Surrender

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sur·ren·der
/s…ôňąrend…ôr/
Verb
Cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.

A word we hear a lot in yoga is “surrender.” I’m fairly type-A: very driven, often ambitious, hard-working, frequently stubborn, and of the firm believe that if I work at it enough, I can have it all. Needless to say, “surrendering” is not an easy concept for me. But there are two sides to this dilemma, because there is a very fine line between surrendering what you cannot control and becoming complacent…
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Working Backwards

So for those of you who still remember me after my increasingly long hiatuses, hello again and thanks for sticking around despite my perennial absence…inspiration is frequent but free time is not, as I am sure you are all well aware.

I began my yoga teacher training (well, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it actually began long ago, but now I am officially enrolled in a 200-hour course) at Starseed Yoga¬†in September, and it has brought a great deal of sanity to my topsy-turvy life. ¬†The teachers are knowledgable and supportive, and everyone in the studio is always so very friendly. ¬†As a result of teacher training and in preparation for when I teach more classes on my own, I have found myself in a few beginner classes both at Starseed and at the studio nearer my home – and let me tell you, they are HARD.

As someone who always welcomes a challenge, I do not respond well to “easing into” things. ¬†My usual modus operandi is to jump in not with both feet but headfirst, and wait to find out how deep the water is until I’m way underneath it, gazing back up trying to see the surface, awkwardly getting my nostrils full of water, and wondering how on earth I got there. ¬†I always make it back up to the top, but sometimes it’s a struggle and I often swallow a lot more disgusting pool water than was really necessary. ¬†However, I do think it makes me stronger and it definitely makes me appreciate just how difficult the jump and the ensuing battle with the basic laws of physics was.

Example: music. ¬†My parents made me take piano lessons for a few years as a child, but I hated practicing scales and “hands separately” so I quit. ¬†In high school I resumed playing of my own volition, but I jumped right in without a teacher, devouring music that was way too hard for me but thoroughly enjoying it. ¬†I continued on to study music at university, people pay me to do it, and now one might even go so far as to call me a professional musician. ¬†However, even now my main strength is not in performing perfectly rehearsed sonatas with an exquisite touch, or making my fingers dance over the keys to express delightful Romantic motives. ¬†I have on occasion been able to do such things – but what I’m really good at is sightreading. ¬†In other words, jumping behind a piano at a moment’s notice and playing whatever is thrown in front of me with the only delay being the time it takes me to check the key signature – and if there’s a soprano or someone on a podium waving his arms about who I need to be following, so much the better. ¬†I can get through just about any piece of music in this situation- it is not always pretty, but each time I plough through something I’ve never seen before, I get better at it and in turn, being a musician. ¬†Once I get through a piece once in this frenzied manner, it is a bit easier for me to go back to the beginning and practice it properly because I have an idea of the broader ideas behind it. ¬†I can go through and work technical things like tricky fingerings and focus on artistic ideas, like a sensible person would have done from the beginning. ¬†[Side note: I am not always a sensible person.]

My introduction to yoga was similar. ¬†The first class I took at age 13 was a beginner class which my mum dragged me to. ¬†I am not sure what I expected and my memory of the occasion is a bit foggy, but I remember thinking “these poses are too easy, I’m not getting a workout, and I am too frustrated by this arm-waving nonsense to be relaxed.” ¬†I did not attend another class until I was 18. ¬†This class was taught by Melissa, who to this day is one of my favorite teachers, and it was a modified Ashtanga Vinyasa class. ¬†I was sweating after the first sun salutation, the postures had many variations to keep me challenged, and I was too focused on not falling over to think about anything other than the current moment. ¬†Of course, my alignment must have been horrendous and while it was certainly a meditative practice, somewhere along the line I missed the part about yoga being kind to the body. ¬†In the following months I twisted and jumped and back-bended and head-stood – in other words, I did anything but “ease in.” ¬†I know I only got away with this because I am young, strong, and healthy – but if I hadn’t gotten into yoga this way, I know I wouldn’t have at all. ¬†I needed the challenges, both physical and mental, to stay present and interested. ¬†I needed to know what I was working towards.

