Posted by: Bruce Black | December 1, 2018

A Gift from the Universe

Tall or short, fat or thin, each of us has a different body.

It can be a source of pleasure for some of us, a source of pain for others.

Some of us might be embarrassed by how we look while others might feel pleased with our appearance.

We might bend in similar ways to touch our toes or twist to the right or left, yet each of us moves in our own unique way.

We have only one body.

It cannot be duplicated. (Well, maybe it can be cloned soon… who knows?)

It is unique, a one-of-a-kind gift from the universe.

And yet, until I started practicing yoga, I took my body for granted.

Even though I was a runner in my youth (and still run), and even though I enjoyed walking and hiking and biking (and still do), and even though I was active and relied on my body to participate in sports and other activities, I wasn’t really aware of my body.

On some level I think I was ashamed of my body. Or maybe embarrassed is a better word to describe how I felt about my body then. I tried to pretend my body didn’t exist because it didn’t fit into the comic book stereotype of a well-muscled male with broad shoulders, bulging biceps, and gleaming pectorals.

I’m just your average, ordinary guy. Thinner than most guys. Taller, too, though not by much.

I noticed my body only when I came down with a cold or the flu and had to rest in bed, or if I injured myself—a skinned knee, a sprained wrist, a tender Achilles tendon—and had to wait until my body healed.

Even then, even though I was impatient to return to action, I still didn’t really see my body. It had always been there, and it felt like it would always be there, and I believed in my youthful innocence that it would always stay the same and never change.

Awareness of my body in all its uniqueness came years later with yoga. And with this awareness, over time, came appreciation.

It started with my feet. Yes, my feet.

One of my teachers in a restorative yoga class invited us one evening to massage our toes, the soles of our feet, our heels.

Until that moment, I’d paid little attention to my feet with their oddly shaped little toes and fungus nails and peeling skin. I believed my feet were ugly. As long as they did their job—getting me from here to there every day—I ignored them.

But that yoga class helped me realize that my feet were unique. They were my feet! I took pleasure in the feel of my fingers kneading the flesh on the bottom of each foot. I enjoyed the feeling of my toes being massaged, my skin being rubbed.

Most importantly, I took delight in the fact that I had feet.

That class inspired me to treasure my body instead of ignoring it. I learned to appreciate the gifts of my body, to be grateful for the way it could move in different poses.

Yoga gave me a new perspective on my body.

How could I have been embarrassed—even ashamed!—of something so wonderful?

How could I have taken my body for granted for so long?

Before taking yoga classes, I spent too much time thinking—imagining a future that I couldn’t control, worrying about a past that I couldn’t change.

I spent way too much time in my head.

Once I started practicing yoga, though, my body saved me. It took me out of my head and helped ground me in the present moment, in the here and now of each breath, each heartbeat.

As the year comes to a close, I hope you’ll make time for yourself and your body, to nurture it and show it some gratitude for all it’s done for you to help you live each day, and for enabling you to reach your fullest potential.

Take a moment just to breathe, to acknowledge the body you’re in, the unique, one-of-a-kind structure that makes you you, and, as you inhale, give thanks for the opportunity to be you in the year ahead.

Practice Journal: How has your body changed since you began practicing yoga? And how has your perspective of it changed? Write: 10 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted by: Bruce Black | November 1, 2018

The Kula–A Community of Hearts

In this morning’s class, my teacher spoke about the kula—our community of hearts practicing yoga together—in a new way.

He expanded this idea of community to include those who we love, as well as those who we have loved, even though they may no longer be alive, but who continue to live on in our memories and who we still hold in our hearts.

The kula, when seen from this perspective, is an ever-expanding community of people who have touched us deeply in our lives and who we may have touched deeply.

On our mats we stand in Mountain Pose, and, alone, we are a single mountain. But if we lift our gaze and look around the room at the other people on the mats besides ours and behind ours, we can see that we don’t stand alone.

We are part of a mountain range, a collection of Mountain Poses, each pose strengthening the person behind or in front or on the side of us to stand stronger in his or her own Mountain Pose.

The circle of one’s kula expands outward in ever-widening concentric circles. It can include those in the class at that moment, as well as those who may have been in the class last night or last week, and those who will come to class tomorrow or the day after.

