Mindfulness, Yoga and Dancing in the Now

contributed by High Desert Yoga Student and Substitute Teacher Ken O’Connor

I am amazed by the complexity of the human experience. We seem to build whole systems of beliefs and ways of relating based on our (often misguided) experiences as children. And yet, I have come to realize there can be so much more to life if we become mindful enough to examine our preconceived ideas; releasing what is no longer useful and allowing ourselves to live more fully in the “now.”

Earlier on, I followed a yearning to explore beyond my cultural/family defined boundaries. I read books by authors such as Ken Wilbur, Scott Peck, Yoginanda, C. Joko Beck and others to broaden my spiritual concepts. Their ideas inspired me to attempt to teach myself sitting meditation. To my dismay, sitting seemed nearly impossible because of rigid thought patterns which seemed to instantly take over my brain. My mind was filled with stories of the past, both recent and distant, evoking feelings of dissatisfaction. My mind would then leap to wild speculations about the future and how I needed to figure out a way to control it. All illusions, of course, but what was I to do?

Once again, reading about the experience of others like Ram Das, Kornfield and Goldstein inspired me to explore hatha yoga. Picking up Yoga The Iyengar Way by Silva, Mira & Shynam Mehta, I began my home practice. (I really recommend finding a teacher; my practice improved greatly when I eventually did).  Practicing postures, focusing intently on alignment and the breath resulted in moments where all my thoughts dropped away. Soon, I discovered I could bring the focused experience of asana to sitting meditation. When thoughts occurred, I learned to gently acknowledge them without losing myself in mental dialogue. I learned how to allow judgment, planning and worrying to float past without attachment. Yoga became the vehicle to help clear my mind of the debris that clutters my awareness of “NOW.”

A few years ago, a few friends formed a weekly study group to read and discuss the yoga sutras of Patanjali. I found the sutras to be a fascinating manual for understanding the perceived dualistic nature of the world and how to begin to deal with it. Using the sutras as a guide, I was better able to observe my thought patterns. I became more aware of when old habits of thinking surface and want to drag me back into old behaviors. I’ve found I don’t need to abruptly try to change the pattern; the very action of bringing awareness to the pattern initiates the change.

Although teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Tara Brach explain it better then I can, it’s the moment of awareness that lets me identify the emotion. Whether it’s fear, feeling of lack, loneliness (or whatever the trigger is), once I can step back and see the emotion behind the feeling, it minimizes the power to control my reactions even as the event is unfolding. A while back I went out to go to work in the morning and my truck had been stolen. Part of me wanted to be angry, part wanted to play the victim, part wanted to blame others; instead, I took a few breaths and just did the next thing I needed to do. The more mindful I am, the less drama there is in life. And some days I am much more skillful than others.

A true test of the value of yoga is attempting to take the practice of mindfulness off the mat. Mindfulness developed through asana and meditation translates to giving me the space and freedom to make real changes in my thinking and life. Bringing this type of mindfulness to any action or situation, from washing the floor (I just spilled a quart of apple juice in the kitchen!) to dealing with difficult people, initiates the process of spiritual awakening.

Recently I have decided to try dancing, an interest my upbringing kept me away from exploring. I was taught by my family and religion both in overt and unspoken ways that dancing, especially for a boy, was somehow unacceptable behavior. I’m now embarking on the somewhat awkward process of learning how to move my body in unison with music without tripping myself or someone else – an activity that while innate to someone from a different background- I have avoided all these years. By choosing to do this, I am continuing the process of freeing myself from self limiting beliefs, freeing my mind (and my hips) to live more fully in the present moment. Since now is all there is, there is never a better time to explore.

Life simply IS. As humans there will always be times of joy and times of sorrow. But if we can be more present, we can free our minds from unnecessary limitations, open our hearts to new ways of relating and, most importantly, learn how we can truly be of service to those around us.

Ken, a regular student and substitute teacher at High Desert Yoga, has been practicing and studying yoga for 15 years. He completed the 500 Hour HDY Teacher training program in 2006. His education and work background span the fields of psychology, computers/electronics, and “fixing stuff.” He recently has been revitalizing his love of the outdoors, and has begun exploring everything from comic book conventions to folk dancing. He eagerly awaits other adventures still to unfold.

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The Klesa Asmita by Kim Schwartz

There is a classical text of yoga written by the sage Patanjali. In this text there are described the workings of the individuated mind. It describes modes of perception and cognition called vrttis of which there are five. It defines the purpose of yoga as establishing a sense of self that transcends these modes of perception. It also describes aspects of the mind that inhibit this process. These are called klesas of which there are also five.

Before we look at the klesa called asmita, let us first look at the individuated consciousness itself called citta,as a point of contrast. Citta is described in the yoga sutras as having three primary aspects- manas/mind, buddhi/ discriminative thought and ahamkara/ sense of self. The manas collects information from the senses that is then organized by the buddhi to help create the ahamkara or sense of self.

