Tag Archives: mindful choices

A Well-Rounded 90 minute Practice

1 Oct

Spritz Fritz

Let me tell you a true story about egoism, disgrace, and a bottle of perfume. It was the late 1990s, I was fresh out of law school and I had just spent the longest year of my life working as an articling student at a downtown law firm. It was a good year in some ways: the money was outstanding, I learned lots, and my parents were brimming over with pride. The experience was also pivotal because it confirmed a growing suspicion that the legal profession was not for me. Call it negative research, if you will. And so I walked away from the firm’s job offer, applied for unemployment insurance and broke my parents’ hearts.

The thing is, while I had some clarity on what I didn’t want, I still hadn’t figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t unlike that feeling you get when you’ve left Mr. or Mrs. Wrong but you don’t have much faith that Mr. or Mrs. Right will come along. It was a groundless and edgy time. In the meantime, my rent was due and I started to have anxiety-filled dreams about the mountain of student debt I incurred to become a lawyer.

Around this time, a friend’s mother took pity on my situation and offered me a job to tide me over while I plotted the next step on my career path. She was an upper level manager at a swanky department store and the job she offered me was almost too good to be true; it would’ve paid more money for less work than my legal job, but there was a major catch: the department store was located in the same commercial complex as my former law firm and the job would have had me standing in a conspicuous location holding a bottle of perfume while my former colleagues walked by. I could just imagine their pitying looks. “Poor thing,” they would say to each other as soon as they were out of earshot, “she couldn’t cut it as a lawyer. Just look at her now.”

The perceived tumble from lawyer to perfume spritz girl was too much for me to handle. My poor, fragile ego couldn’t deal with the shame, the disgrace, the loss of face, and so I turned down the job. What happened next? Well, pride goeth before the fall, as they say. I don’t mind admitting that I spent another six months or so broke and in a minor funk. I lost touch with my yoga practice, sat in front of the TV for days at a time, and had nothing to show for the time off but a pile of bills and a few extra pounds. In the end, I took another lawyering job out of necessity and spent another five or six years figuring out what I already knew—that I wanted more from my life than financial security and an impressive title.

In hindsight, the perfume spritz incident was a stark lesson in something Master Patanjali calls egoism (asmita). In book II, sutra 3 of the Yoga Sutras, he says egoism is one of the five major obstacles to true happiness and freedom. The others are ignorance of who we really are (avidya), excessive craving (raga), excessive aversion (dvesha), and fear of death (abhinivesah). He implies in this list that our ignorance of who we really are causes us to over-identify with our ego selves and that misidentification causes us to chase our selfish, petty desires, on the one hand, and cower from anything that challenges our ego identities on the other hand, especially the death of the body.

One of my teachers says we spend the first part of our lives acquiring our ego identities and the remainder of our lives defending them at any cost—even when it hurts us and the people we love. Does this mean we should abandon our egos and adopt an egoless existence? Good luck—that’s like asking the mind to stop thinking—it’s next to impossible. As yogis, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate beautiful, graceful egos, in the same way we build strong, flexible bodies and elevated minds. Let’s make our egos our allies, rather than our enemies, and use them to assist our movement towards greater happiness and freedom. And don’t forget that when push comes to shove, you are not your mind, you are not your body and you are so, so much more than your job.

Suggestion Box

28 Jul

I’ve been voting a lot with my feet lately—you know, boycotting retailers, service providers, and even entire countries that are accused of illegal, unethical, or just disappointing practices—and, to be honest, I’m not sure it’s such a good thing. You see, this behavior fits with a long-standing pattern of spinning on my heel and leaving sticky situations (jobs, relationships, hair dressers, you name it) at the least provocation. For years I thought the tendency towards snap decisions and abrupt endings was a “grrl power”-thing, but now I’m not so sure.

My teachers often speak about the importance of “going against the grain” in your spiritual practice. They’re absolute masters of this approach: when I’m feeling sleepy, they crack the whip; when I’m feeling over-eager, they slow me way down; and when I want to leave the room for a bathroom break during handstand practice, they ask me to hold my ground—quite literally.