So a few weeks ago, when I mentally prepared myself for an hour of boredom and walked into a beginner class, I got exactly what I expected: very basic postures held for a very long time, and lots of focus on alignment and breathing. ¬†However, rather than finding the postures frustratingly easy and boring, I found it refreshing to slow down and focus on tweaking each asana to make it work better. ¬†This is something so often overlooked in vinyasa and other flow classes, yet something that is so crucial. ¬†But at the same time, I think it is an aspect of yoga many beginners do not fully appreciate. ¬†It took me many months to understand the concepts of “active” limbs, opening chakras, and directing prana to specific areas, and to recognize the huge changes that subtle movements could bring to a posture. ¬†As such, I see many beginners with slumped shoulders and shallow breathing who don’t understand teachers’ instructions to adjust, and view yoga as simply “gentle stretching” ¬†rather than the mentally and physically challenging eight-limbed practice that true yogis delve into on a daily basis.

I realise that generally speaking, my sense of logic is unconventional and perhaps my headlong approach isn’t right for everyone. ¬†I’m certainly not suggesting that beginner classes be saved only for advanced students, or that people new to yoga be thrown into physically taxing Ashtanga classes. ¬†But once in awhile, jumping into something headfirst may make you a stronger person and offer you a dose of perspective. ¬†And those of us who are experienced in our craft, practice, or profession can always benefit from taking a few steps back, treating ourselves like beginners, and doing things in a way we are not accustomed to.

Asceticism and the Human Condition

I was watching¬†The Buddha¬†at the gym the other day, so naturally when I left I was thinking about Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment. ¬† The phase in particular that was on my mind was his time spent as an ascetic, depriving himself of all worldly ¬†pleasures and experiences in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

I think there’s something to be said for this- there definitely appears to be a disconnect between people as spiritual creatures and humans as animals. ¬†This isn’t only the case for humans, though- I think it applies to other creatures too. ¬†All of us are simply souls residing inside our physical bodies- I believe C.S. Lewis said something about that in a far more eloquent way, actually. ¬†Obviously this isn’t a novel idea, but its a dichotomy that any sentient being has to grapple with. ¬†The world can be a dangerous place for a soul seeking enlightenment.

At the same time, it seems naive and a bit irresponsible to just abstain from all things worldly entirely. ¬†Of course, we are defined by our souls more than we are as humans, but is it not relevant that our souls are living in bodies on this place called Earth? ¬†Should we really spend all of our time here trying to escape? ¬†The world is full of suffering, but it’s also full of wonder. ¬†We can learn a lot about our souls from experiencing both.

Of course like all paradoxes that we deal with, a balance must be struck. ¬†I would think it’s helpful to experience one or the other or both walks of life in order to realise that neither is spiritually ideal. ¬†We can’t live like Siddhartha in his early years, lavishly and wastefully. ¬†But we also needn’t constantly deprive ourselves constantly in order to cultivate the higher being residing within all of us.

How do you balance the experience of life with spiritual health?

Home

Home is where the heart is.

Cliche, but true.  However, it is never taken literally enough.  Home is exactly where the heart is- it is your body.  You live nowhere else but inside your physical being.

The period in life between high school and finishing university involves lots of traveling for most people, whether it’s taking time off to see the world or going back and forth between “home” and school. ¬†It’s a period of transition, and I know that I for one have never felt particularly settled in any one place (granted, I seem to have a crippling inability to stay in the country for more than three months at a time, but still), even the home where I grew up. ¬†Life in general is constantly moving; sometimes it ebbs and flows but the waves are always there. ¬†We are nomads.

This can be quite a crisis- it seems to be part of human nature to try to find one’s place in the world- a sort of niche where you fit in, a sense of belonging. ¬†It’s what makes us travel and explore the world, and also try new things. ¬†But at the same time, it can create a huge amount of angst.

I think that where you physically are has very little to do with how at “home” you feel. ¬†To me, “home” is a sense of security and assuredness. ¬†It’s typically associated with a place, but I don’t think it has to be. ¬†I can feel at home anywhere from the mountains in north India to a tiny dorm room in Syracuse, and I think that sense of adaptability comes from a sense of security with who I am.

