Focus of the Month: March 2019

Abhyasa: Faith & Perseverance

“Never, never, never give up.” – Winston Churchill

Through practice, we gain stability of the body and mind and strengthen our will power and determination. Persistent practice helps us to form new habits, new ways of being, and new ways of experiencing ourselves. This is a gift of our yoga practice, and this gift can only be experienced through our bodies. Our bodies are the vessels for our souls.

A tenet of yoga is abhyasa, defined as practice. It’s also defined as steady, unmoving, persistent effort. As Sally Kempton defines it, “The very heart of yoga practice is abyhasa, steady effort in the direction you want to go.”

Where do you want to go, and how do you get there? How does your practice help cultivate your direction and intention? And what blocks your effort and perseverance?

Let’s start with blocks. What are some of the blocks to our perseverance? What derails us?

Fear, doubt, fatigue, distraction, stress, excuses, and boredom to name a few.

What are some of the antidotes?

Movement, breathing, yoga asana, alignment, connection, nature, faith, and perseverance. All of which can reduce stress and increase vitality.

Perseverance requires trust, faith, and showing up even when we don’t feel like it. In the face of not always knowing or not always having the answers, it requires steady effort to show up each day with consistency and openness.

With steady effort, the space of doubt or fear gives way to the space of wonder. Wonderment is something I experience quite regularly in my field of work as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist. And it never gets old or boring.

Every time I witness the human body’s healing capacity, I am blown away by it. The magic and wonder of healing is present in every body. At times, we have so many blockages against it that we think it an impossible personal feat. It isn’t. There is a deep flowing order, intelligence, and resiliency in the body. But you have to get out of your head, into your body, have faith, persevere, and trust the magic!

“Strength doesn’t come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” -Mahatma Ghandi

The first time I witnessed true, healing magic happen firsthand was with Kit Mitra in 2006. First off, it is no coincidence that her last name is “Mitra,” which in Sanskrit means “friend.” That she surely was, to more of us than I can count.

Kit had boundless energy, never liked to sit still, created, danced, laughed, and cooked. Kit was a pillar of support in our Charlotte, NC community, and everyone who knew her loved her, myself included.

Kit and I were neighbors, and we loved to meet up for coffee or walks or porch sits. And, of course, we were always practicing yoga together. She was a very dedicated yoga practitioner.  In 2006, another dear friend called while I was on tour to tell me that Kit was struck by an automobile while crossing the street jogging. She sustained substantial injuries – broken ribs, broken facets in her neck, and a reconstructed elbow. I broke down when I first saw my friend on returning home some weeks later. She fondly referred to herself as Tyrannosaurus Rex because of the constant bend of her arms. Kit found humor in all moments, including difficult ones.

Kit was conscious minded, a long time vegetarian, and into alternative therapies. She was surrounded with a lot of love, care, and healing techniques to aid in recovery. One was yoga therapy, and Kit and I started with very gentle manual manipulations of her arms, restorative poses and talking… lots of talking, contemplating, and praying.

Steadily, Kit became more mobile and stronger in her arms and hands, enough so to place her fingertips on the wall, eventually being able to stretch and flatten her hands to the wall and engage hands, arms, and shoulders. (Think of a wall plank.)  It was exhausting physical effort on her part, but her will never faltered, and I would leave each session astonished at the progress of her healing. Working privately with Kit was the beginning of my understanding of the true therapeutic value of yoga and alignment, as well as the healing power of our bodies.

Kit’s accident, her recovery, and my fortunate presence as her friend and teacher planted the seeds of my work and passion: connection with others through yoga.

Kit’s recovery was miraculous. She was practicing handstands about a year after her accident. She never took “no” for an answer.

Fast forward to November 2018. I was on my second, 10-day Quepasana (silent meditation) course of the year when I received news of Kit’s rapid decline in her fight with ovarian cancer.

This was hard news to swallow after many days in noble silence, but it was received with sweetness nonetheless, as I was on Maui, and Kit was an ocean lover. I could feel her Spirit with me, and it brought me great peace. Kit left her body on December 2nd at the age of 68.  I am so grateful and assured that Kit knows her influence on my life, my work, my practice, and my future. Her Spirit is here with me. I am eternally grateful.