Even though we cannot see everyone in our kula in the same moment, they are part of the life-force energy that forms our yoga community.

And as my teacher suggested, our kula—our community—can extend beyond the present moment, reaching into the past and the future.

It can include all the people who we have ever loved, and, as we practice on our mats, we can invite them to join us in our practice so that we can feel their presence. Feeling this connection can inspire us to reach deeper, hold a pose longer, find a pool of inner strength to draw on that we didn’t know we possessed.

I might think of my brother, for example, as I stand in Vishtanasana or Warrior I, and find that my love for him strengthens my legs and lets me bend deeper and twist with a little less effort.

It’s as if the love that I have for my brother permeates my entire being while I’m doing the pose and makes the pose feel lighter, less of a burden. It’s still a challenge to hold the pose, and my quads still feel as if they might constrict and collapse before I take another breath, but I am able to find a way to stay in the pose, in the moment, because of the surge of energy that I feel connecting me to my brother.

Even though my brother and I are separated by hundreds of miles—my brother lives with his family in Virginia while I live with mine in Florida—I can feel the memories of our lives together fill me with joy.

And even though my father is gone, I can still conjure his memory and feel his strength and confidence, the same way I can feel my mother’s love, though she died almost forty years ago.

It’s as if we are all part of the same flow of energy–even after we die–and this positive energy can sustain us in our lives and can support us if we let it.

We have only to listen closely enough to those we love, to the community of hearts surrounding us, to those who nourish and support us, who are part of our kula.

Practice Journal: How do we become part of a kula, part of a community of hearts? How do you decide which kula to join? And how does choosing a kula differ from being included as a member of a kula by virtue of birth or religion? What traits do you want to see in a kula? How does a kula influence you in positive or negative ways? As you practice, who are the people who you hold in your heart and inspire you to practice, to live more fully? Write: 15 minutes.

Posted by: Bruce Black | October 1, 2018

The Unpredictable Nature of Life

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

“The world is so unpredictable. Things happen suddenly, unexpectedly. We want to feel we are in control of our own existence. In some ways we are, in some ways we’re not. We are ruled by the forces of chance and coincidence.” – Paul Auster

Unpredictability.

It’s what life throws at you when you’re least expecting it.

A car that swerves without warning into your lane.

A lump that appears one morning in your breast.

A re-assigned gate fifteen minutes before your plane is scheduled to take off.

Each time we step on our mats, our yoga practice helps us deal with the unpredictable nature of life.

A wobble or loss of balance in Tree Pose can become our teacher in learning how to deal with shifts in the way our life is balanced.

A sharp pinching in our knee in Pigeon Pose can alert us to the way we need to shift our position in relation to other people or to ourselves.

What we don’t expect becomes our teacher.

Thanks to our yoga practice we can learn to view the unpredictable nature of life with calmness and assurance rather than with fear and panic.

Yoga can help us take a step back.

It can help us notice our response and evaluate it.

It can help us ask the questions we need to ask:

Is our response appropriate?

What causes us to respond the way we do?

Why do we respond in a particular way?

Yoga can inspire us to ask these questions and more so that asking “What am I doing?” can lead us to ask “What do I want to do?”

And questions like these can lead to yet others, such as “How can I do what I want?”

Each yoga pose can help us cultivate discipline and patience.

Most of all, our yoga practice can help us learn to accept life’s unpredictable nature.

It can help us accept, as well, our own mistakes, imperfections, and flaws (which are part of our own unpredictability), and can give us the tools to view our responses with clear eyes and without judgment.

Even though life’s unpredictability can be challenging, our yoga practice can teach us how to respond in thoughtful, meaningful ways to the unpredictable surprises that life might hold in store for us in the days ahead.

Practice Journal: How has yoga helped you deal with life’s unpredictable nature? Write: 15 min.

 

Posted by: Bruce Black | September 1, 2018

Is this yoga?

So I’m standing in a long line at the checkout counter of our local grocery store. There are piles of groceries in the carts ahead of mine, and more on the conveyor belt in front of the register. Instead of checking my phone or browsing through a magazine, I start to play with balancing on one foot. It’s not a full-fledged tree pose, but I’m lifting my right foot off the ground a few inches so that I can find the balance on my left foot. I’m not standing barefoot on my mat. I’m wearing sneakers. Yet I find equanimity in this moment of balance while waiting for the people in front of me to finish checking out.

