Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

New Beginnings November 7, 2012

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 2:00 pm
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Last week I started a new job.

I wasn’t happy at my old job – I’ve always been up front about that here on the yoga blog – and I’ve written about trying to apply what I’ve learned about meditation and mindfulness to my work troubles. I reminded myself to be grateful to have a job at all, especially one that paid well, where I was liked and respected. I tried to treat my job as my karma yoga duty, the work that’s mine to do at this point in my life and the work I need to do to support my family, and so I tried to do my best and practice non-attachment. My mantra became “I am here to do my work the best I can, without attachment to the work itself or its results”. On the whole, this isn’t a bad attitude to practice, but it was always hard to let go and not get caught up in frustration, and I kept hoping I could find a job that would suit me better: work I liked better, a better work-life balance. After YogaBaby arrived, sending out resumes became my little project, something I worked on while she nursed or slept in my lap. And I got some calls, and some interviews. (And believe me, you’ve never been nervous about a job interview until you’ve worried about leaking breast milk in front of your potential employer.)

A few weeks after I started back to work, this job offer came along. It wasn’t perfect (with all due respect to my new colleagues and my division director – hi, E! – who’s already found this blog). The work will be pretty similar to what I was doing before (although with some key differences that make me think I might like it more). The pay is also very similar (although the recruiter did her best to make the offer as sweet as possible). It’s a lateral move in terms of job title (although with more potential for advancement than I felt I had at my old job). The offer was actually so similar to what I was doing and earning at my old job that I had to consider it for almost a week. I compared the cost of health insurance, the time off/vacation policy, even the 401K matching program – in some respects my old company was stronger, in other respects the new company was stronger.

Ultimately, it came down to a choice between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the new. Did I want to stay where I was and maintain the status quo, good and bad? Or did I want to take a chance that I could be happier making a change, taking a risk?

I decided to take the chance, partly because I knew that if I didn’t accept the job, I’d always wonder if I should have, and partly because I feel like you can’t wait around hoping for change to come to you. There’s no point in waiting for the perfect thing to come along because nothing in this world is going to be perfect. I felt that I had to put myself out there and take action if I wanted a change to happen, and I really did need a change. I made the best decision I could, and so far, I think I made the right choice. So here’s to change, and risk, and being brave, and crossing our fingers as we jump.

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books: The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. Le Guin June 19, 2012

Filed under: books,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 2:04 pm
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The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. Le GuinWait a minute, you may be thinking. You come to this blog for yoga, and here is a book with a picture of a dragon on the cover. Now, many of you may not know this, dear readers, but I have loved fantasy novels for far longer than I’ve loved yoga. Being so far along in my pregnancy, I haven’t felt up for reading much nonfiction or anything that feels like a “serious” book – I wanted fun, light reading. It seemed like a good time to revisit some of my favorite fantasy novels. And when something in a fantasy novel jives with my yoga, I can’t help getting all bubbly about it.

The Farthest Shore is the third novel in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. It was first published in 1972, and it’s about (roughly) a wizard and a young man taking a journey to figure out what’s going wrong with magic, what darkness is coming across people’s hearts. There are sorcerers and dragons and at least one sword fight, but the thing about Ursula Le Guin is that she doesn’t just write about sorcerers and dragons (or about rocket ships and aliens in her science fiction novels) – she uses these concepts to look at what’s going on in the world, what it means to be a human being. The Earthsea books in particular are ostensibly about wizards and magic but really deal with deeper ideas about life and death that are very powerful.

I’ve read The Farthest Shore before and so I knew it had these life/death themes, but on this read I found even more to love. What struck me most is that our hero, the wizard Ged, is totally a karma yogi! On several occasions, he talks to his companion Arren about what it means to be a man of action, and how the best path is to take no action at all. In particular, their conversation after Ged rescues Arren from slave traders is interesting: Ged talks about maintaining balance, acting with responsibility. He says, “It is much easier for men to act than to refrain from acting…. do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way” (67). This could have come right out of the Bhagavad Gita! I wonder if that’s what LeGuin was reading in the early 1970s? And Ged backs up his statements about action in the way he lives. He goes on this journey only because he must; none of the other wizards will acknowledge the problem or understand what’s needed to solve it. His action is needful to preserve balance in the world. In this and in other books in the series, he only uses magic when it’s necessary, and magic is shown over and over again to have serious consequences when its use is out of balance. I loved finding Ged to be even wiser than I’d remembered him, and I loved finding karma and dragons in the same book.