A sense of belonging isn’t something you need to find in a place, it’s something you need to find in yourself. ¬†It’s a sense of self-reliance rather than dependence on a place that makes you comfortable. ¬†Perhaps travelling the world and visiting new locations will help you discover who you are and find that self-assuredness, but ultimately your true home is nowhere else but your own body. Be comfortable in yourself and with yourself, friends. ¬†Namaste!

Bir

More about India!  This is a followup to my first post about Dharamsala.  Less Hangover-esque shenanigans, more monks and motorcycles.

After I woke up for the second time on New Year’s Day, I asked the coordinator exactly what was in store for me. ¬†It was like a terrible rendition of “Who’s On First.”

Me (groggily): “So, where am I volunteering today?”

Him: “Beer.”

Me: “Oh god, no more beer.”

Him: “We are going to beer.”

Me: “No, we drank beer last night…shouldn’t I be in orientation or something?”

Him (insistently): “No, beer!”

Me: “…”

Him: “We are going to beer.”

Me: “Wait…spell that?”

Him: “B-I-R.”

Me: ¬†“Bir….is it a place?”

Him: “Yes, we will leave in one hour!”

The view from the home I stayed in

So, we piled into a taxi with one other girl who had just arrived from the US and four volunteers who had been visiting Dharamsala for the weekend and began our trip through the gorgeous Kangra valley. ¬†It was about 2.5 hours of winding mountains and valleys with fields of rice and tea and small towns every so often. ¬†We took the first day to recover from all of the travelling and get oriented with the small town. ¬†Bir is a Tibetan colony so although it is in India, most of the locals are Tibetan. ¬†Their primary language is¬†Tibetan (much to the dismay of two girls who had been learning Hindi) and their culture is a bit more westernized than most of India. ¬†The Tibetans are mostly businessmen that own shops in the center of town and the Indians tend to do the labor, such as building and making clay. ¬†They seem to coexist very well, but there’s a very clear divide between the cultures that I found somewhat unnerving.

Nyingma

Nyingma

Chok Ling

Chok Ling

On the second day, we began to teach the monks.  We taught at two monasteries, Nyingma and Chok ling.  We had been told that we would be assisting teachers who were already following programs, but in reality we were introduced to about 20 incredibly polite but slightly confused boys between the ages of 6 and 17.  Many of the boys at Nyingma already spoke decent English, so it was very challenging to find new things to teach them.  I taught the more advanced group- by the end of my time there, they were beginning to understand how to arrange sentences into a cohesive story.

Tea Garden

Tea Garden

Bir is a very small town, so you see the same people every day. ¬†I continuously ran into the same guys that I had spent New Years’ with, and nearly every night we went out driving, drinking, and dancing. ¬†It’s funny because in the US, when someone asks you out for a drink you usually go to a bar. ¬†In Bir, you literally go out for a drink- you go buy a bottle of something and sit on a mountain and drink. ¬†I much prefer this, to be perfectly honest. ¬†Sometimes we ordered food from a nearby Indian restaurant and they brought it out to us while we danced under the stars with music pumping from a car. ¬†It was a bit chilly, so sometimes a bonfire was involved as well. ¬†Sometimes the other volunteers and I would go for tea at the tea garden down the road. ¬†It was beautiful- I can only imagine what it would be like in the summer.

Chok Ling

Chok Ling

One experience that I particularly enjoyed was going to morning prayer.  We went to our two monasteries as well as another one, also called Chok Ling.  The monks were very accommodating- they rolled out mats for us and brought us tea while we sat and listened to their chants.  It was wonderfully meditative, and they used some really interesting instruments.

 

Sunset in Bir

Sunset

Another thing I learned to love (in about four seconds) was motorcycles.  Drunk me had made particularly good friends with a local named Jigme on my first evening and he had promised me a ride.  Sober me did not remember this, but Jigme did and after my first day of volunteering he was waiting to whisk me off through the jungle.  We went for rides every day, sometimes to temples and sometimes just up in the mountains to watch the stunning sunsets.  In the evenings, we went to Chauntra, the next town over, where some of the other guys I had met my first evening lived.  They taught me to play a popular game called Shok, which is similar to Parcheesi but played with shells and coins and no board.  We unintentionally adopted the most adorable puppy, who accompanied us on our late-night dance parties in the mountains.

