose where we place our intention. When we focus on what we don’t like about ourselves and others, we feed ill will. How do we feel then, when we choose to focus on the good in ourselves and others? How do those around us respond?

So, the cultivation of metta begins with the intention to focus on the good in all beings. Another way to help develop the quality of lovingkindness is to take the time to see and understand the perspectives of others. We all experience our common reality from a variety of different angles. The willingness to explore perspectives outside our own can help us to understand the motivations of those whose behavior confuses or threatens us.

The third way of cultivating metta is to practice it as a meditation. In the practice, there are four traditional phrases that help develop the quality of lovingkindness. These phrases are repeated silently to onesself with the intention of reflecting on their meaning and their relationship to the being to whom they are directed. The phrases I’ve suggested below are the wordings that I have chosen to fit my own understanding. Feel free to come up with your own ways of expressing their meanings.

It is helpful to remember that the phrases are not orders or affirmations. They simply extend a wish. We can not make other people change just because we wish it to be so.

How to Practice Metta

Begin by sitting comfortably. Kindness is central to metta practice, so it is important to be kind to yourself, and to choose a position that you can hold comfortably for a period of time. Traditional meditation postures work well, but feel free to use a chair.

Because it is impossible to love others unconditionally before we are able to love ourselves, the first beneficiary of our good will is ourselves. Begin by letting your awareness settle in the area of your heart. It may be helpful to reflect for a moment on your own good qualities.

The first phrase is, “May I be safe from inner and outer harm.” Imagine yourself as being protected from outer dangers as well as the suffering that you might inflict on yourself. Reflect on the meaning of safety, the feeling of unconditional security. There is no prescribed amount of time for which you must focus on each phrase. Simply move to the next one when it feels appropriate.

The second phrase is, “May I be happy and peaceful of mind.” Again, imagine yourself happy and peaceful. What is the quality of unconditional happiness? Imagine your own joyous heart being at peace with whatever is happening.

Next, say to yourself, “May I be healthy and vital.” Picture yourself living in a strong and energetic body. If chronic health issues make this concept difficult, imagine yourself being at peace with conditions as they are.

The final phrase is, “May I live with ease.” This is the simple wish that your life supports you, with good friends, supportive family and a livelihood that you enjoy.

You can cycle through these phrases, directing them at yourself several times and as you feel ready you can switch your focus to a benefactor. Your benefactor is a person who has supported or inspired you in your life. You may in fact be able to identify several benefactors. I’ve found it helpful to spend several months with one benefactor and then begin to include others at times when it feels right. Extend the metta wishes to your benefactor for as long as you like.

The next group of metta recipients is friends and family members. The metta wishes and the processes of understanding and applying them are the same for all recipients, so continue working with the phrases. Stay with friends and family members until you are ready to move to the next group.

The next two categories of beings can be more challenging. The first is a neutral person. This might be someone you see in your neighborhood market or someone at work that you don’t really know. The final category is the difficult person. It is natural for friends and family members to enter this category at times. You are encouraged to approach this group of beings with the intention of being easy on yourself. It’s not necessary to start with the most difficult person in your life. Some days it may feel appropriate to skip the difficult person entirely and focus on those for whom feelings of goodwill come more easily. Again, metta is about cultivating kindness, and it is a process that unfolds over time. Be kind to yourself.

Sometimes saying the phrases can seem dry or mechanical. This happens to everyone and it is okay. It is helpful to remember that the simple intention to cultivate lovingkindness is very powerful. Making the gesture is important.

The Buddha called metta “the limitless state.” There is nothing that is outside its boundaries. With time and intention, the quality of metta begins to shift from the realm of effortful practice to a way of being. Lovingkindness becomes our foundation. It becomes the gentle cradle within which we hold all beings and all experiences no matter how pleasant or painful. It becomes our own divine abode.

Recommended reading: Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.

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Are You a Yoga Evangelist?


I have a neighbor who is perhaps the kindest, most generous and considerate person I have ever met. Darren spends a lot of time outside, working on his house and in his yard. I’m always glad to see him. Even if I don’t interact with him, I smile at his presence, knowing that it’s a good thing for the world that he is in it, spreading good will to everyone around him. He doesn’t have to try. After so many years of practicing kindness, kindness is who he is.

