The Poppy and a Call to Love

The poppy has long been a person symbol for me. Interestingly perhaps, not in conjunction with Remembrance Day or the ‘poppy poem’ specifically. But if I think about it, there is a connection.

I first saw poppies in my mother’s English garden that was stuffed with tall bush-like flowers – bleeding hearts, flocks, rudbeckia and poppies. The soft terra cotta petals flapped in the breeze and the entire cluster swayed on strong, slender stems. Later I noticed them in impressionist paintings of the French countryside – fields of poppies with a warm yellow-stone cottage behind. I found them exquisitely lyrical, Romantic with a capital R. They spoke to me of the longing for a more pastoral life.

When I was fourteen, my family and I were driving through exactly such a setting on a trip through Provence. All at once, as we were about to pass it by, I called out from the back seat for my father to stop the car. I wanted to run through the poppy field. This was not such an unusual request in my family. My father read Proust. My mother was a language teacher and literature buff. They were also in favour of retreating to the country for months at a time. And so, my father pulled over and l jumped out of the car and flung myself across a huge ditch onto the edge of the field.

Almost immediately I discovered that my idea of running through the field was more symbolic that realistic. Perhaps it was the time of year. There were large, dry clumps of mud that made it almost impossible to walk even, and the grasses that played host to the flowers were so dense and tall I decided to simply look into the floppy depths of the flower, at its dark textured centre. But I had so much wanted to run, freely and with abandon.

As an adult during visualization meditations I have often brought to mind the image of the poppy and the ideal of freedom: freedom from convention, freedom to be oneself. And yet, I was aware that we often confuse freedom with independence or isolationism, from the free nation to the hermit in the cave. But getting right down to it, the poppy grows in large clusters of plants. They grow wild, but in communities and in amongst other crops. They understand the lack of independent existence. The worldly experience is one of enmeshment. And within this enmeshment we thrive.

In my final year of university, one of the few books I had time to read (every night in fact) was Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. No matter how challenging the multiple essays all due the same week, no matter how intense the fear and unknowing of what the future held after leaving the safety of the university walls, I could always find respite in the author’s credo: share, look, and “when you go out into the world its best to hold hands and stick together”.

This is the freedom of the poppy – to seek the sun, and allow its artfully crimped petals to blow in the wind, while holding firm to the earth and the cluster. It is the rootedness that allows us to rise in freedom, the strong community of nations that affords us true peace.

I have been reflecting on this today: holding hands, we go out in the world together, known, seen, accepted by our tribe of friends, family and neighbours with all our idiosyncratic ways. And as we feel rooted, then we are able very organically to extend that deep sharing and the gift of presence. We say it often enough – most people just want to be loved, to be understood and appreciated. How do we as a community accomplish this. To share, look and spend time together.

Remembrance Day at my children’s public school is a very moving tribute to this coming together for a certain ritual – the moment of silence – to experience something together. It is a rare occurrence in our society of individualism and decreasing participation in religious and community institutions. But maybe this is causing a growing consciousness of how we connect with one another, and watch out for ageing neighbours. How do we create space to just be with someone. Here are some crib notes I’ve made for myself:

  •  Stop and take notice when something strikes you as notable for any reason. Take time for a breath and to really experience it: whether it is a garden well tended, a kind word, or a sign that someone is reaching out for support.
  • Look someone in the eyes when they are talking to you, breathe and listen without prescripting a response.
  • Reach out and touch someone. In the ‘north’ we are often hesitant about touching other people – hug friends and family a moment longer than you normally do; touch a friend on the arm in greeting; hold hands more, find time to squeeze and cuddle the kids.
  • Let someone know you appreciate them for the everyday things they do and the ways they show up in life. It is not in the extraordinary that we are special, but in the small ways of being that we live day to day.
  • Find ways of participating in the community whether it is joining together for a raking or shoveling party on the street, hosting a potluck or going to a service at a school, church or community centre, or a local art event.
  • Be brave: even if you have no one to go with, reach out, attend. You will be surprised how receptive people are when someone shows up to an event on their own.
  • Love is not just a type of relationship, it is a way of being in the world. When we can find our roots in life, we can blossom forth in love both for ourselves, for others, animals and the natural world. Love is a response to life which we sometimes fear and stifle. Root down and blossom in love.

