Bad Days

You know those days when everything seems to go “wrong” from the moment you wake up? You stub your toe, bump into the wall, the dogs chew on your favorite shoes or get into the garbage and decide to play with it in the living room. A day of bumper to bumper traffic when you’re late;  of coffee spilled on your clothes before an important meeting.

Yes. Those days. 

I’ve had a few of those days lately.

Let me preface my tirade with the acknowledgement that this struggle is not life threatening. There are places and people in the world, as I write, that are in the throws of extreme turmoil, where the threat to life is real and constant. As I rant I am aware of the scale of my “bad days” as minuscule in comparison.

My current daily struggle is rather puny. And so it is for many of us. Even so, the low grade, chronic irritation that is born from a pile up of small or medium scale trials is not inconsequential. Much of our “stress” comes from bite size triggers that are repetitive and continuous, gnawing on us till we bleed. The relentless irritation can drive us to drastic and impulsive behavior.

Last week felt like walking in a minefield. No matter how aware, how present I practiced being, I seemed to walk into one booby trap after another. Some were small; some were splat-in-your-face-in-public painful. After the third or fourth time I walked into the wall (literally and figuratively) I stopped. I just stopped in my tracks. The usual onslaught of frustration and ‘poor-me’ was playing loudly and clearly in my head. The tears were on tap and ready to flow. But in the time it took me to pause, to stop and simply breathe, the ridiculousness of the situation became crystal clear. I plopped down where I was and instead of tears came laughter.

“This is completely insane”, I thought to myself.

And it was. What was insane was not just the events that were happening. What was more insane than them was my reaction to them. Insane was my insistence to continue pushing myself to do things in the same way I had been doing them. It finally occurred to me that if I was running up against walls wherever I turned, then perhaps I might want to consider doing things differently and use a new approach.

When I stopped for a moment, I could rest. I could look around me and within.  What was I feeling at the moment? What sensations was my body experiencing? Pain, ease, tightness, ache? Just by the act of paying attention, of checking in, my entire system relaxed.

Yoga understands that wherever our attention goes prana, or life force, goes. Being present and alive with what was happening within in that moment brought the life flow back into the space of what was taking place. Present, I could then enquire and ask myself what I needed at that moment. Rest? Water? Food? Crying? A hug? Quiet? Activity? A walk? Writing? Playing with the dogs? For the next few hours I followed only this directive: find out what needs tending to and tend to it with full presence. 

I went for a long walk. A walk in the same neighborhood, with the same shops as always. It was my same body walking.  It was the same day I had been struggling through. But this time I took my time. This time I looked upwards. The sky was gorgeous. Right before sunset, yellows, oranges and purples mixed into the huge billowing white monsoon clouds against a light blue sky. This time I looked around me. People walking, trees standing, street dogs and butterflies going about their business. Each one of us doing “our thing”. A thousand, a million activities happening simultaneously; synchronized, and orchestrated by the same forces that made the clouds big and the sky so colorful. The same forces against which I had been pushing earlier. As I popped by the Durga temple and went in, I bowed my head, asking for Her Grace and Her strength to cut through the clouds of my ignorance and self pity. Fixed in stone, Her idol didn’t budge. But She was moving mountains, gently pulling away the veils from my eyes of in-sight. 

It is not that the clouds of confusion nor that any challenging emotion are bad. It is not that having a bad day makes us any less than who we are. It is that those “bad” feelings and their accompanying states of mind alienate us from the beauty and connectivity around us, that are up for the taking all of the time. At times we are called to reach out to that raw magic through action. At other times it is through quiet, stillness and non-doing that we align with that very majesty. Moment to moment, we are invited to gauge, watch, and notice what is offering itself to us. A world of abundant auspicious-ness and beauty.

Non Violence & the Pursuit of Love

I recently joined a NVC group here in Kathmandu. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the acronym, NVC stands for Non Violent Communication, a practice that is also known as Compassionate Communication. Created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, a psychotherapist and conflict mediator, NVC has gained world-wide recognition as an effective means of addressing conflict, whether it be in personal relationships, between communities or warring nations. My novice understanding of this practice leads me to believe that more than just avoiding conflict, NVC cultivates constructive and empathic dialogue to navigate through the rough waters of hostility and/or discord. NVC assumes that, at our core, we are compassionate beings; we share the same basic human needs and our behavior is a strategy to have those needs met.

Even with a limited knowledge and practice of NVC, the changes it has fostered in my relationships and work have been powerfully positive. I am hooked. I like it. I love it. That being said, if truth be told, I haven’t always been so keen, nor am I always ready to be non-violent. Yep, that’s right. There are times when I don’t want to be grown-up, or constructive about things. It’s not exactly that I don’t want to be nice; it’s that I want to, at times, hide behind the smothering veil of vengeful feelings. I want to let myself be intoxicated by anger or pain. I want to be carried away by the raw power of the emotion. I long for the feelings of aliveness that it injects into my body, literally–my blood, bones, muscles, nerves, brain and heart temporarily hijacked by adrenaline. I long for that experience of my thought process being arrested. Flatlined.

