Rainbow of the Week: You In Me, Me In You

Snatam Kaur woke me up this morning with her singing. She’s not a noisy neighbor. She’s a songwriter and singer whose song “Gobinda Gobinda Hari Hari” was the soundtrack to one of the most memorable and impactful moments of my life. I keep the memory alive by using her song as my alarm to wake up each day.

It happened a couple of years ago, at a “Seduction of Spirit” retreat at the Chopra Center near San Diego. I was one of about 600 attendees from all over the world. My main purpose in going was to reinvigorate my meditation practice, but I got so much more than that. One afternoon, they herded all of us outside for an exercise. As much as I love the Chopra Center, I’m not a big “kumbaya” type so I was a bit skeptical, but happy to be outdoors on a gorgeous, sunny day.

The exercise was this: we all held hands and formed two enormous intertwining circles, one circle facing the other. (The folks at the Chopra Center are experts at choreographing these things.) We were told that, as the circles slowly moved past each other, we were to look each person in the eye but not say anything, just look. And we were not to pass anyone by without looking them in the eye. Throughout the exercise, Snatam Kaur’s “Gobinda Gobinda Hari Hari” played in a continuous loop.

Let me tell you, there was EVERY kind of person in those circles. Different skin colors, heights, shapes, young, old, middle-aged, English speaking, non-English speaking, designer clothes, jeans and T-shirts, most standing, some sitting in wheel chairs, some fresh and energetic, others somewhat ragged around the edges. At first, it was a bit awkward with lots of slightly embarrassed grins and smiles. I mean, how often do we really look a stranger in the eye – not just an averted glance, but truly meaningful eye contact?

As the human circles continued to move, we relaxed into the beauty of it and awkwardness morphed into openness. The looks lasted longer as we wanted to stop and appreciate each person in those circles of tremendous diversity. The smiles remained, but they were accompanied on many faces by tears of joy. And it dawned on me what the exercise was all about: you in me, me in you. No one had to tell me that. I knew it, and I felt it every time I looked into another set of eyes.

It took about 30 minutes for the intertwining circles to complete their loops. By the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And then, a sort of miracle happened. People started pointing up to the sky and saying, “Look! Look!” Above our circles, high in the sky, a large circle of birds had formed. They continued to fly above us in their circle formation for a couple of minutes, then they flew off in their separate directions. We followed suit.

I’ll never forget what I saw, and what I felt, and what I learned that day at the Chopra Center. Snatam Kaur helps me remember every day: you in me, me in you.

Connect to Source Part 3: Iyengar Yoga

From meditation to journaling, we move now to the most active form of Connecting to Source: Iyengar yoga. After taking Iyengar yoga classes for more than 5 years, I’m still a beginner. This isn’t because I’m a bad student or have bad teachers. I’m still a beginner because Iyengar yoga conveys a wealth of information: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Many people think of yoga as physical exercise but, in it’s purest form, it’s an active meditation that coordinates body, breath and mental focus.

What Is Iyengar Yoga?

Iyengar is a form of hatha yoga developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. Born in 1918, and still actively practicing and teaching, Mr. Iyengar pioneered the use of props (blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters, chairs, etc.) to help yoga practitioners perform asanas (different poses) with attention to details of correct physical alignment. Poses are held for longer duration while interrelationship of different parts of the body is studied and alignment is perfected.

Another key aspect of Iyengar yoga is the sequencing of asanas, which creates powerful cumulative effects. In an Iyengar class, you won’t have a “yoga bingo” type of experience (where the teacher randomly calls out names of asanas, as if they were popping up on balls in a bingo machine). Instead, the teacher purposefully sequences the asanas to impart particular lessons, and each class is unique.

Mr. Iyengar has written several classic texts on yoga, including Light of Yoga, Light on Pranayama (the science of breath), and The Tree of Yoga. As Mr. Iyengar explains in this last book:

“Yoga means union. The union of the individual soul with the Universal Spirit is yoga. But this is too abstract a notion to be easily understood, so for our level of understanding I say that yoga is the union of body with the mind and of mind with the soul….”

“Through the performance of asanas, I become totally involved and find oneness of body, mind and soul. For me, this is active meditation. Although asana is sometimes described as physical gymnastics, this is a quite mistaken description, because asana means pose, and after posing, reflecting and reposing. Asana is not just exercise….”