So what’s a girl with a stubborn streak and sore feet to do? Well, part 1 of the plan is to insert a little space between the “oh crap” and the “I’m outta here.” And, to make this a real yogic practice, I’ll do my best to fill that little space with the most lucid, compassionate and constructive communication I can muster. I imagine it might take the form of emails asking for clarification, voice messages expressing my feelings and well-written notes in suggestion boxes, among other things. Part 2 of the plan is to celebrate the good guys and to let them know just how much I appreciate their efforts.

On the topic of suggestion boxes, I am officially hanging my own virtual suggestion box out there. Please send me your questions, comments and any requests for new yoga podcasts—I’m long overdue with my next class and I’d love to hear your ideas…

An Economical 45 minute Practice

14 Jan

Shopping for our Souls

If there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud of the global financial crisis, for me, it’s that I’ve become a choosier consumer as of late. Sure, the years of yogic living went a long way towards curing me of the belief that I could shop my way to the good life, but the bottom had to fall out of the economy before I eased up on the spiritual materialism.

You know what I’m talking about: spiritual materialism is, at it’s most obvious, a fascination with mala beads, statuettes of Ganesh, eco-friendly yoga mats, and designer yoga togs; it’s the impulse to continually expand an already sizable library of spiritual reading material, CDs, and DVDs; and it’s the burning desire to be at every workshop, yoga conference and retreat in the hopes of gleaning some practical wisdom. I know I’m not alone in this because American yogis are estimated to spend almost $3 billion USD annually on classes and products.

Spiritual materialism probably goes hand-in-hand with an increase in spiritual choice—which is a good thing in and of itself. Yoga practitioners today have an unprecedented range of options available to them: there are more brands of yoga than ever before; many North American cities now have a yoga studio on every corner, while places like New York have two, three or more per block; saints and sages can be seen at stops on their world tours or accessed online; and book stores everywhere have entire shelves devoted to yoga and meditation. It’s all right there at our fingertips, and that’s a real blessing.

Don’t forget, widespread access to yoga is a relatively recent phenomenon. Eastern spirituality and the practices of yoga really came into the North American consciousness less than 40 years ago when India became both pilgrimage site and playground for throngs of hippies seeking mind-expansion and a good time. Ram Dass wrote his landmark bestseller, Be Here Now, in 1971 after meeting his guru, the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba. David Williams, the first non-Indian to be taught the Ashtanga Yoga system of asanas from K. Pattabhi Jois, brought the first vinyasa yoga practice to America in 1975. Still considered a part of the counterculture, yoga only moved fully into the mainstream in the 1990s.

The thing is, too much choice can be a curse, and easy access to abundant options can give rise to a number of pitfalls. These include:

■ apathy (“I’ll start yoga, painting, and gardening when I retire.”)

■ indecision (“Iyengar, Ashtanga, Kripalu… where to begin?”)

■ over-ambition (“I’m just starting my fourth yoga teacher training.”)

■ superficiality (“Been there, done that, got the chakra T-shirt.”)

In this age of almost infinite choice, the art of choosing wisely is a practice unto itself.

In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali recommends we cultivate viveka, or discriminative wisdom, as a way to end the pain and suffering caused by our inability to see what is real and our tendency to look for comfort in the unreal or disposable (II.26). In short, you’ve got it made if you can discern the difference between the real and the unreal. Easy enough, right?

Perhaps not. As Swami Satchidananda explains, the exercise of discriminative wisdom goes beyond simply distinguishing between sugar and salt . However, we can start to cultivate viveka by taking our time, doing our research and looking honestly at our own motivations as we make mindful choices in our lives.

In a way, we’re fortunate to live at a time when it’s all up for grabs. During times like this, the implications of our actions are thrown into high relief. Everything matters. Everything counts. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited about voting with my dollars and shopping—or choosing not to shop—for the sake of my soul.