It’s strange how a culture so different from ours still has so many similarities- going out for dinner and drinking liquor in fields is also a favorite pastime in the small town that I grew up with. ¬†We also like to hang around and play games at people’s houses, or just pile into cars and drive somewhere. ¬†I think the main difference is how people treat each other. ¬†Everyone in Bir was always friendly to everyone else, especially to travellers. ¬†I don’t think new people would be welcomed nearly as quickly back home. ¬†The Tibetans are also extremely lackadaisical about their business- one day I needed photocopies, and the machine at the shop I usually went to was broken. ¬†Rather than just tell me so, the shopkeeper walked me down the street to his competitor and had him make me the copies. ¬†Something like this would never happen in the US- but it’s like the idea of competition just doesn’t exist. ¬†In any town there are always at least four stores selling the exact same things, but nobody tries to undercut each other or take business. ¬†There’s just a really strong sense of community, which I really loved.

More photos from Bir

Appreciation

One of the most important mindsets to have is appreciation because it’s one of the easiest ways to stay positive. ¬†Being appreciative can take many forms, from a simple “thank you” to someone who held the door open to an entire meditation devoted to a certain thought.

Appreciating other people not only makes them feel good, but you too. ¬†Mother Teresa said that “in the simple act of giving, you receive” and it really couldn’t be more true. ¬†The simple act of recognising when someone does something special for you not only makes the other person feel appreciated, but reinforces in yourself that someone did something nice. ¬†How could this not set off a cycle of kind actions?

I try to take time as often as I can to express appreciation not only for people around me, but also for things. ¬†It seems silly, but to me it is calming to honor everything’s purpose in life. ¬†I like to appreciate a nice bed to sleep in or a hot cup of soup when it’s cold outside. ¬†Perhaps a bed or a cup of soup can’t tell that I am saying “thank you,” but¬†I find that I enjoy these things even more when I think about them with gratitude.

Appreciating serendipity and setbacks is something that I think is very underrated. ¬†I don’t believe in luck as much as I do the power of positive thinking, but sometimes the smallest thing can cause a huge shift in your life. ¬†I also don’t think that “everything happens for a reason,” but you usually can make the best of nearly any situation so that it turns out in your favor. ¬†I had a bit of a negative experience with a particular professor once, and though initially I was angry and disillusioned, it caused me to really re-evaluate my plans at university which resulted in a decision to graduate a year early to take an incredible job opportunity. ¬†It’s not true that “one door shuts, another one opens,” because that’s assuming that some higher power is just going to hand you an opportunity. ¬†It’s more like “one door shuts, so you need to find yourself another way out of the room.” ¬†Obviously initially, setbacks are unfortunate- but with the right mindset even they can turn into something worth appreciating. ¬†Sometimes the universe has ways of nudging us in a direction that we may not have seen before.

Of course, the most important thing to appreciate is life in general.  Being able to wake up in the morning really is something amazing.  No matter what gets thrown at you on any given day, appreciate it and own it!

Namaste, and I appreciate you for reading my blog =)

The Perfect Performance

In the past few weeks I have spent a lot of time surfing YouTube trying to find videos of pieces that I was going to perform on my recital. ¬†This is a usual practice for any musician, to see how other artists interpret music, use the stage, and so on. ¬†I had chosen a few pieces that had some tricky counting between the piano and the vocalist, and I could not for the life of me find a perfect performance to listen to to get the interaction between the vocalist and pianist into my head. ¬†I would find something that sounded good, and then realise that the pianist skipped a triplet or the vocalist came in half a beat late; think that this recording of Nocturne in C# minor was great until he slipped over the run near the end. ¬†Eventually, I realised that had I not been studying the music myself, I never would have known. ¬†Furthermore, I realised that even though I knew the music and knew that the performer made a minor error, often I still enjoyed the performance. ¬†Sure, the girl who sang Telephone messed up the bizarre triplets in the second half, but her staging and interaction with the pianist was so hysterical that I didn’t even mind. ¬†The lady I watched performing a Ned Rorem piece switched the words around, but the performance was so gripping that it didn’t really detract from it.

