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.

I’m back!

Hello! ¬†First of all, my apologies for just taking off. ¬†I do that sometimes, particularly when faced with major life changes like finishing university. Perhaps my last post about travelling foreshadowed that it was about to happen again, but it was a fairly spur of the moment decision. ¬†Anyway, I am back now. ¬†In case anyone is interested, I thought I’d include a brief update on my life before I resume my usual blogging habits.

Graduation photo

Yes, I graduated barefoot.

First, I finished up my last coursework and graduated from Syracuse!  I now have a music degree with focus on voice and piano, a minor in marketing, and a minor in IT.  Managed to scrape by Magna cum Laude as well!

Right after graduating I moved out of my place, donated about half of my belongings to charity, and send the rest back to New Jersey with my family.  Two days later, I got on a plane to England.  I stayed with some family before taking off for Prague, Croatia, Switzerland, and making another stop in England, and then I made it back stateside.

Twelve hours after landing in Newark, I began my full time position at Marketsmith.  I was there last summer and they offered me a full-time position- having a job waiting for me was a major factor in my decision to finish school a year early.  I manage social media for the company as well as the charity we sponsor, help out with creative and web design, and write many a blog post.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, to say the least. ¬†I will write more about my travels once things have settled down-this is the first time I’ve been home for longer than two weeks since last summer, so it’s a bit of an adjustment! ¬†I still haven’t quite unpacked…might just give the rest of my things away and call it a day. ¬†We have too many objects anyway.

Other than that, I’m just trying to keep up my music (anyone need a cocktail pianist or jazz singer?), getting started on some reading for yoga teacher training, enjoying time with my family, and trying to spend some time in the sunshine. ¬†Decompressing after a long few years, deciding where I want my life to go.

Namaste, friends!

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?

Being Barefoot

In addition to my bizarre scheduling¬†and sleeping habits, many people question my footwear preferences. ¬†Today’s topic: deciding to give up shoes!

I had never liked wearing shoes, but I didn’t really have the freedom to choose not to while I was in high school. ¬†During the summer and then at university, I was free to be basically as eccentric and strange as I wanted. ¬†I started being barefoot at home, in class, walking around campus, performing, frolicking, pretty much always. ¬†I would estimate that I spend about 98% of my time barefoot, since some restaurants give me a hard time and there’s one specific bus driver who seems to be out to get me and my poor bare feet.

Why be barefoot? ¬†I’m a dirty hippie. ¬†No but really- it’s more natural, it’s healthy, it’s more comfortable, it’s more relaxing, and most importantly it just makes me happy (fun fact: dirt has lecithin, a mood lifting chemical also found in chocolate- and it can be absorbed through your feet!). ¬†I’m not the only one, either- there are lots of us out there! ¬†One group is the Primal Foot Alliance– they are barefoot advocates who work hard to prove to the public that there’s nothing gross and unhealthy about feet. ¬†Their website has resources explaining why being barefoot is awesome and there’s a great community there and on their Facebook page. ¬†Barefooters.org¬†is another great place to meet people close to your home who also choose not to wear shoes.

There are many stereotypes about people who are barefoot- that we’re dirty, poor, sick, unhygienic, socially handicapped, unprofessional- the list goes on. ¬†I get all kinds of reactions to my bare feet- in the morning sometimes people think I’m doing the “walk of shame,” ¬†sometimes people look at me like I walked out of a sewer, some find it amusing, and others are simply curious and strike up a conversation-usually they’re totally on board and on a few occasions, I got people to join me!

First of all, being barefoot is totally safe. ¬†After being barefoot for awhile, you can step on glass without getting hurt- this took me a month or so of being entirely barefoot (some people wean themselves off of shoes gradually, but I never ¬†do anything halfway so I just jumped right in). ¬†Really, just look where you’re going.

Being barefoot is also far healthier and cleaner than shoes- foot fungus and other unsavory ailments come from sweat trapped around your feet by socks and shoes; they’re not inherently found on feet. ¬†Wiggling your toes in the fresh air will eliminate smelliness and unwelcome bacteria! ¬†Sure, occasionally you step on something gross- but it’s far easier to flick gum off of a bare foot than scrub if out of a pair of shoes. ¬†Not to mention, all of the extra germs you expose your feet to boost your immune system- I haven’t been sick in years.

Humans are just animals- our bodies are engineered to work optimally without extra appendages like clothing and accessories (Coming up next week: why we should stop wearing pants…Just kidding). ¬†Your feet will be stronger and more effective without footwear- why do you think people are inventing Barefoot shoes?

After you get used to it, being barefoot is far more comfortable than being shod. ¬†Ladies in particular (or gentlemen, no judgment here) will appreciate the lack of pinching around the toes from cute flats and the searing knee pain brought on by dancing around in tall spikes. ¬†Walking on gravel and rough surfaces hurts at first but once you get used to it, wandering barefoot through cool grass and on smooth warm dirt makes it worth it. ¬†Being barefoot changes your entire mentality- I feel far more relaxed and connected with the world. ¬†It’s like I can feel the earth spinning, vibrating, and breathing beneath my feet.

Would you ever go barefoot?  Maybe not in a professional environment, but at the park or around your own garden perhaps?  Maybe just for a little while?

Atmosphere and Ayurveda

It’s strange how the weather has such a powerful effect on our moods. ¬†As much as I truly believe that we are in control of how we feel, sometimes it is a battle with external elements like deadlines, relationships, how comfortable we feel where we are, who we are with, and just the general atmosphere. ¬†It’s hard to stay positive when you’re swamped at work, surrounded by negative people, or ¬†in a place with toxic energy (library during finals week, anyone?), but I find it even more difficult to fight the weather.

Of course there are diagnoses like Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I think it goes deeper than that. ¬†I was reading this article¬†about how different people are affected by the weather, and it classifies people into four types-¬†those people who are unaffected by the weather or seasons, people who love summer, people who hate summer and people who love rain. ¬†I think this is a bit of an oversimplification, but I do agree that different types of people react differently to different types of weather. ¬†Obviously it has something to do with personality, but I also think it has to do with prakruti and vikruti. ¬†Prakruti and vikruti are Ayurvedic terms for your body’s constitution (long term and short term, respectively), or doshas (The Ayurvedic Institute has some great resources if you’re interested in learning more).

I am vata-pitta, slightly more pitta in the summer and more vata in the winter. ¬†I find that the wind (air, an element of vata) energizes me in the winter but makes me a bit dozy in the summer. ¬†Warmth and fire (pitta) give me energy in the summer but make me want curl up in bed when it’s cold outside.

It can be difficult to pick yourself up when it’s clammy and cold, but if you know your body type and personality, it can be done. ¬†Ayurvedic teachings tell us which flavors will complement our prakruti and vikruti (basically which foods suit your body type), and I think that on days when you may not be feeling your best it’s particularly important to eat well. ¬†When I’m tending towards pitta in the summer, I do sometimes crave ice cream despite being nearly entirely vegan. ¬†When it’s cold and I’m feeling more vata I go for cooked vegetables and beans. ¬†This is also true on a day-to-day basis- knowing your body type and which foods complement it can make a huge difference in your mood- sort of like eating comfort food, but in a healthy way.

Of course, simply realising that the weather is causing you to feel a certain way is often a good first step. ¬†It can be very easy to focus on negative thoughts while you’re sitting watching raindrops trickle down the window, or to forget about all of your problems while you’re laying in the sunshine. ¬†If you acknowledge that you’re in a certain mindset largely because of the weather, it becomes a lot easier to change your perspective.

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!

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!