 

Books: Karma-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda: My Response December 13, 2011

I recently summarized and commented on Swami Vivekananda’s book Karma-Yoga. Although the book is based on lectures given by Vivekananda over a century ago, it feels incredibly relevant and important to me today, and I wanted to comment on what touched me so much about this book and what seemed so important about Vivekananda’s words on work and duty.

First, I identify as a Karma yogini (which is why I chose this book to read rather than Vivekananda’s books on Jnana yoga or Bhakti yoga). I feel that the ideals of karma yoga that are outlined in the Bhagavad Gita are really beautifully explicated in this book; the Gita tells us to be unattached and to work without regard for the results of our actions, but Vivekananda begins to explain how we’re supposed to manage that. He sets the case for Karma yoga as the yogic path that is most accessible to anyone – a Jnana yogi has to study and use logic and intelligence, a Bhakti yogi relies on love and devotion, but a Karma yogi mostly just has to show up, and keep showing up. I have always had a high regard for the virtue of showing up, whether it’s for work, for appointments and events, for classes and study, or, on a larger level, showing up for your life. If you think about it, a lot of people don’t put in the effort to show up for life, not truly. Many people coast along, just getting by, then wake up when they’re 50 and wonder what the heck happened. A Karma yogi makes a commitment to show up every day and be truly present in the work they do.

This book gave me a way of looking at my own life that really meant a lot to me. I’ve received a lot of blessings in my life, I’ve worked really hard, and I’ve also been incredibly lucky. My life is pretty fantastic, but just like anyone, I have parts of my life that are less than ideal. This book gave me a window into how to negotiate my way through those things. For the past five years, I’ve worked in a job that I don’t particularly like. Sometimes I get angry about that, or frustrated, or all worked up; I’ve tried to combat that by reminding myself how lucky I am to have a job at all, let alone a job that pays well, with good health insurance, with colleagues that I like and respect. Reading this book has given me another way to manage my day-to-day frustrations. I’ve started trying to treat my job as my Karma-yoga duty, at least for right now. I have a family to support and a home to maintain, and it’s my duty to go to work and to do my very best while I’m there. By getting worked up and frustrated about my job, feeling trapped by my job, I’m just getting more and more attached to it. If I practice non-attachment, the work goes more quickly and it affects me less. I’m able to leave my work at the office more readily, which allows me to more fully enjoy my home life, which is what really feeds my spirit. This doesn’t mean that I give up on the dream of finding something that suits me better, but it does mean that I feel more peaceful in my day-to-day life. Feeling more peaceful means that I have more of myself to give to my family (and I whine a lot less), and I’m better able to do my work when I’m at the office.

When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I understood the concept of Karma Yoga, but it never really clicked to me how to make that an everyday part of my life. I thought of the larger scale implications of Karma Yoga, but not the small scale ones. Reading Swami Vivekananda’s book has really helped me to understand this better and to apply it to my own life. I’m only at the start of this practice, but just reading the book gave me a great sense of relief, and the lessons that Vivekananda teaches are ones that I want to cultivate.

 

Books: Karma-Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda December 8, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:15 pm
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Swami Vivekananda lived from 1863 to 1902 and is best known for his address at the Parliament of Religions in 1893, which helped to bring Hinduism to the modern world as a major religion. Vivekananda wrote a number of books, some of which are based on his lectures, and Karma-Yoga is one of these. Karma-Yoga has been reprinted many times over the past hundred years; the copy that I read,  borrowed from a college library, is a tiny little book, maybe 4″ x 5″, and only 143 pages. Because the book was published so long ago, you can read the whole thing online, so feel free to check it out! If you’re interested in the topic, this book is well worth the time.

