Calm yourself

“Do not hurry, otherwise you might become sick or get a terrible headache. Calm yourself, then ceaselessly meditate. Most of all, be careful not to force yourself. Rather, relax, and let your right questioning be within.”

-Kyong Ho, translation by the Kwan Um School of Zen from Zen Sourcebook

Gustave Courbet, Calm Sea, 1866, National Gallery of Art

 

 

 

Genuine teaching

Rosen’s interview with another great yoga scholar, Georg Feuerstein, is as relevant today as when it took place in 1997.

Feuerstein’s responses apply to most any teaching situation.

THE ROLE OF A YOGA TEACHER

Richard Rosen: How do you understand the role of the yoga teacher in the yoga community and in the
larger society? What are the responsibilities that the teacher has to the people around him or her?

Georg Feuerstein: It’s a huge responsibility, huge. I think if people fully understood that they would be far
more careful in choosing to become a teacher. A teacher is not a guru. A guru has a responsibility
that’s incomprehensible, because he’s not just responsible for this one lifetime. They take on
things that affect their own being. Teachers do that to a small degree but they take on an
obligation for communicating wisdom that’s very old. It should be preserved in it’s full integrity.
This means they have to be continuous learners.

The teacher who has stopped learning is no longer a teacher. It’s impossible to teach without continuing to learn….

There has to be enthusiasm for communicating the genuine teachings, and delight in their growth. If that’s not there, you’re not a teacher either. The whole process has to be one of which we are all moving toward a greater understanding, a greater expression of our inner capacities, and greater delight. If that’s not there, you’re in the wrong business. There has to be a commitment to the tradition, which means you have to keep yourself informed of the tradition. Not just learning in the sense that I now know how to do this asana better, but also a learning in terms of really studying.

Always emphasize study.

I’m a scholar, but study is very much part of the yogic tradition. It’s been in classical yoga since ancient times. How were the teachings communicated? Through study of the original texts. There’s no way to explain anything unless
you study. This has to be continued.

Teachers have to talk with one another. Forget about competition.

What’s the point? If teachers work together not only would their individual practices thrive, but they would also promote the entire movement. The old saying, “Strength in unity.” Right now, it’s a kaleidoscope that doesn’t
hang together. It’s sad to see. In India, even though each ashram has its approach, there was a general sense of we are engaged in something very powerful and profound, and there was a kind of respect. On the whole you could say, “There is this ashram up the road and there’s a great teacher there, if you want to go there, go there. If you don’t belong here, that’s fine, go up the road.” But here is much more, “How many more students can I get?” This is an infringement of
ahimsa. It’s a harmful thing to be that competitive.

As a teacher you also have the responsibility of embodying the things you talk about.
RR: You have responsibility to the other members of the yoga community, not only students, but
other teachers.

GF: 
Everyone. The whole movement. I think right now because the teachers only see their own little acre, they don’t look to the neighbor, they also don’t see the movement as a whole; therefore very few teachers that I know of are concerned about what is happening with the yoga tradition in the Western world, where is it going? The answer is, it’s not going to go anywhere without direction. Where is the direction coming from? Right now it’s unfolding wildly, and
that’s maybe appropriate at this stage, but I think enough people are beginning to ask, where could it go? People are asking, how should we train teachers? There’s too many teachers out there who don’t know what they’re doing, both in the exercises, which is in itself criminal, because you can do damage to people, but also they don’t know the teaching. When I say, have you heard of Patanjali’s sutra, they say, what’s that? Then it means they’re not yoga teachers. So
there has to be preparation for the job, not just a weekend, or a video.

In professional terms, you have to have qualifications, or you’re menace.

Looking at the larger picture, there also has to be a deep love for people, and a deep love for this tradition.

And then things can galvanize in a different way.

If more yoga teachers lived the ideals of the tradition which they avow, they would come together
more, they would share more, and they would create the kind of culture that would be supportive
to the tradition….