Kit was always interested in changing our way of thinking, of testing the boundaries and pushing the envelope. I love this about her and myself. Have you heard the saying, don’t believe everything you think?

Many of us believe that we have too much or too little of something. That we are too old, too injured, too immobile, too…. fill in the blank…  to practice yoga. It simply isn’t true. Yoga isn’t about performance of a pose or achievement but about humility, dedication, steady effort and connection. The deep connection that opens a healing space within us.

From my friend Kristen DeAndrade’s memoir on living with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, Little Legs, Big Heart: One Girl’s Journey of Acceptance, Perseverance, and Growth, as she describes her asana practice:

“My asana practice continues to play a huge role in my authentic healing … A place of safety, freedom, and self-expression —- a place I know that I am free to be me. There is no judgement, no hard words, no staring, no laughing, and no pointing. Here, I am fully present, grounded by my decisions and guided by love. Every time I step on my mat, I become vulnerable and can express that vulnerability without having to use words.

There is a lot of beauty that comes from knowing my strengths and dropping the urge to push myself over the edge. Physically, my asana teaches me to respect my boundaries and honor my body — whatever that looks like. Modifications and props are my best friend. Love is the fluidity and core of who I am, and in my practice, my intention is to love myself, honor my body, and recognize my breath without comparison.”

“My body is my temple, my asana are my prayers.” -BKS Iyengar

Our body is a sacred space that we inhabit for our entire lifetime. It is beautifully orchestrated with amazing intelligence and degrees of adaptability. Our asana (yoga postures) are a ritual, an offering we can make to connect with our Self and with Source. We can move energy and remove blockages in our bodies through asana, meditation, and breathing. Magic happens when we place our awareness in our bodies, through movement and intentionality.

Beloved poet Mary Oliver states, “attention is the beginning of devotion” and “attention without feeling is only a report.”  When we practice, we are invited to connect to our felt sense.
Just as our lives and prayers are constantly changing, so are our asana. Watch videos of BKS Iyengar practicing asana at various stages of his life. His asana are a testament to that his practice is a place of sacred connection for him.

As a yoga teacher, I revel in the small breakthroughs. We find that our practice and body changes over time. This is not to say that we will not continue to improve, but improvement may be subtler. We see that our practice of certain poses changes because of age, injury, or ability. Perhaps some poses of our youth shouldn’t be the poses of our middle and old age. Perhaps our prayers change too.

We often grip so tight to keep the body the same. Yet we do not want the mind of our 20-year-old self as we gain wisdom.

All stages of our lives require our attention and devotion.

Through yoga, yoga therapy, and interacting with the human body, I’ve seen that the beauty for me is in the wonderment, the unknowing, the vulnerability, and the absolutely newly presented circumstances each time, each day, with each student. We are in for discovery, and it is a process, a lifelong process of attention and devotion. The more I know the more I realize I am only scratching the surface of knowledge to be learned.

Last week I was in my private space on the first floor of Swan River Yoga, still in awe of the privilege it is to be in my career, and to come in contact with the students that I do. I have witnessed miraculous recoveries and healings in the physical body multiple times since my work with Kit.

The body is a vast landscape of experiences, feedback, information, and trauma. In order for us to experience the deeper layers of ourselves, we must penetrate every corner of our body-mind with awareness and light. We must get out of the lofty abode of our head, and spread our awareness through every corner of the body.  Consistent practice – abyhasa – offers us this, an ever deepening and subtle connection to ourselves.

Ever notice how the most grounded, successful, peaceful people have disciplined practices? Discipline and continued effort towards a goal keeps them connected to and inspired by their lives.

Time spent with ourselves is never time wasted. We are developing a relationship with ourselves through the practice, a commitment to ourselves, devotion to ourselves.

There is something extraordinary about accumulated effort.
Our connection back to Source is through ourselves, and our bodies.

The body is a way into the soul.

prakasyate kvapi patre – Bhakti Sutra 53
It reveals itself wherever there is an able vessel.