In this book, Vivekananda expands on the concept of Karma yoga as set out in the Bhagavad Gita. Vivekananda covers a variety of topics related to karma, including work, action, character, motivation, morality, duty, and non-attachment. While Vivekananda’s explication of Karma yoga really moved me and helped me to understand how the path of Karma yoga can work in my life, I’ll try to keep this post focused on what Vivekananda writes, and I’ll follow up with another post on my personal response to the text.

Vivekananda begins by providing an introduction to the concept of Karma and work. For Vivekananda, a person’s character reflects that person’s will, which is shown through their work. He states,

Watch a man do his most common actions; those are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man. Great occasions rouse even the lowest of human beings to some kind of greatness, but he alone is the really great man whose character is great always, the same wherever he be (5).

Karma, or work/action, is the means by which we each build our character. Our actions, our work, build us into who we become: doing good works reinforces good character, and constantly doing evil work builds a bad character. Therefore it’s possible for someone to change his character through his actions.

Vivekananda also discusses the motive for work: one shouldn’t work for money or fame or even the results of our work, but simply for the work’s sake. Removing selfish motives from our work builds self-control and character. He describes how the ideal person can find balance between a quiet, solitary spiritual practice and life in the world. Such a person can be in the middle of the densest city traffic and his mind will be as if he’s in a cave by himself; whether in a city or a cave, he’s intensely working at all times.

Vivekananda describes how the concept of morality and duty varies greatly depending on the country or culture: what’s considered right and moral in one country can be thought wrong and evil in another. Vivekananda argues that for this reason there can’t be a universal morality or sense of duty, but that each person must act according to what is deemed right and good in his or her own culture. Vivekananda recommends that we try to view each person’s actions through their own eyes rather than judging that person by our own standards of duty, especially when meeting people from another culture. If we view them by our standards, we may think they are acting wrongly or strangely, but if we try to understand their actions in the context of that person’s culture, we may see that the person’s actions are right and good to him. Every person should work to accomplish his own ideal, according to his own skills and abilities; if you take up someone else’s ideals, you can never hope to make progress. He then explains that one person’s duty isn’t higher or lower than another person’s; even working at hard physical labor can count towards spiritual progress if it’s approached with the right attitude.

Vivekananda also discusses the idea of non-attachment. Each person must constantly work, because it’s in our nature as human beings, but the only way to truly make our work count is to be unattached to the results of the work. Vivekananda compellingly describes how attachments affect the mind as well as how non-attachment relates to love, self-sacrifice, and charity, and how all of these come together: being able to love perfectly, without attachment, we are able to give freely of ourselves to others without worrying about how it will affect us. Vivekananda uses the powerful image of the grumbling worker: if you’re grumbling and complaining about your work, that means you’re attached to it; all your duties will seem distasteful and you’ll never be satisfied. However, if you’re able to do the work for the work’s sake, without attachment, you’ll find satisfaction and freedom.

Vivekananda states that no action can ever be completely good or completely bad: even the most kindly meant action can have negative consequences, and even the foulest evil act can result in some good. Because Karma results from every action, there’s no way to attain perfection simply by doing good works, because each good work will also have some negative effect. This is where non-attachment comes in: you continue to work and strive to do good, but free yourself from attachment to the results of the action. You set yourself aside, removing all selfish wish for praise or reward, and do your duty because it’s right to do your duty.

At the end of the book, Swami Vivekananda sums up his views on Karma yoga:

Karma-Yoga, therefore, is a system of ethics and religion intended to attain freedom through unselfishness and by good works. The Karma-Yogi need not believe in any doctrine whatever. He may not believe even in God…. He has got his own special aim of realising selflessness; and he has to work it out himself. Every moment of his life must be realisation, because he has to solve by mere work, without the help of doctrine or theory, the very same problem to which the Jnani applies his reason and inspiration and the Bhakta his love (131-2).

