Stoke the inner fire!

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In these last few weeks of summer, the long evenings are fading away and the early mornings are darker, but we are left with the memories of the warmth and the light, precious moments and adventures with new and old friends, and the sense of bliss when you sit on a mountain at sunset and feel yourself as the sky. We had a shining mountain hut get-away in August (even with the humbling high-altitude effects of living at 11,300 feet!). It was an honor and a pleasure to practice and spend time with everyone who was part of the weekend, flying kites, eating baklava, watching the meteor shower, and so much more…

Summer has a way of reminding us of the inherent beauty and joy in life, which sometimes we forget about when we get caught up in the busyness, the competition, and the suffering of ourselves and others. I think that we all do appreciate the immense contentment of being alive, especially when we bring ourselves into balance and stillness enough to bring our focus inside. We realize that life doesn’t have to be a competition, and that there is much more there. It does not need to be me against you, or us against them, with lines drawn, and grudges held. We really all depend on each other. We all want to feel safe and comfortable, have enough nourishing food and clean water, and the chance to live with love and a sense of fulfillment. We don’t need to win, because that implies that somebody else loses (and what do we really gain, but a temporary sense of superiority and more fear of retaliation?). I want you to succeed and live the best life you can, because it helps us all. If I do well, it is for your benefit.

As babies, we are guided entirely by primitive urges: to take in nutrients, eliminate bodily waste, and survive at all costs (and at great expense and hardship to our parents). As we move through childhood and develop personalities, our wants and needs become more elaborate, but are generally still almost exclusively self-centered. It seems as though some adults never fully move past this shallow sense of self-interested ambition – with what ultimate aim? These “lower” urges tend to show up as strong divisiveness and reactivity. This sounds familiar. If we can move our focus and priorities upward into awareness, however, we find greater clarity, understanding, and peace. Let’s not lose sight of the raw bliss of being alive, even as we navigate the obstacles and fully acknowledge our own shadows.

There is a concept in yoga of inner fire. This fire is your vitality – not just your physical energy and mental exertion, but everything about the way you perceive and participate in the world. Ojas is the oil that feeds that flame (you can think of it as sacred ghee in a fire ceremony, or lighter fluid on a barbecue, or whatever…). To keep the fire stoked and steady, we need the proper amount and quality of ojas. Everything you do affects your ojas: the foods you eat, how you exercise and stretch the body, how much you sleep, the company you keep, your physical environment, the sounds around you, the quality of the air you breathe, how much socializing or solitary time you partake in, the tone of your thoughts, and on and on. Everything we do affects us. There is no fixed formula to be found for conserving ojas; the balance is constantly shifting for each of us, depending on our individual circumstances at any given moment in time. We all know what it feels like when everything is in balance, and through yoga practices we cultivate that awareness and develop skill for how to restore the balance when we feel depleted in some way. By properly maintaining our ojas and stoking the steady, bright inner flame, we are able to move through the world with clarity and purpose, and with great joy through it all.

Trust the internal wisdom that you have inside your body (the “inner teacher”). There is so much to access if you are willing to explore it with curiosity and diligence. This takes time to learn, and time to practice, but I have found it to be highly worthwhile, and it never stops unfolding. There is much more to the human experience than easy gratification, recognition, and winning; there is much more to the world than the apparent physical forms (and try not to dismiss this as all “woo woo” or imagined – I have a science and engineering background, and can tell you from experience there is something there).

So stoke the inner fire! Be the beautiful glow of life, and expansively send that out. Others will feel it.

I am putting together some upcoming adventures… In the meantime, stay in touch – and I’ll see you again someday soon.

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Here are a few excellent practices that I find helpful as we move into fall:

Stoke the inner fire by bringing some new awareness into your yoga practice, whether it is at home or in class. As you work on new and difficult poses, see if you can maintain a sense of ease and spaciousness, and you might be surprised at what you can do. In the familiar poses that you have practiced hundreds or thousands of times, make a point to breathe deeply and expansively, focusing your attention in your center, refining the posture with the movement of every breath.