A few years ago, Darren served a mission for his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He served his mission because he sincerely believes that the world would be a kinder, more hospitable place if more people joined his church. I believe that if more people were like Darren, the world would be a kinder, more hospitable place, and I respect his commitment to his spiritual path. But I don’t agree that more people following any particular belief system or ideology will necessarily bring more peace and harmony to the world.

So when I hear people in the yoga world justifying the commercialization of yoga because “it brings more people to yoga” or “more people doing yoga will make the world a better place” I can’t help but think of every religious group that believes its version of the truth is the right one. Perhaps it is partially due to my conditioning after so many years of living in a place inhabited by a religious majority, but hearing this from yogis makes me cringe. It also causes me to squirm a bit because I spent 11 years feeling and saying the same thing. I felt with all my heart that the world would be a better place if more people did yoga.

I began practicing yoga in the early 1980s, and immediately fell in love with it. It has been my constant companion, my guide and my anchor for almost 30 years. Yoga—including all Eight Limbs—has saved my life in more ways than I can count. The Eight Limbs have given me a framework for practice that, as an agnostic, has helped me live a more intentionally kind, inclusive and conscious life. While I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience of yoga, I suspect that my practice has made me a better citizen of this world.

Twenty years ago, I was filled with the spirit of yoga evangelism. I couldn’t understand why anyone would not want to practice yoga. When I discovered meditation in 1988, I fell just as head over heels as I had for yoga. I had what I now call a sense of “spiritual arrogance.” I thought that anyone who practiced yoga and meditation was inherently more conscious than someone who didn’t.  This, of course, included myself.

I went to as many retreats as I could afford, and although insight meditation was very challenging for me, the rewards of insight were well worth it. My psyche was moving, changing. I was gaining understanding I’d never imagined. The peace I often felt was beyond thought and words. I was delving deeper and deeper. Why doesn’t everybody do this? I thought.

Then, on 30-day silent retreat in 1992, I had an insight that changed me forever. In one earth-shaking moment, I understood the meaning of true self-love, and its relationship to universal love. My very cells rearranged themselves. In that moment, the feeling was beyond wonderful.

But the flipside is that any profound insight that instantly changes one at a cellular level will cause major upheaval. The process of changing your life after a major insight can be painstaking and painful, as I came to find out.

The following year was the most difficult of my life. My “stuff” was in my face 24 hours a day, including in my dreams. My pre-insight way of being had to die. It could not co-exist with the person I had become. There were no breaks, and there was no returning to my pre-insight bliss. The only way beyond it was to move through it with my eyes wide open.

In the midst of the chaos and anguish, I had a realization that I now believe was the bare beginning of my understanding of compassion. One day as I was lying in bed not wanting to get up, my mind flashed on my previous spiritual arrogance and I thought, “I totally get it why someone might not want to take this path. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.” I was already committed, and I knew that this was my path, but I could no longer assume that anyone else would benefit from traversing the route I had chosen. The spiritual arrogance had been knocked out of me.

I realized, at a cellular level, that everyone’s path is truly unique. For the first time, I saw yoga and its place in the universe from a place of real expansion instead of my former me-centered viewpoint, and realized that more people doing yoga would not guarantee a better world. But more people respecting each other’s individual paths and preferences—Yoga, Mormonism, Buddhism, Islam, atheism, Catholicism, Judaism, no spiritual system, or the countless other spiritual and non-spiritual practices that make up the colorful palette of humanity—might bring about a positive shift.

Do I think that yoga can be a positive force in the world? Absolutely. Even the bare minimum—going to an asana class and running through some quick, sweat-inducing exercises—is positive. Again and again, research shows that physical movement increases circulation and keeps the body—including the brain—healthy and agile. That’s a positive thing.

Do I think yoga is for everyone? I don’t know. I’m grateful for yoga’s presence in my life—the times when it has been impossibly beautiful and the times when it has been wrenchingly difficult. And I’m heartened by the kindness and wisdom of my sangha. But I can’t know unequivocally what is best for anyone else.

I do believe that practicing the “Golden Rule” with its parallels in the yamas of yoga—ahimsa (non-harming)—as well as its correlates in virtually every other spiritual system, can change lives. I believe that if everyone practiced non-harming with consciousness and commitment, the world would be a radically different place. Practicing non-harming may even help us meet the Darrens of the world, who will probably never practice yoga, without pondering how much happier they would be if only they took the same path that we have come to love.


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