 

The Bhavas September 19, 2011

Filed under: yoga,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:39 pm
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The Bhavas are four spiritual attitudes to cultivate as a student of yoga, or really as a student of anything! The Bhavas are:

  • Duty (Dharma)
  • Knowledge (Jnana)
  • Detachment (Vairaigya)
  • Self-Reliance (Aiswarya)

Duty, or Dharma, is an important concept in the Yoga Sutras as well as in the Bhagavad Gita. The idea here is to know your duty, understand what you have to do, and then perform that duty with a neutral attitude, without regard to whether you like or dislike the task. Some examples are going to yoga class regularly even when you don’t feel like it, studying and doing your homework for school, making phone calls at the office, or taking out the trash. Regardless of whether you enjoy taking out the trash, pickup is on Tuesday morning, so it’s your duty to take it out on Monday night with no complaining! To cultivate your sense of duty, try doing meditative yoga asanas, like a series of sun salutations or half-salutes.

Knowledge, or Jnana, goes hand in hand with duty. We should strive to know ourselves at every level: body, thoughts, speech, and emotions. Knowing yourself will help you to better know and understand your duty as well. To cultivate self-knowledge, work on concentration exercises (like, for example, counting meditation), and yoga asanas that require concentration, like balance poses. Pranayama breathing exercises (like these) are also helpful here – pranayama helps you learn your breathing patterns and how to calm your emotions using your breath.

Detachment, or Vairaigya, means living in the world without being of the world. We work not to get caught up in the trivial details of the world around, instead keeping a sense of our true Self, which remains unchanging. This also feeds back into duty – we do the right thing because it’s right, and with detachment from the results, without thought of reward. Overall, cultivating detachment in our lives usually means cultivating an attitude of humility and surrender. Yoga asanas that can help with this include forward bends and twists. These postures encourage us to surrender and relax into the pose: if you’re tensing your muscles and pushing hard, it’s more difficult to succeed with forward bends and twists, but if you let go and surrender to the pose without trying to push, you’ll often find that you can bend just a little bit farther, twist just a little bit deeper.

Self-Reliance, or Aiswarya, can also be referred to as willpower or self-confidence. It’s that deep inner sense that you can do what you need to do. Self-reliance comes from knowing yourself well and having a attitude of humility. Maybe we could also call it integrity! Backbends are yoga asanas that will help with this bhava. Backbends can be scary because you’re dropping your head backwards, unable to see anything coming toward you, so doing backbends develops confidence and strength. Backbends also work to open up the chest, heart, and shoulders, which helps posture – if you’re standing with chest open, shoulders back, you’ll project a much more positive, confident attitude than you would by hunching over!

For me, the bhavas are interesting and helpful to keep in mind as I follow the path of karma yoga, which requires following my dharma with a sense of service and without regard for reward. But the bhavas are useful for any yogic path, or for people following a different path entirely: the characteristics described by the bhavas are useful to cultivate no matter what your faith, religion, or spiritual path!

 

Four Paths: Karma Yoga August 5, 2011

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes the four paths of yoga:

Each of these paths has the potential to lead a yogi to enlightenment, so you choose your path based on your temperament and personality. Choosing the wrong path will make it much more difficult to make progress, because essentially you’re fighting your nature. This month, my assignment is to consider the four paths and decide which one appeals to me the most.

Karma yoga, the path of action, is the path that called out to me right away during our class discussion at the last teacher training session. The nice thing about Karma yoga is that it’s all about action – you don’t have to give up your life in the world or retreat into secluded study or meditation. You still have to read and study and meditate, of course, but your main focus is your secular life. The difference between a Karma yogi and some regular guy, however, is that the Karma yogi seeks to perform the actions of her life with an attitude of selfless service, with no attachment to the results of her actions.

In Karma yoga, you perform your actions because it’s your duty, because it’s the right thing to do – no more and no less. You don’t get caught up in expecting a reward for your efforts. If you receive a reward, that’s nice, but the point is to do the action for its own sake. It’s not that the Karma yogi doesn’t care about what happens: to the contrary, she cares very much and works hard at her work, but she recognizes that she has no control over the results of her actions, so she just does her best and then lets go. She takes an attitude of service, making each action an offering to the Divine. This way, doing the work actually becomes your spiritual practice. (Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita discusses Karma yoga in more detail.)