Make time to sit in meditation. Really. If you practice asana (yoga poses) at home, sit for a while after you finish your savasana. Remember the spacious feeling you had while lying on your back. Try to center your awareness at the crown of your head. Then, as you inhale, draw the awareness down through the central axis of the body (through the skull, past the throat, through the chest, the belly, all the way to the pelvic floor). As you exhale, move your awareness back up from the pelvic floor to the crown of the head, and continue this movement with every breath. After a while, you can let your attention on the breath fade away or dissolve, and just feel the pulsing enormity of consciousness, empty and full at the same time.

Drink turmeric milk. On the stove, heat up a cup of milk (whole milk is best) in a pot with either fresh turmeric root if you can find it (an inch or two, chopped) or powdered turmeric (a spoonful), and black pepper (a few whole peppercorns or freshly ground). I sometimes also add fresh chopped ginger root for an extra kick. Bring the milk just to a boil (be careful not to let it boil over!), and then let it simmer/steep on low heat for 5-10 minutes. The milk will turn a lovely shade of sunny golden yellow. Strain out the solid spices and add as much honey as you like!

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Summer Solstice. Living as part of the world.

 

Happy Solstice to you.  Here in the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice means our longest, brightest days of the year.  We wake up to the early sunrise, eat dinner late in the cool evening hours, and spend more time outside, moving, breathing.  Growing up in Utah, my family had an annual tradition of a Summer Solstice party involving a hike, a potluck picnic at sunset on top of a mountain (always including pesto pasta and peanut butter bars), and old friends from the time before anybody had kids (I was one of those kids).  We still celebrate some version of that, wherever we are.

I recently spent a few weeks traveling through Israel, which is a fascinating, complex, and beautiful part of the world.  So much has happened in that small piece of land, so many trades, struggles, wars, influential religious events, the building and destruction of walls, the rise and fall of different civilizations, the passing of ownership and feeling of entitlement, the fight against past injustices, the fear of the other side.

There is a lot going on in the world at the moment, people suffering from short-sighted and misguided policy decisions, airstrikes, endless wars, famine, intentional and unintentional bias and discrimination, fear of change, distrust of differences, and on and on.  It is easy to become numb to it all, to withdraw, or conversely to feel a reaction of hot anger and hate, a need to rise up in protest and resistance.  Instead of going against, however, what if we all become stronger advocates of what we are for, what we support, what matters?  Lead by example, live by example, with kindness but not with passivity.

What would it take for every person on the planet to be able to realize the innate joy in simply living, and want that same deep contentment for everyone else, without needing to avenge past events and perpetuate conflict and competition?  What would it take for every person on the planet to have enough food and clean water, simple comfort and safety, and the chance to live with love and peace, without constant fear or the need to acquire more and more?  You may be tempted to dismiss this as naïve, that the world just can’t work that way and is far too complex to resolve.  But why?

We are all part of the same natural system, and we are all in this life together.  Every action, every inaction, every e-mail, phone call, conversation, choice, and purchase you make has an impact.  Be aware of how you move through the world, your consumption of resources, the way you spend your energy and time, and even the quality and tone of your thoughts.  Can we live and act more from a place of compassion, peace, and understanding?  There is always a choice, especially for those of us fortunate to be in positions and countries of privilege.  It’s ok to make mistakes and have regrets along the way, but we can’t wait.  Keep practicing, in whatever way you can.

 

Here are a few simple summer practices for wherever your adventures take you:

 

  • Practice uddiyana bandha every morning.  Stand with your feet a little wider than hips-width, and lean forward slightly to place your hands on your thighs.  Inhale deeply and lengthen the spine, expanding the belly, chest, and back.  Exhale completely as you round your back, drawing the belly in and back, and feel the tailbone curl gently under.  Hold, empty of breath, and suck your belly in and up into the chest; you will feel a hollowing out from just above the pubic bone all the way up into your ribs as the diaphragm draws up.  After a few seconds, release the belly, and inhale.  Take a few relaxed breaths to neutralize, standing tall, and then repeat the whole thing two more times.  Please note: this practice is best done on an empty or less-full stomach, and even better with empty bowels (i.e. after a good poop).  You might just feel a slight suction at first when you pull the belly in and up to engage uddiyana bandha, but make it a habit and see what happens over time!  It builds a lot of internal strength and stability, and also facilitates good digestion by physically moving the organs around.