Patanjali describes asmita as Drk darsanasaktyoh ekatmata iva asmita. One possible translation for this is that asmita is the identification of the perceiver with the vehicles of perception. With this identification come the feelings of “ I am,” I see,” “ I hear,” “I have,” “ I want,” etc. With this sense of identification with the vehicles of perception comes a sense of self defined by what what one perceives to have relational to perception of self.

Both asmita and ahamkara describe an experience of self, but at contrasting ends of the spectrum. To help understand asmita, let us contrast it with ahamkara. Ahamkara refers to a sense of self that is relatively self-existent. That is to say, ahamkara is a sense of self that, though created by receiving information from the external environment, does not necessarily rely on its relationship to outer forms for its sense of worth or place in the world. The klesa asmita, on the other hand finds its sense of self and self worth in how we compare ourselves with the items of our external environment. In other words, ahamkara is more sense of self related to an internal experience whereas asmita is more self worth or self importance that is relational to external things.

We often approach this asmita sense of self by feeling that we are better or worse than someone or something else. To think that we are better or worse than anything else, necessitates self-importance. This quality is not categorically bad as it can help us to function with appropriately discriminative awareness in our agreed upon cultural contexts and social groups. In our day to day lives there is a hierarchy. We do need to make some things more and less important than others. This prioritization is the agreed upon reality of the social and cultural constructs in which we live.

However, the more dominant asmita becomes, the more we rely on our place in the world for sense of self. The more we rely on our place in the world for sense of self worth the more vulnerable becomes our sense of self. This is because the outer world changes exponentially more than our inner world; so when it changes our sense of self may feel threatened.

The more stable our internal sense of self, [ahamkara] the less self importance [asmita] we need to employ. It is only because of the self importance of asmita that we are able to become judgmental, angry, indignant, offended or self righteous. The primary reason we have these feelings is because our self importance feels threatened. Remember, asmita and ahamkara are both constructs of the mind. Neither is our true Self. Both are aspects of the mind that work to establish how we experience ourselves as humans.

In this process we use terms like right and wrong, better and worse, or good and bad. This discrimination can be appropriate in our daily lives because, as humans, our world is defined by duality. In our day to day lives we need to act sincerely and with thoughtful discrimination; as though our actions had purpose and relevance, at the same time knowing that, in the big reality, nothing is more important than anything else. This is part of the dance between asmita and ahamkara. This dance is part of the spiritual task we face as human beings.

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A Happy New Year

contributed by High Desert Yoga Teacher Jude Rowe

Celebrating the Solstice/Holiday season, many of us enjoy the opportunity to connect with loved ones, to share special traditions, food and gifts or time together as we break from our normal routines.  There are also many of us who feel a mingling sadness juxtaposed with the joys of the season.  These less than joyous feelings might come from unmet expectations or reminders of losses past or present that surface at this time of year.

Christmas can be experienced as a time of joy and renewal, yet we may also feel a sense of yearning for what might have been or could be….

We can embrace this time of “darkness” during the long nights of the northern hemisphere, to simply be with what we feel.  The shorter days and longer nights offer a time to slow down and reflect on our relationship to something greater;  to acknowledge all aspects of our human experience including our inability to control all of the circumstances or events of our lives.

During the Solstice season and the heart of winter in the north, we have the opportunity to “go in” and recognize how darkness gives way to light.  Beyond anything cultural or religious, the changing season primordially touches something deeper within, inspiring us to pause and reflect.   An awareness of the constancy and power of the earth moving in relationship to the sun, gives the opportunity to go inside and feel our place in relationship to all that is.

This unfolding awareness asks us to open our hearts wider to embrace every part of our existence.  Our yoga practice can be particularly valuable, giving us a place to return where we can work to open our hearts, stay present and grounded as we find our personal way to celebrate the traditions of the season.

Being silent and breathing, we can become aware of the returning light along with a recognition and remembrance that we truly have something special to celebrate- the possiblitity for a Happy New Year, in the truest sense.

Acknowledging and sending prayers to all who are suffering …..

Shanti, Shanti, Peace, Peace…..

“The world rests in the night. Trees, mountains, fields, and faces are released from the prison of shape and the burden of exposure. Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark. Darkness is the ancient womb. Nighttime is womb- time. Our souls come out to play. The darkness absolves everything; the struggle for identity and impression falls away. We rest in the night.”

-Quote by John O’Donohue from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom:

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The Klesa Avidya by Kim Schwartz

There is an old joke in which a person is receiving a job promotion. The voice on the telephone is saying, “ Congratulations! You have been promoted. You are now completely responsible for all manner of things over which you have no control whatsoever.” This is a somewhat cynical but reasonably accurate description of our incarnation into the human experience. We are indeed completely responsible for how we experience the world in which we live, yet because of the relatively attenuated and biased nature of our perception we really have only limited awareness or control over what we actually do.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, five perceptual obstructions are listed that can inhibit self awareness; these are called Kleshas. The first Klesha is called “Avidya”. When the word Avidya is broken apart, the root word “vidya” could be defined as insightful wisdom or knowledge. When combined with the prefix “a”, the word becomes negative. So Avidya would be a lack of insightful wisdom or knowledge. It is suggested that Avidya is the source of all the other Klesas.