“You have to make an effort of understanding and observation. ‘Why am I getting pain at this moment? Why do I not get the pain at another moment or with another movement? What have I to do with this part of my body? What have I to do with that part? How can I get rid of the pain? Why am I feeling this pressure? Why is this side painful? How are the muscles behaving on this side and how are they behaving on the other side?

“You should go on analyzing, and by analysis you will come to understand. Analysis in action is required in yoga. …. You have to see what messages come from the fibres, the muscles, the nerves and the skin of the body while you are in the pose. Then you can learn.”

How Are Iyengar Yoga Teachers Trained?

What initially attracted me to Iyengar yoga, and keeps me coming back regularly for classes, is the quality of its teachers. Before I started practicing yoga, I had several very good personal trainers and I explored other physical disciplines like Pilates. My Iyengar teachers have taught me far more than anyone about my body and its problems, habits, weaknesses and strengths, and how to work to bring my body – and in the process, myself – into balance.

In The Tree of Yoga, Mr. Iyengar emphasizes that “you have to work with a competent teacher to see why there is pain, what happens when you are doing which movements, what mistakes you are making in your postures, where the stress is when you are working, whether it is necessary to give stress to that point or whether it should be shifted elsewhere to nullify the pain.” Certified Iyengar teachers are beyond competent.

To begin Iyengar teacher training, you must have been a student for at least 3 years, attend at least 3 classes a week, and practice daily on your own. From there, you must complete at least 2 years of rigorous training for an introductory certificate. Subsequent intermediate and senior levels of certification are available. As stated on Mr. Iyengar’s website: “It is not just the ‘time’ or ‘years’ of practice that makes one eligible for a particular level of certification but the ‘quality’ of the practice.”

Manouso Manos, who holds one of only two Advanced Senior certificates granted by Mr. Iyengar, previews what you can expect from an Iyengar teacher in class:

“Most of us think we can write the script of who our yoga teacher is but we can’t. Of course, you have to find a yoga teacher who speaks directly to your understanding. But that doesn’t mean that the yoga teacher should not be pushing your buttons once in a while, saying, ‘Hey, there’s a little more to this.’ You can’t structure the box of what your yoga practice is. In fact, yoga is, by definition, transformative. The joke that I tell, and I’m not the first one to say this, is that you cannot change and stay the same at the same time.

“And this is an example of what most of us want to do in a yoga class. Okay, I want to control this. I want to have this, I want to understand this and you’re not going to push my button. And the answer is, the yoga teacher should always push you into at least a minor state of discomfort. This will encourage you to move into a state where you’re willing to step out of that hard box that most of us are in, out of that control freak and that ego that tries to box us in.”

Yoga Samachar (IYNAUS newsletter), Fall 2011/Winter 2012 edition. “You cannot change and stay the same at the same time.” In addition to being funny, that observation is pretty darn powerful!

How Do I Find An Iyengar Yoga Teacher Near Me?

A complete listing of Iyengar yoga teachers worldwide is available on Mr. Iyengar’s website. To search for Iyengar teachers in the U.S., go to the IYNAUS (Iyengar Yoga: National Association of the United States) website. I practice at Yoga Circle in downtown Chicago, where I take classes from two instructors who I love: Todd Howell and Bob Whittinghill. For a schedule of classes at Yoga Circle, click here.

Remember, as Mr. Iyengar points out in Tree of Yoga, “It is never too late in life to practice yoga.”

Connect to Source Part 1: Meditation

Shortly after turning 40, I visited my brother Gary at his home in Tucson, Arizona. A retired homicide detective turned personal trainer, Gary has served as a sort of “life coach” for me, giving me nuggets of advice at critical points in my life. During one of our hikes in the mountains surrounding Tucson, I asked Gary what he thought I needed to improve about myself. He said I should work on my spirituality.

After having focused for years on law school and then representing Wall Street clients (the infamous one percent), I knew he was right. Gary’s comment started me on a journey to find ways to connect to the higher power (what some might call God) and my inner wisdom. I think of these things collectively as “the Source.”