 

  • Pause somewhere to sit or lie on the grass, and just watch the sky and the movement of leaves.  This can be done nearly anywhere, and pretty much any time, for as long or as brief a time as you have or want.  You can laugh at me all you want, but watching leaves move in sunlight can be so simple, so exquisitely beautiful, so purely alive, it might just bring you to tears.

Spring. Being alive.

Spring is a beautiful time to be alive.  Emerging from the last late snows, with memories of frigid mornings and aching fingertips slowly fading, you might feel a bit more awake, brighter, and refreshed after a slower-paced winter.  The days have become longer, everything seems to appear more vibrant, colorful, and you can almost feel the growth all around.  When you bask in the warm spring sun, relaxing on the patio or running on a trail, the simple feeling of pure aliveness can be overwhelmingly pleasant and immediate. 

Does this remind you a bit of yoga?  That feeling of pushing your body, building internal heat, stretching the joints and muscles, attention to the movement of breath, the sensation patterns in the body, and eventually the release and absorption of savasana.  When you practice yoga, you are alive, awake, ever changing and growing, and again – the simple feeling of pure aliveness can be overwhelmingly pleasant and immediate.  Just like spring.

Last year, I spent much of the spring far away from Colorado, up on the Greenland ice sheet, camping in unthinkably cold temperatures in the middle of a vast white ocean-like nothingness, traversing by snowmobile, and somehow staying alive and doing good science.  When I returned to Boulder, the transformation was complete, and it felt absolutely tropical with all the lush green vegetation.  This year, instead of doing fieldwork in the Arctic, I am thoroughly enjoying the spring:  The scent of blossoming trees, morning birdsongs, spring skiing, trail running, sunny afternoons in the hammock on the patio, fresh pesto and salads, challenging asana practice and powerful pranayama.

Sometimes you feel most alive after a close encounter with death or catastrophe.  Last weekend, after a day of skiing and a lovely meeting with a yoga teacher-friend, Eli and I narrowly avoided a catastrophic accident on our way down from the mountains.  I was driving, and as we reached the Veterans Memorial Tunnels on eastbound I-70 (just east of Idaho Springs), suddenly the cars in front of us stopped still.  I had what is usually comfortable stopping space ahead, and slammed on the brakes, but the anti-lock brake kicked in (I’m not sure if it was because we were sliding on ice or skidding on pavement).  Hurtling toward the cars and a truck stopped ahead in the tunnel, I couldn’t stop.  I had the clear thought that I needed to aim the car around the obstacles, but there were cars in the other lane to my left and no obvious gap to fit through.  By some unbelievable stroke of luck (or divine intervention?), as I steered into the left lane (still sliding/skidding) the cars melted out to either side in the tunnel and we somehow flew through the space without hitting or being hit by anything.  I don’t know how many cars were involved in the accident (and I hope there were no serious injuries or casualties – I couldn’t find any news or report of the accident, which is probably good news), or what happened initially to set off the chaos, but I am still in awe that we made it unscathed through that tunnel, and immensely thankful that I could reflexively find the clear mind and steady hands that I did for those few seconds (I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear celestial chimes and see flowers falling from the sky as we emerged…).  The outcome could have been very different.  We don’t typically know when we are going to die – it could be any day – but that was not our day.  It is beautiful to be alive, and not just after close calls or in remarkable situations.  This constant appreciation and wonder of life is what yoga teaches.