Or else I’m sitting in the eye-doctor’s office for my annual eye exam, and the nurse has just put drops in my eyes so that the pupils will dilate. Now I’m waiting in a chair outside the examination room for the world to blur and the doctor to return to examine my eyes. And while I’m waiting, I shut my eyes and listen to my breath. Inhaling and exhaling. In and out. My feet flat on the floor. My palms resting on my thighs. My thoughts drifting. And, gently, I bring them back to my breath. In, out. Inhale, exhale.

Or this: I am preparing lunch at the kitchen counter and feel the back of my calves tighten. In an effort to relieve the tightness, I try a chair pose in the middle of the room. I lower my buttocks and reach my arms toward the ceiling and stretch the backs of my calves in a way that feels oh-so-good after sitting too long at my desk all morning. Sometimes, if my hamstrings feel very tight, I’ll do a series of forward bends in addition to the chair pose, hoping to reduce the tension and relieve the stress in the back of my legs.

Or there are times when I’m vacuuming and reaching forward and pulling back on the vacuum, pushing and pulling, feeling my shoulders and arms moving, my hips turning, my quads tightening and then relaxing. Or I can be dusting—a rare occurrence, but still—or simply walking, and I am suddenly conscious of the way my body is able to move, and where I feel soreness or stiffness, and how, if I shift my stance just slightly or adjust my posture a little bit, I can feel more relaxed and at ease. And I wonder: is this yoga?

Throughout the day I have moments like this when I ask myself this question. Is this yoga? Is this? (Typing at my computer?) Is this? (Turning my head one way, then another while driving, to relieve my neck muscles?) Is this? (Bending over to tie my sneakers?) What does it mean to practice yoga? Do we practice only on our mats when we unfold in poses that have strange-sounding names that we can’t pronounce? Or do we practice throughout the day, whether we are wearing yoga clothes on our mats or are dressed in a suit in the grocery store trying to balance on one foot?

Perhaps it’s our intention that determines our practice. Or maybe it’s thinking about our body, and how it moves, and how to relieve the stress we might be feeling in the moment, that makes it more than simply movement and thought? Or maybe it’s when we move in a certain way and realize that we’ve replicated the same movement that we made on our mat in yoga class only a day or two ago? Or maybe it doesn’t matter what it’s called as long as we feel better moving, sensing our body unfolding, and feeling our pulse bringing us into this moment, fully alive and aware of life pulsating all around us.

Practice Journal: What does it mean to practice yoga? Does it mean only those times when you go to class or unroll your mat in your living room? Or can it include those times when you find yourself noticing things about the way you move or breathe or look at the world, when you become conscious of what you’re seeing? What’s the purpose of yoga anyway? Is it to become more flexible? Or is it to increase your awareness of what’s happing in each moment? Or perhaps it’s both?  Write: 15 minutes.

Posted by: Bruce Black | August 1, 2018

Gratitude for Getting Older

Each day as I get older I find myself with a deepening sense of gratitude for the gifts that getting older brings.

The gifts of such things as insight and patience, understanding and forgiveness, compassion and love.

Even though my body no longer has the same strength or energy that it had when I was younger and could run for miles, I’m grateful that I can walk two or three miles each morning, pedal a bike fifteen or twenty miles every other day, and run 5k races (for fun!).

I look at my legs, which are as thin as sticks, and can see the threads of varicose veins on the inside of the quads and at the top of the calf muscles, especially my left calf, just behind the kneecap.

These are signs of aging, signs that all of us must face at some time in our lives.

But how lucky I feel that my legs can support me in poses like Downward Dog, Triangle, Half-Moon, and Tree.

So what if my legs aren’t “young” anymore?

As I sit on my mat and stretch my legs, I think about how my body has changed over the years, especially my legs, and I take a moment so that I can truly see my legs and feel grateful for muscles and tendons, ligaments and veins, all working together so that I can use my legs.