Living in this realm, which is a very flawed realm, those who have woken up to a degree have no
option, we have to struggle out, we have to free ourselves from the flawed nature of this world,
and we do it by purifying ourselves, getting clarity in our own being, finding more light, finding
more joy, and then communicating that as best we can to others.

That should be the real task of the yoga teacher, not what you pass on as postures and breath control and all that.

That’s the real communication, because that’s what people want–when you nail them down, sooner or later they
will admit that–they’re suffering, yes, they don’t know why they’re suffering, but we want to be
free of this suffering, and that’s why we’re here. Even these silly postures we do, we’re really looking for something deeper, and I think to give them a chance to come to that insight, is the challenge of the teacher.
Like this vision of everybody’s our mother . . . because we’ve lived so many lives together,
we’ve all been mothers to each other. So if it’s your mother, how can you let your mother suffer,
right?

Your heart goes out, and you say, “Ah, I give these postures, but I wish I could tell you that there is more!”

[laughs]

And wait patiently.

Stair Step Breath

Students ask me for breath practices that will help them fall back asleep after awakening in the night.

One I teach is the back-to-sleep breath. Also, the hand-breath.

Another helpful breath practice is “stair step.”

  • Practice now so you’ll be ready should you pop awake at 3 am….
  • Lie on your back, on the carpet, a sofa, a yoga mat, a patio or deck, lush green grass or in bed.
  • Close the eyes or let them stay open. Relax the jaw.
  • Notice the motion of the breath, its rhythm.
  • Inhale slowly and fully without straining.
  • Imaginatively divide the trunk of the body into three parts, top, middle and bottom.
  • Exhale through those three sections with a tiny pause between each.
  • Think of the process as stepping down the stairs: 1 – 2 – 3.
  • So, breathe in. Exhale top down: top third and pause, middle third and pause, lowest third and pause.
  • Relax the abdomen and inhale. Repeat the process four times then breathe naturally.

Note: This breath can also be practiced standing or sitting, even while waiting in the driver’s seat for a stop light to turn green.

Be well, reader!

War, Love, Yoga, Art, Tribes & Kindness

Sebastian Junger starts his brief new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, with accounts of the kindness of strangers. Tribe is thought-provoking. Reading it reminded me of a lot of experiences and other books.

I recalled the TRIBES team-building curriculum schools adopted in the 1990s. In addition to reading and writing, we spent time in conversation, building interpersonal skills among the children through structured practice.

While teaching Language Arts at Martinez Junior High School, I worked in a team, a sort of tribe, with my math, science, and social studies colleagues. We met weekly to plan lessons that reinforced concepts across our subject areas and to troubleshoot with students who’d hit rocky patches academically or socially. The counselor assigned to us interfaced with parents. Students thrived. The environment was one of pulling together to understand what and how the world works and pooling resources.

Reading Junger’s passages on his own experience in war zones and the effects of war on service members, I recalled books I’ve studied and taught that provided opportunities to discuss the individual in society: the incomparable Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko; All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane; and, Black Boy by Richard Wright.

These books and others underscore how art makes sense of life.

“Friendship Quilt” by Flora G. Guerra, American, 1935/1942, National Gallery of Art

One year, not long ago, I was hired to teach high school English late in September after the assigned teacher quit for an administrative position in the district office.

The room was in chaos–coffee dregs moldering in mugs, personal photos tacked to the bulletin board by the teacher’s desk, random thumb drives, barrettes, dried up markers, piles of ungraded papers scattered on shelves, in drawers, on windowsills.

The students were in the middle of Lorraine Hansberry’s wonderful “A Raisin in the Sun.” I’d taught the play before at another site and found it to be an effective catalyst for discussion about aspirations, race, class, family, neighborhoods, gender, education, honesty, forgiveness and just plain change.

Seeking to find out what the students had been discussing, I asked, “What’s the play about? What’s a theme?”

“Money,” they said and laughed. “It’s about how you can’t be happy unless you have money.”

Does a person’s jaw really fall then they’re surprised?

Mine must have because they laughed some more. “That’s what the teacher said.”