Snow Days and Spontaneity

Snow Laden Trees

I woke up this morning to a foot of fresh, new powerdery snow, a veritable winter wonderland! While snow days bring out the curmudgeon in some, I find overall that, like mass power outages and ice storms, snow days bring us together in fresh new ways. They are when northerners get to act more like southerners – we talk to our neighbours while shoveling, pitch in where our help might be needed, throw up our hands and laugh at the insanity of wedging garbage bins on top of mounds of the white stuff.

There are squeals of delight all down the street as school children sloosh along sidewalks, chasing friends with a mitt full of fluffy crystals. This sudden shift is a gift given to us by nature. What I’m interested in here is the joyful, child-like wonder we often feel when waking up to trees laden down like those in picturesque Christmas cards. But there is something else, and that is what is dropped.

For a day, or two, we realize that nothing is going to be perfect. Nothing is going to run quite right. We will likely be late for work, and others, in a similar position, will understand. Or, we call in a ‘once in a while’ home day. For a time, we let ourselves and others off the hook of needing to strive for perfection. Even high-performant newscasters break a smile at the flakes fly in their face while reading the weather, or at scenes on the live-feed of drivers trying to shovel themselves out of lane ways. We drop our shoulders, and maybe take a luxurious hot bath in the evening after the shovelling is done, and drop into a more fluid, state of accepting what is. After all, there’s nothing to be done!

Leaning Into The Holidays

Christmas wreaths

I always been a fairly last minute shopper, and relentless Christmas enthusiast. For me, I believe the two things are somewhat related. I enjoy carolers in the mall dressed in Victorian velvet cloaks and top hats, and the palpable excitement that builds a few days before the holidays. As fat snowflakes float above, illuminated by a streetlamp on a dark December evening, I feel the nostalgic sense of holidays past flood through me.

And yet, as a mom of two with seven nieces and nephews, I have had to adjust my desire for spontaneity with a bit of planning in order to grow into the role of creating Christmas magic for my own children. It’s a tall order. And of course, I have incredible appreciation for the traditions and ambiance my own mother created in our home, complete with crafty tree decorations, boughs on the hearth, cookie baking from heirloom family recipes, and the whole nine yards. With no fire place or mantle, and the sole parent within the ethos of the Christmas tradition, in a vegetarian family at that, I know what I create will not be exactly like the holidays of my childhood. But perhaps this is the key – blending planning and spontaneity, new traditions and old, to drop into that same Christmas spirit in a slightly new way with my children.

When expectation and busy-ness arise, notice the tendency to shift into avoidance. Bah Humbug! In my first few years with my daughter, I did avoid stepping into the role of holiday parent. I spend the first Christmas with baby at my parent’s place, leaving our own home tree-less and dark for the week. Over the next years of her pre-school life, I spent winters in India. We didn’t mention the holiday much to our daughter, and celebrated with ice cream sundaes at a Rajput palace terrace one year. With an 18 month-old and out of the country, it is as simple as that, “Oh, it’s Christmas day, let’s have a sundae!” The year my daughter turned three, and I was in late pregnancy, due on the solstice, I had no choice but to shift into an earlier preparation for the holidays at home in Canada. I went out to buy a few simple decorations and lights for a tree, and asked my sister for two of our simplest tried and true cookie recipes. At 39, it was going to be my first full-blown Christmas in my own home. Would I be able to maintain my enthusiasm for the holidays, while finally having to do some of the real work?

I have! I’m five years in, and still leaning into the holidays. How can we get back to a gentle savouring of the holidays, knowing that there is an increased busyness, increased expectation, and frankly, expense? I chalk it up to mindful appreciation balanced with keeping it simple. This is a blend of a top-down approach complete with perspective shifts and check-ins, and a bottom-up approach with practical strategies for relieving stress. To me these both implicate and inspire each other.

Let’s start with the practical.

Prepare

Who had not admired the prepared family member who started squirrelling away holiday gifts in July? Yes, starting early definitely decreases the hassle of having to decide upon, purchase and wrap presents at the very last minute when the malls are at their most crowded, certain items will be sold out and you have other things to do to get ready to celebrate. But without foregoing the fun and spontaneity of holiday browsing and shopping during the actual holidays, you can still relieve the inconvenience and panic of super-last-minute shopping. Put pen to paper today and identify those for whom you need/want to buy gifts, brainstorm gift ideas and when and where you’ll find time to get them.