As you rejuvenate in the warmth and get stoked for long summer nights and adventures, don’t forget the joy of pure consciousness and simply being alive.  I highly recommend incorporating some basic yoga into your daily routine:

  • Even if you can’t commit to a full practice or make it to a class every day, try a few flowing sun salutations in the morning to wake up the central axis of the body, and a few rounds of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing technique) to create a sense of balance for the day.
  • If you feel distracted during the day, relax your belly and take 10 breaths, softening and deepening with each one, just feeling the movement patterns inside to re-center and refocus the mind.
  • Practice some seated stretching poses just before bedtime to wind down and bring your attention inward to help you sleep soundly.
  • A little bit can go a long way.

When you are alert, clear-minded, and comfortable in your body, this affects every decision you make, every interaction – and your presence as a person in the world has more influence than you probably imagine.

on ice.

I recently returned to Boulder after about six weeks of science research on the Greenland ice sheet, including some delightful and restorative tent yoga practices (i.e. Yoga in Confined Spaces).

The Arctic is a wild place. Imagine flat white as far as you can see to every horizon, with nothing but sky and rippling waves in the snow – like being in the middle of a solid white ocean. Imagine camping for weeks, every few days traversing by snowmobile 60 miles or so to the next site, setting up and breaking down camp so many times it becomes automatic, but your forearms develop shooting pains from fastening so many tent clips. To bathe, you thaw out a frozen wet wipe every few days and get the most offensive areas. You fall asleep hugging a bottle full of hot water. It never gets dark, so you sleep with your hat pulled down over your eyes and your head buried in your -40 degree sleeping bag. You keep your toothpaste, sunblock, and contact solution in your sleeping bag with you – even so, one morning your contacts are frozen solid in their case. You sleep with your boot liners in your sleeping bag as well. On especially cold mornings, you might want to put hand warmers in your boots, but the ironic thing about hand warmers is that they won’t get warm when they’re frozen – so you have to warm them up first. Sometimes the wind is so loud you can’t sleep, even with earplugs. Other times the wind finds ways to sing, winding its way through anything it can, a lonely frozen whale-song.

Your camp of bright orange tents stands out, the only discernible feature across the entire landscape, a camp of ice gypsies. You know that if you wander away from this bubble of life, there is nowhere to go and no way to survive. Once or twice you are amazed to see a solitary bird swooping overhead, some sort of gull, hundreds of miles inland on the ice. You don’t know where it is going or if it will make it – there is nothing to eat and nowhere to rest but snow.

While I was away, Boulder transitioned into full spring mode – so green and alive (even off the ice sheet, Greenland has short tundra grass, tiny wildflowers, no trees whatsoever). As the plane came into the Denver airport as the sun was setting behind the mountains, I was struck by the fact that, for the first time in weeks, it was going to get dark. Incredible, it seemed, and so calming. But I miss the ice already.

See our project blog to learn more about the science, and also click here to see some more of my photos from the traverse to get a view into this other-worldly world.

back from India.

I am back home after three weeks in India – the ‘World Famous’ International Yoga Festival in Rishikesh, and bumming around in the Himalayas in Dharamsala.  What an adventure in clarity it was…

The calming, constant Ganga Maa (Ganges River), sunrise yoga at a mountaintop Shiva temple, darshan (teachings) with the ashram’s Pujya Swamiji, intense and amusing Kundalini kriyas, aggressive monkeys, squat toilets, beautiful public cows, the best parathas, terrible overnight bus rides, Tibetan culture and the home of the Dalai Lama, waterfalls, trails, rain, and so much chai.

Have a look at some more photos from Rishikesh, and from post-yoga Himalayan trekking in Dharamsala.

See you soon at the Yoga Loft and Earth!

Come to India with me!

Lila Yoga Group Trip to Rishikesh, India for the International Yoga Festival.

February 27-March 10, 2016

I am unbelievably pleased to be going to India next winter, my first time back in 8 years, and my first time to the Himalayas. Along with master teacher Yogacharya Erica Kaufman, we will be traveling to Rishikesh for the International Yoga Festival. I would love for you to be part of it!  Let me tell you more (or just look at the Workshops and Retreats page).

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