“Well,” I replied. “There might be another way of looking at this.”

That night I puzzled out a graphic organizer (we love those in teaching!) and had it ready on the whiteboard when the students filed in the next day. I wish I’d kept a copy. It was designed like one of those graphics that are the rage in glossy magazines these days to get you from point A to point B along a board game-like route, making decisions along the way.

The students talked their ways through the graphic. Where did they end up? Some identified a possible theme in the play as “parents and kids,” others as “dreams,” others as “loyalty,” and, ultimately, most saw a theme could be “love.”

Thinking about this gets me thinking about yoga. Everything does these days–gets me thinking about yoga.

“Friendship Quilt” by Florence Treason, American, c. 1937, National Gallery of Art

Yoga is the practice of love.

This doesn’t mean you have to pop up in downward facing dog right now and smile. It means recognizing that harmony is wholeness and wholeness is union, which is roughly what “yoga” means. The state of the union. The state of union. Union requires, if not love, sympathy and compassion.

Literature depicts and captures the universal human condition. Oneness.

We’re all in this together.

Junger points out that nomadic people only own what they can carry. For nomads, acquiring external markers of wealth proves impractical, whereas inequalities of wealth become quickly evident in settled societies.

He says American society is at war with itself, hurling contempt at fellow citizens.

Citing this vitriolic rhetoric that clutters American society today, Junger asks in Tribe,

So how do you unify a secure, wealthy country that has sunk into a zero-sum political game with itself? How do you make [war] veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place? I put that question to Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Yehuda has seen, up close, the effect of such antisocial divisions on traumatized vets. “If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different–you underscore your shared humanity,” she told me. “I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another and not on the things that unite us?”

Reading Junger’s book feels like engaging in a stimulating dinner conversation with smart friends, touching upon a range of topics in an attempt to understand people and how they organize into tribes and civilizations. I’m curious about this topic, too, so I’m glad I borrowed the book from the library.

I’ve written at length on this blog and in my stories, poems and essays about my lifelong investigation into the meaning of belonging. I’m working now on a little book, Home Practice, about how yoga study and teaching brought me figuratively home to myself and literally home to the place where I was reared.

Lastly, I think of an old poem I wrote around 1996 that was collected in the little chapbook artist friends made for me, We Have Trees. Like almost everyone’s early poems, it grew directly out of life experience and is as true as can be.

Hold Still

1.
Kindness is as kindness does,
a woman in the laundromat
tells me.

2.
In my life I’ve had kindnesses.
Twice my windshield wipers broke,
once in a North Carolina blizzard
and once during a Kentucky thunderstorm.
Both times strangers fixed them for me
for free
so I could see to carry on.

3.
A lady said Better get in, reaching
for the passenger door. It was raining
that night, too, and I was walking shocked,
barefoot, soaked and lost. She took me
to a dry place with orange couches.
I remember that.
She likely saved my life.

4.
Has kindness been done to you?
I can’t believe in angels quite
but I see butterflies.
Kindnesses alight like butterflies
midday on bare arms
delicately sampling the invisible salt of our skins.

When the mind is still

“When the mind is still

the floor where I sit

is endless space.”

form the poem “Green Mountains” by Muso Soseki translated by W.S. Merwin and Muso Soseki

Edouard Vuillard, Woman Sitting by the Fireside, 1894, National Gallery of Art

from Zen Sourcebook, edited by Stephen Addiss, with Stanley Lombardo and Judith Roitman

 

Five Freedoms & Loving Kindness

In The Humane Economy, Wayne Pacelle, lists the “Five Freedoms” of animal welfare:

  1. freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. freedom from discomfort
  3. freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. freedom to express natural behavior
  5. freedom from fear and distress

These remind me of the loving-kindness metta meditation many of us learn.

If you have a moment, it’s nice to pass this sentiment along to anyone, near or far. Hold an image of that person (or animal friend) in your mind and recite,

Still here?