As described by scholar and dear teacher, Bill Mahony in his book Exquisite Love, “the implied subject of this sentence is Love. The Sanskrit word for “vessel” here is patra…a cup, bowl, or similar utensil that serves as an effective receptacle for something. Similarly, the word can refer to a riverbed; by this we can understand a channel that receives water and allows it to flow through it… And patra can refer to a competent person, a capable person, perhaps because such people are able to allow a skill or art to flow smoothly through them… the patra would be you and me; or at least it could be you and me if we were to open ourselves to the divine Love that is constantly and freely given to us.”

Our dedicated practices help us continue to drop into the vessel of the body, and remove blockages that impede the free flow of energy and Love always present within us.

abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah – Yoga Sutra 1.12
Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.

tatra sthitau yatnah abhyasah – Yoga Sutra 1.13
Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations.

sa tu dirghakala nairantarya satkara asevitah drdhabhumih – Yoga Sutra 1.14
The firm foundation is established when the effort is continued consistently, for a long time, with attention and devotion.

Written by Kelly Haas
March 2019

Teacher Tools

Teaching Focus:

Slow down to connect to the subtle body, and have a direct experience of ourselves and feel what is happening.

Sense and feel the pulsation of blood, movement and changes in the cardio vascular system., and connect to the beating of your own heart. How do different categories of poses affect heart rate?

Notice the delicacy and subtle movement of breath and body.

Attune to the most simple vibratory rhythms inside.
Also, consider teaching rhythmic movement to create rhythm of breath and movement (think cat/cow; inhale lengthen/exhale twist; inhale arms up / exhale arms down)

Remember the NADIS – channels, or little rivers of energy in the body.
Can you feel the pulsatory flow of life inside you as you?

OM Shanti Shanti Shanti

Om poornamadah poornamidam poornaat poornamudachyate
Poornasya poornamaadaaya poornamevaavashishṣyate
Om shaantih shaantih shaantih

Om, That is complete/full/perfect, This is complete, From the completeness comes the completeness. If completeness is taken away from completeness, Only completeness remains
Om, Peace peace peace

-Yoga and the Subtle Body, Tias Little
-Little Legs, Big Heart, Kristen DeAndrade

-Reginald A Ray, American Buddhist and Somatics Teachers podcasts

Thirst, Poem: In the Storm + More, Poems by Mary Oliver

In The Storm
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
flew in,
snowflakes on their backs,
and settled
in a row
behind the ducks —-
whose backs were also
covered with snow —
so close
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the ducks’ tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,

for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water
which was still raging.
But, somehow,
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
let them
crouch there, and live.

If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned —-
if not enough else —-
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle,
Unless, of course, kindness—-
as now and again
some rare person has suggested —-
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
John O’Donahue from Beauty – The Invisible Embrace
A Blessing for Beauty
May the beauty of your life become more visible to you, that you may glimpse your wild divinity.

May the wonders of the earth call you forth from all your small, secret prisons and set your feet free in pastures of possibilities.
May the light of dawn anoint your eyes that you may behold what a miracle a day is.
May the liturgy of twilight shelter all your fears and darkness within the circle of ease.
May the angel of memory surprise you in bleak times with new gifts from the harvest of your vanished days.
May you allow no dark hand to quench the candle of hope in your heart.
May you discover a new generosity towards yourself, and encourage yourself to engage your life as a great adventure.
May the outside voices of fear and despair find no echo in you.
May you always trust the urgency and wisdom of your own spirit.
May the shelter and nourishment of all the good you have done, the love you have shown, the suffering you have carried, awaken around you to bless your life a thousand times.
And when love finds the path to your door may you open like earth to the dawn, and trust your every hidden color towards the nourishment of light.
May you find enough stillness and silence to savor the kiss of God on your soul and delight in the eternity that shaped you, that holds you and calls you.
And may you know that despite confusion, anxiety, and emptiness, your name is written in Heaven.
And may you come to see your life as a quiet sacrament of service, which awakens around you a rhythm where doubt gives way to the grace of wonder, where what is awkward and strained can find elegance, and where crippled hope can find wings, and torment enter at last unto the grace of serenity.
May Divine Beauty bless you.