I’m not by any means saying that you shouldn’t strive for perfection. ¬†I think if you strive for something unattainable you may not achieve it, but you’ll be better off than if you do meet goals that aren’t high anyway. ¬†At a certain point after two or three hours too many in a practice room, I realised that the successfulness of art isn’t really about perfection. ¬†I know that this sounds sort of obvious, but I think that as classical musicians we often spend far too much time trying to flawlessly reproduce Bach’s exact counterpoint or perfectly execute a two octave run and not enough time focusing on what exactly our music means to us. ¬†Technique is a valuable skill and obviously quite imperative to being a successful musician, but at a certain point it becomes entirely secondary to expression.

So anyway, my quest for the perfect performance was sort of in vain, but I did find something arguably better- I was able to be at peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to be perfect either, but at least I could have a really great time sharing music with everyone who heard.

Thanks so much to everyone who came out to support me!  Here are some selections from my recital in case you would like to hear. The first two pieces are in German, but everything else is in English.

Yoga in the News

Yoga’s been growing in popularity in the western world for awhile now, but it’s been a particularly hot topic lately with practitioners being accused of involvement in sex scandals and Wiccan cults, the New York Times writing about yoga wrecking the body, and now talks of it being an Olympic sport.

I find this incredibly disheartening. ¬†First of all, these news items do not take into account the other five branches of yoga. ¬†Yoga is not simply physical exercise; it’s not just contorting yourself into strange shapes. ¬†While exercise and physical health is a large part of yoga for many people (myself included), it’s really more of a guide for living a meaningful life. ¬†The branch of yoga that most think of when hearing the term is Hatha yoga- asanas, or postures, that are intended to clarify the body in order to calm the mind. ¬†This is definitely important, but there are also Bhatki (yoga of devotion, love and acceptance), Raja (yoga of self control), Jnana (yoga of the mind, intended to unify wisdom and intellect), Karma (yoga of selflessness), and Tantra (using rituals to experience the sacred). ¬†The idea is that a person can use a combination of any of these paths to travel towards enlightenment. ¬†Each branch is important in its own way, and the most optimal way to approach nirvana is to integrate all of them into your life.

I love that more people are integrating yoga into their lives.  I truly believe that everyone can benefit from following any one of its branches, even just a little bit.  Yoga is an ancient set of methods designed to try to help citizens of the world heal physically and mentally to reach a state of peace.  Yoga as an art should not be judged because a few people abuse its ideals for personal gain, and it should not be judged because those who are inexperienced and lack a proper teacher injure themselves.

Yes, Hatha yoga started as a branch of Tantra- but even Tantra isn’t exclusively about sex. ¬†It’s about experiencing the sacred, and while union between man and woman is part of it, it also includes many other aspects such as dedication, purity, and truthfulness.

You can injure yourself in any physical activity if you don’t know what you’re doing. ¬†Would you try pole vaulting without someone carefully explaining it to you and taking you through small steps to get there? ¬†Of course not. ¬†Just like you shouldn’t immediately try balancing on your head without a careful teacher guiding you through the steps preceding it. ¬†Yoga is entirely safe if you know your body’s limits and take it slowly.

This brings me to my last point: Yoga in the Olympics. ¬†As I mentioned before, yoga is not just postures. ¬†It’s a lifestyle. ¬†If you can do the most advanced and complicated postures, that’s great- but that doesn’t necessarily make you a better yogi than someone who can barely manage a down dog. ¬†Yoga is in the mind just as much as it is the body, and bring a competitive aspect to it is borderline sacrilegious. ¬†I absolutely appreciate watching graceful yogis move through asanas, but I would never consider judging them. ¬†There is no way to tell what a person is thinking, assess the flow of his prana, see how focused he is while he is practicing- and that is what yoga is about. ¬†Bringing yoga to the olympics cheapens the yogic experience to merely contortion and physical strength. ¬†I love the idea of accomplished yogis getting the attention and reverence that they deserve, but it shouldn’t be competitive and it shouldn’t be based solely upon asanas. ¬†All yogis and yoginis should be honored for their yogic accomplishments in life so far and their progress on their spiritual journeys.