The high doesn’t last very long. In fact it disintegrates into heaviness, chaos and confusion pretty quickly. The down after the high. Unpleasant and draining, anger, when left wildly unleashed, leads more often than not to feelings of regret and/or guilt. The mess after the storm may be material or physical; it is always emotional and mental.

This addiction to certain alienating, life-severing, emotions is not as uncommon as you might think. I see it in myself, and I see it all the time in my work with others. As much as a situation, a habit, a resentment, might be unpleasant, it is familiar and strangely comforting. Shocked? I’ll address this in more detail in another post. My point being: alienating emotions, termed “poisons” in yogic psychology (guilt, greed, jealousy, anger, laziness etc) can be addictive and a hard habit to kick. Hence the need to be clear, real and armed with some concrete tools when working with them.

Are there times when anger can be appropriate and helpful? Certainly. Are there times when violence is appropriate? Never. The most pressing issue is how to deal with the anger in the moment it arises, in other words how to channel the charge of the feeling. NVC is one mechanism. Yogic practices offer a wealth of tools to do the same. In fact, there are a plethora of techniques to channel the subtle dimensions of thought and feeling in constructive, uplifting ways. Some use physical movement and breathing, others use mindfulness, language or energy work.

A few years ago I started taking classes in Aikido, a Japanese martial art that adheres to non-violent principles and offers a means to protect oneself and the aggressor from injury. When face to face with an attack–a punch, hit or hold– one uses the very energy of that move to deflect it back to the aggressor. In Aikido we become transformers of energy. Alchemists. Aikido’s movements are graceful, flowing and exact. The practitioner remains centered, focused and faces the aggression rather than running, freezing or firing back. Aikido invites us to dance with the assault. Without using one’s own energy the force received is offered back without causing injury to either party.

Aikido appealed to me because of its qualities of non-violence and protection. But again, just as with NVC, I found that initially I didn’t really want to be non-violent. I wanted to kick some butt. And I didn’t want to wait for a guy to make a move. I wanted to do it before it happened. Just in case. This reaction was certainly an outcome of a traumatic experience that had happened months earlier. Returning home in the early evening from a dinner gathering, I was violently attacked as I walked along the alley near my house. Two young men, masked, approached me from behind and began to beat me relentlessly with a large glass bottle. The blows came non-stop for what felt like a very long time. My head first, and then when I got it out of the way, the rest of my body. They took nothing from me, nor did they touch me in any way. Just the bottle bashing. My reaction was instinctive: blood curdling, visceral screaming. My brain and body pumping with adrenaline, I was on auto-pilot: Survive. Get them away from your head. Stay conscious. I did not strike back. Instead I ducked and tried to move away from the hits. What ultimately saved me, I think, was my voice…and Grace. People came running out, and the men sped off on their motorbike. For the two people that acted in violence, there were 20 who came to tend to me, holding me until my shaking body calmed itself, wiping the blood from my face and calling the police.

Looking back, the two emotions that were most apparent during the attack were fear and anger. What I can now see, two years later, is another feeling that surpassed the other two in its force: Love. A love for life, a cry of Spirit to continue to dwell in the physical body that is mine. This Love is fierce, protective, unapologetic and unstoppable. Words do it little justice. It is Life itself.

In that moment of life-threatening danger, anger saved me. It threw open to doors of my heart to a Life force I hadn’t recognized or felt for some time.  Did I want to strike them back? Not really. More than anything I wanted to protect my Life. In the direct aftermath, replaying the events over and over, I day dreamt that I might have done things differently, even hurting the men so they would go away, and so they might feel the intensity of fear that I had felt. There was a small part of me that wanted an eye for an eye. There was greater part of me that knew that would leave all of us blind, as Gandhi so wisely said. Now, a few years later, I do not wish them harm. Instead I wish myself more goodness, more self care and Love. I have vowed to be smarter about taking care of myself and honoring the Life force that flows in and through me. I equip myself with tools–physical, verbal, mental–that will allow me to navigate through situations where violence is present. I also equip myself with a daily sadhana (spiritual practice) that tenderly and patiently coaxes my heart to trust and to grow.

When we feel in danger, whether it be physical or psychological, our knee-jerk reaction tends to be one of a few options: to close up and freeze, to run or to lash back. What both Aikido and NVC teach us is to attend to our wellbeing by preserving our most fundamental need for connection with ourselves and others, for safety and honoring all life. They teach us to do so by transmuting the blows of aggression into a language and a movement of graceful compassion that are reflected back to the other without creating harm. Anger and pain stand no chance in the face of Compassion. It is the most powerful force in this dimension that we know.