A final thought:

Salmon loaf, spinach and sweet potato

Fish is delish and by all accounts nourishing for humans to eat. I love everything about fish–how they look, where they live, that they swim and, yes, how they taste. I love docks, boats, rivers, oceans, streams, ponds, lakes and bays. I love fishermen and fisherwomen, fish mongers and fish chefs and fry cooks.

These loves lead me to struggle with the various arguments in favor of and against consuming fish. Sea life is so stressed by human  influences and we’re increasingly acknowledging  that fish feel and feel pain. When my idol Sylvia Earle stops eating fish, it might be time for me to follow suit.

In any case, if this was my last salmon meal, it was sure a great one! Recipes and tips are below in case you want to whip up your own salmon loaf, a long-time staple at my grandmother’s table, my mom’s and mine.

And whether or not you’re a fish-eater, please take note of the delicious sweet potato and spinach accompaniments!

This recipe is made with fresh, flake Scottish salmon from Jumbo Seafood on Highway 340 in Jefferson County, West Virginia, an amazing resource for sustainably harvested fish. Jumbo also sells, in season, oysters, the farming of which seems to support the waterways, scallops (which are so beautiful in and out of the shell!) and other mollusks, as well as local trout and farmed catfish–all of which may have less impact on oceans than catching the big fish. These might be tasty candidates to fry up, steam or poach for the occasional house guest in a celebration of life on earth.

This salmon loaf includes farm-fresh duck eggs from Stony Ridge Farm, spinach from the farm and some bright sweet potatoes and cherry tomatoes from the grocery store made a meal to share.

IMG_0060-2 photo-3

The salmon loaf recipe is from Taste of Home.

Here’s the TofH salmon loaf recipe.

Here are some tips and additions, if you choose to use them.

  • You’ll see the recipe calls for separating eggs and whipping the whites. I don’t own a mixer, so I placed the whites in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shook it until the whites firmed up. A trick from when I taught preschool: we’d have the little ones shake baby food jars of heavy cream until they ended up with butter. You do what you can to keep kids amused!
  • I made soft bread crumbs by grinding with the dry blade of a Cuisinart blender the heels of ordinary store-bought wheat sandwich bread that I use for pb&j. A food processor would work, too.
  • I added a smidgen of dill. My stepmother in Franklin, WV maintains an extensive garden and gifted me last fall with fresh dried herbs. I spared the last of the dill for this fish dish and I’m glad.
  • I used dried parsley as I didn’t have fresh. It worked fine. If you use fresh, mince it.
  • The loaf needed an additional 10 minutes of baking time since the salmon was fresh, not canned. You’ll know when it’s done by the the browning on the top. You can also use the skewer test.

For the spinach, roast organic cherry tomatoes with a few cloves of garlic, all splashed with olive oil, at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.

(Line the baking sheet with parchment paper to to save clean-up.)

When the tomatoes blacken and pop, turn off the oven, add chopped fresh spinach and stick the whole thing back in the still-warm oven for a minute. The spinach will wilt and you can stir it all together, top with salt and pepper and serve.

Keep the sweet potatoes simple.

Roast the sweet potatoes in the oven while the salmon loaf is cooking or roast them in a jiffy in a microwave. In Monterey, Virginia, I picked up a cloth sleeve for “roasting” potatoes in the microwave. Just wash and dry a russet or sweet potato, wrap in a clean paper towel, and stick in the sleeve. Cook in the microwave for 8 – 12 minutes depending on type of potato and size. Works like a charm.

I am not handy with a needle and thread. If you are, stitch up your own bag and an extra for a friend. Here’s a link to an instructional video that looks good.

Enjoy! Be kind. Clarify your mind. Brighten your heart. Make decisions that align with your values.

Summer Tips for Staying Cool

Stay cool this summer. Below are tips from my article in My Little Bird.