My left calf may look like someone threaded strands of blue spaghetti beneath the skin, the lines dark blue like rivers meandering toward the sea, yet I feel such gratitude for my body, for the way yoga has helped me sustain it over the years.

I’m grateful for the relief that yoga provides from the aches that come from sitting too long at my desk. And I’m grateful for the way the pain in my legs melts away in Downward Dog and Plank, and how the aches vanish when I stretch the back of my legs in a Forward Bend and remain inverted for a few breaths

Legs-up-the-wall offers the quickest relief. With my legs raised above my head, the heel of each foot resting on the wall, I can feel my pulse beating strongly in the veins on the side of each ankle.

And when I open my eyes and look up at my legs, I think about how far my legs have carried me, and the miracle of how my body has healed from minor accidents and major surgery.

Young or old, each of us can savor each movement that we make on our mats, even the simple act of turning our necks in a gentle twist or lifting our arms over our heads.

Our bodies and our legs are getting older, but, thanks to our practice, they still have the strength to take us where we need to go. 

Practice Journal: Our bodies change every moment, even though the changes may not be dramatic and we may be unaware of them, or we may simply want to deny that the changes are occurring. Yet these changes in our bodies can be the source of gratitude if we take a moment to truly look at our bodies in a loving and appreciative way. Take a moment to compare the way your body looks and functions now to the way you remember it looking in your youth. Describe and contrast the differences. How does yoga help you express your gratitude for your body in its present form? Write: 15 minutes.

 

Posted by: Bruce Black | July 1, 2018

Choosing How To Act

“Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future.” — Deepak Chopra

It’s a challenge to leave old habits behind, to begin a new way of doing things and set out on a new path.

Our yoga practice reminds us that we have the power of choice; we don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them. We can try something new.

What is it my teacher, Jaye, is always saying? “If you keep doing things the way you always do them, you’ll keep getting what you always get.”

Yoga encourages in us a desire for exploration, a yearning to know the truth of things, such as how this pose or that pose works, and, if it works, how to refine it. And it encourages us to let go of an idea if it doesn’t work and to try something else instead.

So, for instance, the other day my teacher encouraged us to use partners to kick up into the Feathered Peacock Pose (pincha mayurasana) in the middle of the room since there wasn’t enough wall space.

It was a “new” way of doing the pose, and I was eager to explore kicking up away from the wall and away from the wall’s security. It had the potential to show us a new aspect of the pose and, perhaps, of ourselves.

Only the pose went awry from the start when my partner pulled my hips forward as I kicked up, and the muscles in my back and abdomen (that I had engaged) suddenly disengaged. And just as suddenly I realized I was being given a choice.

Either I could try to pretend nothing was amiss (which is what I’ve often done over the years) and muscle my way through the pose, possibly causing serious damage to my neck, or I could let go of my desire to do the pose and try to come down before injuring myself.

In some ways gravity made the decision for me. Almost before I could stop myself, I felt myself collapsing, my arms lacking the strength to hold me up.

Luckily, I was able to twist on the way down in an effort to protect my neck and spine, and I fell onto the mat without harming my neck. But long after leaving class I couldn’t help worrying that I might have seriously hurt myself. (Thankfully, I didn’t suffer any follow up injury.)

This incident serves as an example of how yoga encourages us to reach beyond where we might be physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

But it also reminds us that we need to reach with care so we avoid injury and can come into a place where we can safely step into the fullness of our potential, to pioneer a new future rather than find ourselves prisoners of the past.

As you no doubt are aware from your own practice, we may find traps waiting for us on our journey, and we may pull back, afraid that we have pushed too far.

But in the process of exploring boundaries, we can learn to become aware of the lines that need to be crossed in order to move into a new zone.

And along the way we can decide to keep going or to step off the path, whether it’s an old path or a new one, and rest if we’re not ready to go farther on a particular day.

Practice Journal: How does your yoga practice help you let go of the old and see new possibilities in each pose? #Write: 15 minutes

Posted by: Bruce Black | June 1, 2018

A Place of Serenity

“Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.” — Jodi Picoult

What happens on my mat to dispel my anxiety, to bring me into a place of serenity, calmness, and peace?