Consolidate

As I mentioned, I have seven nieces and nephews. Without doubt, part of the stress of the holidays is the extra expense. As we’re already into December, and if you’re reading this, you are likely not a planner by nature, so it is too late to talk budgeting. That said, there may still be time for a strategy my siblings and I have found really helpful: gifting to nieces and nephews in rotation. Let’s face it, after gifts from parents, grandparents and the Jolly Old Elf, a present from one aunt rather than two is not going to be missed by the kids. But the savings to you in time and money are significant.

Convenience

If mall fever is the thing that causes you the most stress over the holidays, and you feel disconnected from the box store experience, or question their ethics, shop locally and make it convenient too. Shopping in local, independent stores often provides a neighbourly experience and on a human scale. Last year, I bought most of my gifts from an independent children’s bookstore. Not only was there cider at the door of the wooden storefront, but they featured books by local authors, and I was able to shop at leisure in a cozy environment and get good advice from someone who truly cared about children’s literature.

I know, if you have relatives who live a distance, shopping locally and shipping the presents just doubles the cost (or takes value away from the kids) and is a last-minute gifter’s nightmare. But I have found a solution that has given me a lot of pleasure over the years. Rather than clicking automatically onto an Internet retailer, I call a boutique in the town where my relatives live. When I make a call to Woodbury Mountain Toys, I feel the slower pace of life carry over the phone line; I picture the cheerful, painted wooden houses peeking out of the green-top mountains as I read out my sister’s address. The shop keeper says she thinks she knows my sister. When I hang up, I feel the warmth of a holiday interaction and my shopping for the Vermont cousins is done!

Abiding Presence

With this, I feel myself leaning into the holidays already! And yet, I’m aware that these practical solutions in and of themselves are not a fix-all. In fact, I can see that they would only minimally change things without the ultimate dropping into the experience which is the essence of mindful living. Truthfully, my list-making, July shopping relatives are not less stressed or more enjoying of the season. This is what turned me into a last minute shopper in the first place – my insistence that holiday magic comes from being lit up, and super present to the moment.

One of the hallmarks of mindfulness is being with what is. As the energy of the holidays ramps up to a frenzy, what does this mean in terms of mindfulness. Putting ourselves on notice to drop into the spirit of abiding presence even more this season.

Breathe

Whenever you feel the tension of to-doing, or a resistance to increased holiday traffic or extra engagements, take a few minutes to come back to the breath, and just be in the body. Busy-ness creates a heady feeling that life is spinning out of control. Just stop and give yourself a few minutes of nurturance amid the chaos every hour if you can. During those few minutes, take your mind completely off-line of worry or complaint. Be with the sensations of the body and with the enjoyment of the feeling of the breath as it moves through the body. I know you know this. Just give yourself the gift of a three-minute breathing break several times a day.

 Savour (even when there’s aversion)

On your way home from work, school, the shops in the evening, slow your pace slightly, look around, and notice perhaps the crispness of the air, the sound of the crystals in the flakes of snow as they fall, or if you’re not in a place that is this quiet, perhaps the view of the fluffy flakes illuminated by a street lamp.

Notice any seasonal decorations, natural or artificial, specific to one culture, or universal. Notice any aversion toward a certain type of decoration or what may appear to you to be excessive or over-the-top, and try even for a moment to see it in another way, saving the environmental pointers for another time, or turn it into service by writing a blog post on how to celebrate with less of a footprint). For us in the northern hemisphere, the colourful lights are a symbol of warmth and illumination in the darkening days approaching the winter solstice. The large air-puffed Frosty the Snowman on a neighbouring lawn could remind you of the lightness of how children play in the snow.

If you find yourself railing against carols in the mall so early in December, notice that, and just listen to the sound of it without labeling or describing. Listen to the notes and the harmonies. If this comes up because you don’t even celebrate Christmas, notice all of the carols which relate to snow, being together, bringing nature in or celebrating the greens of the season, spruce trees, holly and cedar wreaths. (If you’re from a warmer clime surrounded by carols about snow, sorry, that’s a whole other level of de-contextualization to deal with!)