Shanti, friends. Namaste!

Tashi Delek

When I was in Bir, I learned a common greeting: “Tashi Delek.” ¬†It does not translate to “hello” or “good day-” ¬†it means “good luck.” ¬†I think that wishing “good luck” to someone is a wonderful way of saying hello, but it did make me think about the concept of “luck.”

Someone once told me that I have great luck. ¬†I thought about it, and it seemed true enough. ¬†However, I also have had absolutely terrible luck. ¬†This sort of begs the question- what is luck? ¬†It’s perception. ¬†There are people who have had more incredible things happen to them than I have, but there are also people who have had more terrible things happen to them than I have. ¬†If I were to tally it up, I’d say I come out nearly exactly in the middle- and yet I consider myself one of the luckiest people on the planet.

A major factor of how “lucky” you are is your perception. ¬†If you are optimistic, you will automatically be more lucky simply because you focus on the positive. ¬†If you are pessimistic, you will remember the negative and naturally feel much less lucky. ¬†Luck is sort of a logical impossibility really, because there is no real reason why one person should attract any more positive events than another. ¬†A far better alternative to “luck” is the idea of karma. ¬†If you don’t believe in the power of positive thinking or buy the idea that good actions done bring good results, that’s fine- the science there is pretty shady too. ¬†But if you ask me, anything that gets people to do good or think positively is a good thing.

It’s too easy to blame things on “bad luck.” ¬†It’s a way of escaping responsibility. ¬†Sure, sometimes things really just don’t go your way- that’s life. ¬†But you can always control your perception of it. ¬†Though it’s extremely unlikely that thinking positively will cause you to randomly find a fifty-dollar bill on the street, at the very least it will cause you to feel better about little things that happen to you. ¬†Thinking good thoughts can cause small occurrences like running into an old friend seem exponentially better, and can also make bad things seem much less tragic.

Whether you believe in luck, karma, the flying spaghetti monster, whatever- you can make luck just by altering your perception of the smallest things. ¬†¬†People I regularly converse with always think I have the most amazing life- and that’s true, but only because I perceive it that way. ¬†You can too!

Tashi Delek, friends =)

How to Be Alone

One of my close friends shared this video on Facebook recently, and I thought it was a beautiful and poignant expression of the human condition.  Allowing yourself to be alone is sort of like allowing yourself to be quiet and keep excess noise from your life.

Being alone is definitely something that scares a lot of people, because it really does force you to be yourself- you have no one left to impress, you have no need for conscience, and it is really the only time when you are free to be yourself in your purest form. ¬†I would venture to say that a lot of people don’t really know themselves because they do not spend time alone.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course- human beings are adaptable by nature. ¬†It’s no secret that people act differently depending on their surroundings- I can be irritatingly cheerful if it’s sunny outside and I’m enjoying a nice walk, but catch me off guard in a practice room and I will most likely be nearly unapproachable. ¬†This applies to the people you’re with as well- when I’m around my brother, we’re probably planning mischief or perhaps already in the midst of blowing something up, but when I’m at work I am (believe it or not) entirely capable of being serious.

But who am I when I am alone? ¬†I’ve never had to explain it, really. ¬†And why would I? ¬†As long as who you are when you are alone is somebody that you are comfortable with, that’s what matters. ¬†It’s really helpful in the process of finding out who you are to spend time alone, free from distractions and ego, because when you know who you are everything else really becomes a lot easier. ¬†Decisions, enjoying life, knowing what you like and don’t like- even being far more confident. ¬†When you’re alone enough to stop worrying about others judging you, then eventually you’ll stop worrying about it even when you’re not alone.

I’m not saying to be a hermit by any means. ¬†But I feel that humans in general get so caught up in specific relationships and people and connections that we lose sight of the individual. ¬†We all need to learn to be at peace with ourselves before we can be at peace with others.

Anyway, I hope you all find some time in your hectic lives to get to know yourselves a bit more.  You deserve it!