The moment I step onto my mat, I feel as if I’m stepping into a calm sea, and I can feel the gentleness of the waves soothing me from my feet up through my ankles and calves, knees and thighs, all the way up to my hips, chest, shoulders, and neck.

It’s as if I’ve immersed myself in a sea radiating warmth and peace.

It happens almost instantaneously, how I lower my guard and drop my defenses, how I feel safe on my mat. It’s a place where I can step away from the anxieties and stresses of my day. For a few minutes–a half-hour or an hour of practice at home, or a 90-minute class at the yoga studio–I can leave behind my worries.

It’s as if I can physically take them off my back the way I can remove a backpack or put down a suitcase. I can set them on the side of the mat or in another part of the room so they don’t bother me, and for the time I’m on my mat they are forgotten. I can live each moment without anxiety or stress.

I step on my mat, or I lie down on it and close my eyes, and I leave behind stress by deepening my breath and going inward into a different space–a space of peacefulness, calmness, and serenity that is always part of being human but which I can easily forget in the tumult of daily life.

It’s these moments of reconnection–of re-remembering–that give yoga its power; it’s for these moments of peace that I keep returning to the mat.

I can open my fists and relax. I can deepen my breath and stop running. I can sit and pause and listen to my heart. I can take a deep breath, then another, without worrying about the phone that is ringing or my next e-mail or where I have to be in a half-hour.

I can float in the moment and observe waves of breath rising and falling, and I can listen to the sounds of life as it pulses around and within me: the call of birds, the voices of children or neighbors, the sound of the wind, the music of falling rain.

And I can know in these moments spent on my mat that I am alive, calm, serene, and at peace.

Practice Journal: The world can be a crazy and dangerous place, and our anxiety can play a large part in our lives and in how we respond to whatever life brings us. What happens on your mat that helps reduce your sense of anxiety and brings you into a different place–a place of safety, calm, and peace? #Write: 15 min.

 

Posted by: Bruce Black | May 1, 2018

Remembering What’s Important

“The heart of most spiritual practices is simply this: Remember who you are. Remember what you love. Remember what is sacred. Remember what is true. Remember that you will die and that this day is a gift. Remember how you wish to live.” – Wayne Muller

How does yoga help us remember what’s important?

It happens unconsciously at first, I think. There’s no flashing sign: “This is important! Remember!” No, it’s a quiet remembering, a kind of awakening, the way the first light of day illuminates the world, slowly changing darkness to light, oh so slowly we almost fail to notice darkness fading and light returning, until suddenly darkness is gone and light lets us see the world in front of our eyes again.

It’s like that when we step on our mat and feel our body again. By “feel,” I mean remembering our body, becoming conscious of our skin, our feet, our balance. On our mat we pay attention to our body rather than simply take it for granted. The rest of the day, as we go through the motions of living, we might lose the connection with (and memory of) our body. But when we return to the mat, we become aware of our body again, the very thing that lets us live.

Slowly, we remember sensations—the touch of our skin against the mat, the feeling of air on arms and neck, the movement of our eyelids as we blink, the feeling of our chest inhaling and exhaling—and we remember with each breath what’s important: this breath, and the next, and the next.

As each of us moves deeper into our practice, we can remember more: the people who might have helped us step onto our mat; the people in our lives who might have taught us to love, to do whatever it is we love doing; the people who instilled in us curiosity and passion and devotion, as well as patience, and a willingness to forgive. We can remember all the things (and people) in our life that are important to us. As we move from one pose to another, yoga helps us remember.

But how does this happen? How does memory return? And why do poses or subtle movements like blinking or lifting our lips into a smile bring us in touch with what’s important in our life? How does yoga help us remember to live our life with courage, determination, perseverance, joy, happiness, and love?

Out of muscle memory, I suspect, comes heart memory. When we move in the way yoga encourages us to move, with self -awareness, with mindfulness, we reconnect to a deeper sense of our selves that is ever-present, and connecting to this deeper sense of self helps us remember what’s important in other areas and aspects of our lives.

As we become more mindful of our breath in each pose, and as we become more aware of our gratitude for each breath, we are led to new feelings of gratitude for the people we love and who love us, and for what we love to do, and for the simple fact of being alive.