This is the first of a three-part series about practices that have helped me “Connect to Source”, starting with inactive (meditation), to more active (journaling), to a melding of the mind and body (Iyengar yoga). Cultivating these practices has been transformative: it has given me a much greater degree of calmness of mind, self-understanding, clarity on life’s purpose and direction, compassion, and better psychological and physical health. And we all need those things to make it in today’s stressful world!

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler says that: “In our spiritual journey, it’s important for each of us to decide whether a particular practice is appropriate for us. Sometimes a practice will not appeal to us initially, and before it can be effective, we need to understand it better.” I hope this series will help those who are looking to connect to Source find and better understand a practice or two that may work for them.

Why Meditation?

It may seem like a trendy, “new age” thing, but the practice of meditation is ancient. I think people are turning to meditation in droves these days because of the overload of information and thoughts bombarding us from all of today’s media and technology, which invoke stress or the “fight or flight” response. We all need a few moments each day to turn off the laptop, iPhone and Blackberry and have some “quiet time” to destress and reconnect to our true selves.

And that is what meditation provides. During meditation, your body shifts into a state of restful awareness, which is a counterbalance to the “fight or flight” response. You experience a decreased heart rate, reduced stress hormones, quiet breathing and strengthened immunity. When you regularly activate restful awareness through meditation, you experience these and other physical and psychological benefits.

Productive Meditation

Ultimately, as explained in The Art of Happiness At Work, your meditation practice will benefit not only you but all of the people in your life:

“Genuine progress occurs when the individual not only sees some results in achieving higher levels of meditative states but also when their meditation has at least some influence on how they interact with others, some impact from that meditation in their daily life—more patience, less irritation, more compassion. That’s productive meditation. Something that can bring benefit to others in some way.”

Primordial Sounds And Other Mantras

My meditation practice began at a “Perfect Health” week at the Chopra Center near San Diego, which was a wonderful and memorable experience. The Chopra Center gives instruction in primordial sound meditation, a technique rooted in the Vedic tradition of India. A primordial sound is a type of mantra consisting of three sounds or vibrations, the first being “Om”, the third being “Namah”, and the second being one of 100 primordial sounds based on the time and place of your birth. A primordial sound mantra might be, for example, Om Bijah Namah.

These words have no particular meaning and are used as a tool to interrupt the flow of meaningful thoughts. Silently repeating your mantra in meditation helps you slip into the space between your thoughts, sometimes referred to as “the gap”, and expand to quieter, more abstract levels of the mind. If you don’t have a primordial sound mantra, you could just as easily use Om Mani Padme Hum (a mantra commonly used by Tibetan Buddhists to invoke compassion).

What If I Can’t Get My Mind To Be Quiet?

A common misperception about meditation is that you should be in “the gap” the entire time. But meditation isn’t about trying to force your mind to be quiet. It’s an effortless, non-judgmental process to rediscover the quietness that’s already there, behind our internal dialogue that keeps our mind in a state of turbulence.

Many thoughts arise during meditation, and your mind drifts and wanders. Just observe this happening and return to your mantra. The instructors at the Chopra Center assured us that even Deepak’s mind wonders during meditation, from what he’s going to say on his next appearance with Oprah to the topic of his next book. Then he gently returns to his mantra. For me, the few moments of silent spaces between my thoughts during meditation are precious glimpses of inner quietness and expanded awareness. I think of them as the time when I get quiet and let God speak to me, which is a more pure form of “prayer” than telling God what I want.

No Rules, Just Guidelines

There are no “rules” to meditating, but here are some guidelines to help you get started:

  • It’s generally better to meditation sitting up, since lying down is associated with sleep.
  • It’s best to close your eyes, since keeping our eyes open draws our attention outward.
  • The best times to meditate are first thing in the morning, before breakfast, and late afternoon or early evening. At the Chopra Center, these two times were memorably described to us as “RPM” (rise, pee, meditate), and “RAD” (right after dinner).
  • Try to meditate for 30 minutes. You may need to start with 10 or 15 minutes, and work your way up to 30. Meditate for whatever time you have.

You can think about it, talk about it, and read about it, but unless you do it, you won’t experience the benefits of meditation. So whether it’s RPM or RAD, get started  (or recommit to) your meditation practice today.