Wisdom could be defined as seeing life with insight, as it truly is; without the overlay of a subjective or biased perception. As this unbiased state is rarely achieved and even only occasionally visited, we can assume that we perceive most of our lives in some degree of Avidya.

Because our perception is commonly biased, we can easily mistake the unknown for the known, the unreal for the real and the temporal for the eternal. These are some primary perceptual constructs that can define Avidya.

The confusion we experience is typically the result of these misperceptions. We see things as only a small part of what they really are and only a small part of how they interrelate with all other things. For example, many of us believe we will find lasting happiness, pleasure or fulfillment in things defined by change. Even if we intellectually acknowledge the temporality of life experiences, emotionally we behave as though some things, including this incarnation, will last forever; we are sometimes even surprised when they do not.

We are in the position of participating in an interactive and dynamic life based on a view of reality based on incomplete and subjective perception. In so doing we create a sense of what we believe our world looks like, how we should behave in that world and what we think we should be able to accomplish. We need to do this in order to function in the world. The accuracy of our world view or construct depends upon the accuracy of our perceptions.

We may go through life making concrete plans for the future, as though we know what the future holds; when there are no guarantees there will be any future at all. This is not to say that we shouldn’t make plans; it just suggests we become as fluid and detached about the results of those plans as we can be.

Kriya yoga sometimes defines Avidya as “forgetfulness”. This implies that even though we, on some level, know this is all temporary and that there are no guarantees, we often forget and get caught up in the momentum of our experience and attach to this incarnation as though it was infinite rather than one finite incarnation, even if one believes it is one life in a string of many.

It could be said that Avidya asks the question: “How can we live in the present without influence from the past or projection into the future, while at the same time realizing that the present is the result of all that has gone before and the seed of all that will follow?”

Somehow we need to live life sincerely embracing the temporal reality, yet at the same time knowing that all of it can and ultimately will dissolve at any time. Superficially this may sound like a contradiction. It isn’t. It is a balance.

So the question may arise, how do we deal with this Avidya in our daily lives? Perhaps the first step would be to acknowledge that it is a very real part of how we experience our world. In this way we may not be so locked into our world view. Perhaps then we can begin to employ some sort of mindfulness technique to begin to slow the momentum of our thoughts and begin to pay attention to our interactions. Then we may employ compassion and freedom from judgement for ourselves and others in this process of self-realization.


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Ahimsa, Venus and a Waxing Crescent Moon…

contributed by High Desert Yoga Teacher, Jude Rowe

The waxing crescent moon glowing in the evening sky reminds us of the cyclical changes of the autumnal season and the opportunity to go “inside” and begin again.  Venus, who greets us first in the evening sky, in astrological terms represents physical aspects of love and relationships.  As Venus makes her path back to the sun, then returns to the earth again on Nov. 4, re-emerging as the morning star,  she symbolizes spiritual aspects of the “divine feminine.”  Venus’s re-emergence goes right along with a recovering recognition of the divine feminine in all of us.

Every moment is a new beginning and everyday the “good-old universe” puts reminders in our path to renew our best intentions and begin anew.  In particular, our relationships are often our greatest teachers, including those people or instances with whom/which we may have/  have had difficulty.  Our yoga practice can help us to find our center so difficult situations create a minimum ripple in our nervous system.  Our wise teachers encourage us to gain a larger understanding that “the other person suffers too,”  This awareness helps us not to take a difficult situation personally, and out of our understanding, compassion for the other person becomes possible.

In classical yoga, we are reminded to practice Ahimsa (non-harming) in all of our thoughts, words and actions.  Ahimsa, the first of the yamas (ethics), is sometimes referred to as the “jewel above the head of God,”  This seemingly simple, yet often in reality difficult, practice holds such important implications in our relationships.

So… on this bright New Mexico fall morning, the waxing moon and the transition of Venus encourage us to remember our connection with the divine feminine, to begin anew in every moment and to return again and again to Ahimsa and the practice of non-harming- extending kindness, respect, forgiveness and renewal in our relationships.

In gratitude of Sanga and the support of the yoga community, I leave you with this poem today from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that reflects on the opportunity for profound practice in our relationships.


You are me, and I am you.  Isnt it obvious that we “inter-are”?

You cultivate the flower in yourself, so that I will be beautiful.

I transform the garbage in myself, so that you will not have to suffer.

I support you; you support me.

I am in this world to offer you peace;  you are in this world to bring me joy.

Thich Nhat Hanh 1989
Glowing Gold Chamisa Blessings from Albuquerque, New Mexico

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