Our practice helps us remember not only the blessings in our life but inspires us to express gratitude for each blessing–for each mindful breath, for each mindful movement, and even for the blessings of memory and remembering.

Practice Journal: Sometimes we can lose sight of what’s important in life. But each time we step onto our mat, yoga can help us remember. What does yoga help you remember? Write: 10 min.

 

Posted by: Bruce Black | April 1, 2018

Here and Now

“When you are here and now, sitting totally, not jumping ahead, the miracle has happened. To be in the moment is the miracle.” — Osho

This moment. Now.

It’s what I seek in every pose, hoping to embrace it fully.

Only the moment that I have it in my grasp, it slips away to another moment and another, and I can end up spending a lifetime chasing these moments, trying to hold onto each moment before life ends, only to find I can never grasp the moment and hold onto it, which is what I tried to do before I started practicing yoga.

Not only did I want to hold onto each moment a moment longer, I wanted to keep these moments from moving on. I wanted to stop time, to keep my mother from dying, to hold onto the moments of happiness with her before she was stricken with cancer; to savor the moments of joy with my family that were part of my childhood and youth; to stretch a joyous moment into a lifetime of joy.

But, of course, I couldn’t stop time, and at the loss of each of these moments I’d feel disappointment and sadness and regret that I hadn’t been able to hold onto them, to take from each moment as much joy and happiness as possible, as if each moment were a delicious fruit–a succulent orange or tangerine–and I hadn’t sucked every sweet drop from its skin.

And then came yoga.

And I saw each pose as symbolic of the moments that I couldn’t hold onto, of time flowing, of the stream of moments that make up a life. And I began to see how futile it is to try to hold onto a moment.

Yoga taught me to immerse myself in the flow of moments, the stream of life running through me and around me. Each pose taught me that each moment would arrive–I could see it coming–and a moment later it would leave–and I could see it departing. And in the middle was this moment. Here and now.

I understood that if I focused on my breath, I could see this flow of moments more clearly. Breathing–inhaling, exhaling, and the pause between the two, the pinnacle of the breath–reveals each moment in its fullness before it dissolves into an exhale and becomes the next inhale…

Yoga taught me to accept the passage of time, to stop trying to cling to the moments of joy that I never wanted to end, to understand that in grasping for the moment, longing for it to last forever, I’d lose the moment.

It’s only when we are in the flow of poses, in rhythm with our breath, that we can fully appreciate each moment as it comes and goes–and each person in our lives, our own life, too.

Practice Journal: Do you find yourself clinging to what you love, reluctant to let go? How has your yoga practice helped you notice your reluctance to let go, to recognize, perhaps, your fear of releasing what you love? How has yoga helped you learn to live in the here and now, to savor the present moment without fear of losing it or worrying about what might come next? Write: 10 min.

 

Posted by: Bruce Black | March 19, 2018

Day 15 of the 15/15 Writing Yoga Challenge

“The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.” — Julia Cameron

How often have I stepped on my mat thinking I’m in control of what happens, only to find that I’m not in control at all, that there’s an invisible force–a divine force, perhaps?–that guides my poses, just as it guides my life.

Over time I’ve come to realize that only by surrendering to this force, which is greater than myself, can I truly become part of a creative process, whether it’s the ability to lift my hips in Bridge Pose or write for fifteen minutes in my journal.

How has yoga encouraged you to notice the difference between control and surrender? What is it that we surrender to? And how does surrendering change your practice and your life? Write: 15 minutes

__________

This brings to an end our 15 day challenge.

I’m grateful to each of you for embarking on this journey with me and opening your journals and hearts to the process of writing for 15 minutes each day.

Whether or not you happened to share part of your writing here, I hope that you gained some deeper knowledge of your yoga practice and of yourself, and that you’ll continue to grow in knowledge and wisdom in the days and weeks ahead. 

If you enjoyed these daily prompts and want to continue, you might like to take a look at my book, Writing Yoga: A Guide to Keeping a Practice Journal. Here’s a link if you’d like to take a peek:  https://www.shambhala.com/writing-yoga-3700.html

And if you’re interested in arranging a Writing Yoga Workshop at your yoga studio, just send me an e-mail and we can discuss a visit.

Thanks again for being here over the past two weeks. 

Namaste. 

 

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