There are four steps to Karma yoga:

  1. Know your duty, know your life’s purpose (your dharma), and accept it fully
  2. Concentrate and be fully present as you perform your duty
  3. Do the work with excellence, as best you can
  4. Give up any attachment to the results of your actions

For me, this path is very, very appealing. I have always felt like I wanted to do more, to serve more, that there was something I owed to the world in gratitude for the wonderful life that I have. For years I secretly wanted to join the Peace Corps but was too afraid to take the risk. I can’t even talk about the Peace Corps; I get teary. I’m teary just typing about it. The concept of Karma yoga fulfills that need to serve by making everything a form of service. I don’t need to go far away to make my life meaningful or helpful or useful. I can do that right here.

I also like how neatly Karma yoga fits together as a system for running your life. If every action is service, is an offering to the Divine, then you’re pretty much going to stop being a jerk to people, aren’t you? The yamas and niyamas become even more practical guidelines for living. You start wanting to eliminate negativity and nastiness from every action you put out into the world; there’s an inherent kindness to it. I often feel that I am not very kind, and I’d like to be. As a system, it also puts emphasis on personal excellence – doing your best, striving to perform your work in the best possible way – and that resonates with me too because I’ve tried to live my life that way.

The hardest thing for me to imagine is acting without attachment to the results of my actions. And obviously that’s kind of a biggie. But that’s something I feel I need in my life, too. How comforting it would be to stop worrying over things that are beyond my control! To be able to let go of that suffering, and just reside in the fact that I did the best I could do. I’ve been telling myself this for years. Of course, it’s still incredibly hard for me to just do that, but isn’t that the point? To work at it, and to make the work the offering?

I’m getting a little emotional here, but that’s clearly indicative of something. Yesterday, I was thinking about Bhakti yoga and thinking that maybe that might be a good option for me, but Karma yoga is something I really feel passionately about, and something I’ve been trying to practice without even knowing I was doing it. There are many aspects of the other paths that do appeal to me, and there’s no reason I can’t take those things and use them on my journey, but my main path is going to be Karma yoga.

 

Yardwork Meditation July 21, 2011

When F and I were first talking about buying a house, doing yardwork was one of the things I was least looking forward to. I’d never mowed a lawn in my life – my parents’ next door neighbor when I was a kid was an old guy who just liked to mow, so they let him have at it. Ever since moving out of my parents’ house for college, my idea of yardwork has been repotting a houseplant. Then we bought a house with a big backyard – a house that hadn’t been lived in for over a year, and before that had been owned by an older man in poor health. To say that the yard was in need of attention was an understatement: the lawn hadn’t been mowed in weeks, the bushes were determinedly trying to take over the front walk, the rose bushes had been engulfed by weeds for so long that the weeds had grown into 15-foot weed trees, and the ivy was everywhere. As a housewarming gift, my parents bought us a lawn mower and a weedwacker (among other things) and lent us their hedge trimmers, and… we got to work.

My first try at mowing the lawn was surprisingly satisfying: getting all the little clumps, making the lines straight and even, mowing around all the obstacles. Going after the weed trees was even better – clipping and chopping and hacking until we found the fence under there! (It’s a six foot fence. I’m serious, weed trees.) I spent close to two hours on Sunday turning the huge bushes out front into smooth, neat hedges again, even though my arms hurt from the vibrations of the hedge trimmers. And after each yardwork session, we bag up all the clippings and take them out to the curb.

It struck me that meditation is a lot like yardwork, and yardwork can be a form of meditation. When I’m doing yardwork, I’m completely focused on the task in front of me – the sort of one-pointed concentration I strive for in my meditation practice. In yardwork, you can see immediate results – the weeds are gone, the lawn mowed – similar to the calm feeling you may get at the end of a meditation practice, but the real satisfaction, I imagine, comes in taking good care of your lawn in the long term, planting your garden and watching it grow. This too is like meditation, where the practice we do now sets the stage for future growth. Maybe in meditation you discover something unexpected, like the wasps’ nest I found under the second hedge on the right. (I’m not dealing with the wasps’ nest yet, but it’s sure good to know it’s there!) And, finally, you don’t have to be particularly good at yardwork to be successful, just like in meditation. Whether you’re a professional lawn care expert or a newbie like me, at the end of the day, the grass is shorter. All you have to do is show up and do the work.