  • Add sliced fresh strawberries, mint or cucumber to chilled water and keep a pitcher handy for frequent sips.
  • Store a facial mist or toner in the refrigerator and spritz your face and neck.
  • Try a yoga cooling breath, shitali pranayama. Roll the tongue like a hot dog bun. Or softly place the tongue between the lips, resembling a macaron. Slowly inhale through the rolled tongue or over the tongue. Exhale through the nose. Try this 8 – 10 times. This breath directly freshens the back of the throat. Imagine you’re inhaling mist from a block of ice. (Bonus: Practicing this breath in a mirror may make you laugh, which will distract you from the mugginess!)
  • After being out and about, pause at a sink and run cool tap water on your inner wrists for a few seconds. Dampen a paper towel and dab cool water on the temples and back of the neck. This is great before a meeting when coming in from a walk or bike commute.
  • After invigorating your pulse points, take a minute and organize your body in yoga’s tadasana, mountain pose. Stand with feet under hips, legs comfortably apart. Raise the shoulders toward the ears and set them down slowly, like a descending elevator. Let the arms rest by the sides, leaving a little space in the armpits as if squash balls could nestle there. Perch the skull on top of the spine, ears over shoulders.
  • Breathe some more. While in mountain pose, notice the breath. Allow the hands to softly open on an inhalation and close on an exhalation, like flower petals unfolding in the morning and drawing in at evening. Count the length of the inhalation and the length of the exhalation. See if you can bring the portions into equal length, extending the inhalation or the exhalation as necessary for an equally balanced breath. Try this for 12 cycles and then resume your natural pattern of breathing.
  • When eating, think fresh. Celery, lettuces and other watery vegetables minimize stagnancy in the body, says Jensen. Avoid stews and slow-cooked foods. They hold more heat than quick-cooked or raw foods. Use judgment with spiciness. Hot food seems to cool some people in hot weather and makes others hotter. Alcohol in general is warming. White wine is less warming than red.
  • At home, get down on the floor. Warm air rises.
  • Fold forward. While you’re on the floor, take a break in a simple yoga pose called child’s pose, or balasana. Kneel on a blanket or rug. Sit back, bringing the bottom and sitting bones toward the heels. Fold the torso forward over the bent legs, resting the forehead on a yoga block, book, pillow or your folded hands. Or, from a chair, simply scoot forward to a desk or table, place folded arms on the surface and gently round forward, setting the forehead your arms.
  • Let go. When you’re resting, whether in child’s pose on the floor, at your desk or in an easy chair with a flute of crisp blanc de blanc, just chill out. Jensen advises avoiding things riled you. “In this election season (which has been more like an election eon than season),” she writes by email from where she’s finishing a sabbatical in France, “it’s easy to get agitated. Limit your time with the ‘news’ if that gets you frustrated or upset with no outlet for your emotions.”
  • Still can’t cool down? Take a brisk shower before bed.

Swiss chard with orange and ginger

Swiss chard with orange and ginger is the main attraction here.

swiss chard with orange and ginger

To round out the meal, I simply made brown rice according to the package directions, adding herbs and spices like thyme and cumin to the water. When the rice was done, I stirred in a can of black-eyes peas, rinsed and drained. Season with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Top with hot sauce if desired.

The whole wheat biscuits are made with vegetable oil and yogurt or buttermilk instead of lard, butter or cream. It’s a recipe I’ve adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home.

For vegan biscuits, make a sour milk with soy or almond milk and a teaspoon of vinegar to use in place of the buttermilk or yogurt.

When I’m in a hurry, I just pat the dough into an oiled round glass pie plate and score with a knife before baking instead of rolling out and cutting into round biscuits.

The chard was delicious. Here’s how.

Clean the chard, separating stems and leaves. Dice the stems. Tear the leaves into small pieces.

In a skillet, heat oil. (I used avocado. Olive will work.) Add minced fresh ginger and ground black pepper. Add orange zest. Add chard stems and cook until tender. Add pithed and diced chunks from one fresh juicy navel orange. Add Chard leaves. Cook until done to your taste. Top with sea salt. This would also be good with some onion, slow cooked with the chard stems, and/or a little garlic added.

Enjoy!