To hone this powerful energy of love and to learn how to use it takes willingness, practice…and more practice. It also takes great courage and faith. Courage to move through the fear of being hurt, of being excluded (disconnected), the fear of not being enough. Courage to not give into the alienating language and actions of anger. Courage to accept ourselves fully, without rejection, for all of our weaknesses and strengths. Faith that we can move into our hearts of compassion and share them with others, without danger. Faith in the very power and intelligence of Love.

Here is to our hearts of compassion. How is yours beating?

For more on NVC:

NVC Academy

Center for Non Violent Communication

What’s in a name?

In Nepal when a child is born into a Hindu family it remains nameless for the first 10 to 12 days of its life. Bestowing a name on an unborn being seems strange and, for some, unthinkable.

A child receives his or her “title” during Namakaranam, the name giving ceremony. In this ritual, in the presence of the parents and close relatives, the priest whispers the child’s name into his or her ear for the first time, initiating the small being into its nada, or sound vibration, and the energy it carries. This ceremony is the fourth the child has already been part of (rituals accompany conception, pregnancy and birth) and one of the possible 16 rituals that will see it through the various stages of its life, including death.

Namakaranam marks the arrival of the child into its family and the beginning of its dharma, or life calling. The child’s name is chosen according to its Vedic birth chart, or horoscope, in which the Moon’s constellation- each endowed with a syllable- denotes the sound by which the name should start. Once this information is given, the family–more often than not the parents as well as the elders of the clan–pick the name that they feel is appropriate for their little one. Having observed the child for the first few days and throughout the pregnancy, the family will often choose a title that best suits his/her character.

Whether we are born into a culture in which such rituals exist, or come from a background of fewer customs, there is nothing haphazard about a name. Parents, family members, or guardians ponder with great care what epithet to give a new being, understanding that this calling will accompany the child throughout the rest of its life.

Name is sound, shabda shakti. It is an energetic vibration that carries within it a certain quality of consciousness. A name grounds us. Like the coordinates on the map of life, name denotes a space and place for us in the immensity of the Universe.

Name imparts a primordial sense of identity. Before we are old enough to collect experiences, degrees or titles and before we have anything to call our own, we have our name. And that name is a designation for all that I perceive that I am, up until that point: a body, a member of a family, an array of traits, a personality, a Spirit.

So, what happens when we change our name? Our identity shifts. Our path takes on a new meaning and direction.

Some of us will change our name when we marry, adopting the last name of our partner, thereby outwardly marking the merging of families or clans. Others of us will choose to change our first name at a point in life. This is common occurrence in spiritual rites and initiations, whether in formally recognized religions or in lesser known or unorganized wisdom traditions. For some this name remains only used in the circle of the spiritual community; for others it replaces their birth name.

A change of name is a rite of passage that marks the beginning of a new path; one that comes with a commitment. This may be a commitment to a marriage and its implications, personal and social. This may be a commitment to a spiritual path, with certain precepts and values to observe or nurture.

When I took initiation and asked my spiritual teacher for a name, I did so as a commitment to my spiritual path. I yearned for direction and clarity on my life course. I yearned to know my dharma; how best to apply myself with qualities I knew I had and the qualities within me that I had yet to uncover. I did not ask for a spiritual name to become a yoga teacher with some funky Sanskrit name. Teaching Yoga was actually low on my list of possible “professional” pursuits at the time. Asking for a spiritual name was no small thing, no cute little ritual to tick off of my “cool and different things to do” list. Quite to the contrary. It was a baptism. The beginning of my marriage to Self and Spirit, as my spiritual name would symbolize the energy or consciousness I was here to awaken and embody.

Truth be told I was hoping for a very subtle name; one that would slip off of the tongue easily and not be too noticeable. For, you see, I thought I was subtle. In fact, I thought many things of myself. Least of all did I ever think of myself as what my spiritual name signified. When I received my new appellation as YogaTara I was not only surprised but rather horrified. YogaTara. What? A name that begins with “yoga”? Are you kidding me? Good God. A name that means the Star, Shakti (divine feminine form) or Buddha of Yoga. The light in the darkness. The initial excitement of receiving my name was quickly smoked out by feelings of embarrassment and trepidation.

YogaTara is not a name that slips off the tongue easily. Nor is it subtle. It has taken me time to accept my name. Learning to carry it, to accept its energy, is part of my personal growth. My name is part of my sadhana, or spiritual practice, and brings me great focus. It is a constant reminder, to remain mindful, to align myself with Spirit and my path. More and more I use my spiritual name not only in my line of work, but also in the other circles of my life.  It seems fitting. For as I walk upon my path, there is less and less separation between the spiritual and material, the mystical and the mundane. It is merging, dancing into one-ness.

My name is YogaTara. Thank you for calling me so, for every time you do you join the choir that sings my spirit back to itself.