Enjoy the smells and sounds and tastes of the season, get nostalgic if that’s what comes up. Let it all in!

Celebrate

Even if you haven’t celebrated actively for many years, try leaning into the holiday season by choosing a few activities that make celebrating meaningful to you, and planning to make time to enjoy them. Here are a few suggestions for resuscitating a meaningful season.

  •  Baking is therapeutic – the sense of mastery in actually making cookies or tarts, the nurturing smell of sweets in the oven!
  • Attend a children’s holiday concert at a school. I love the multi-faith winter concerts that preschools and primary schools often put on. Even if you don’t have children, find out if you can join friends or relatives for a school event. They might not think to ask you or consider you would be interested.
  • If you are interested in Christmas culturally or just enjoy the lighting of the candles though don’t consider yourself religious, this is a great time of year to actually go to church, no questions asked. Churches expect to have one-timers to their services on Christmas Eve, or for the carol services hosted earlier in December also. Find out what is happening in your area, and consider singing along with a choir for free (or by donation) in a local church. For people on a tight budget, this is a way you can go to what in many cases will be a very polished performance by a choir without buying tickets to a concert venue. And singing really does make you feel better. Collective singing and chanting have been proven to release oxytocin, the bonding, feel-good hormone.
  • Consider heading out to a community tree-lighting ceremony, or other winter festival.
  • If you’re without family for the holidays, you might want to find ways to volunteer with an organization to help others and have fun doing it, whether it is distributing food baskets, helping to prepare or serve a community dinner or joining a group to sing at a retirement residence. It is a perfect time of year to join a group or to volunteer at a meaningful one-time event.

There are so many satisfying ways that communities come together over the holidays. If your mind turns to complaining about the consumerism or commercialization of the season, direct it instead toward finding ways you can get involved with an activity you can really get behind. Ho Ho Ho!

Quick Vegetarian Cooking for Families with Young Kids

Finger Food Bake

I love cooking and food, don’t get me wrong. But, I almost never spend more than half an hour cooking dinner. And yet, as a vegetarian with young kids, I can’t just pull chicken fingers out of the freezer. What’s my secret? I’m committed to the idea that it is just as fast to cook fresh foods at home as it is to order in. I get loads of satisfaction from chopping and sautéing, 15 minutes of each, short order cook style!

People think cooking vegetarian food is complicated. Believe me, I think roasting a turkey sounds complicated. It is just a question of trying new things, and maybe experimenting with new ingredients. Add kids to the equation and you’ve got another conundrum: how to get vegetarian kids to actually eat vegetables! Take pasta for example, a go-to easy dinner for most families. But between the ages of 2 and 12, many kids don’t like sauce. Hence the restaurant kiddie menus highlighting pasta with butter. My solution? Chunky primavera non-sauce.

Pasta Primavera

When trying to go can-free, I hear people complain that no one can possible have time to make their own pasta sauce. This all depends on what you think of as sauce – a thick 2-hour reduction takes, well 2 hours to make. But you can make the chunky primavera in less than 30 minutes. Put your pasta water on to boil, and then chop, chop, chop go the zucchini, vine-ripened tomatoes, asparagus or broccoli, a few kalamata olives and kale or collard to wilt on top. Cube about half a brick of firm tofu. Next, toast basil flakes in olive oil, add tofu cubes, zucchini and a bit of tamari or Bragg’s (unfermented soy sauce). When you fry the basil flakes in a bit of oil, you’ll notice they release their aroma much more than when you add them to a dish later on. Finally, add the rest of the vegetables (except the kale) and a bit of water, and salt if you wish, and cover the pan for 10 minutes on a low heat. I find having a frying pan with a glass lid an essential. By now your pasta water will have come to a boil, and you can add the pasta noodles so your dishes will both be ready at the same time.

Ten minutes later, wilt in the kale and presto, a kid-friendly dinner that is delicious for the rest of the family. Serve the kids’ pasta with butter and place the tofu chunks, broccoli trees and maybe a wilted kale leaf on the side. And you get a sumptuous Primavera.

Finger Food Bakes for All Ages

Not only will my kids not eat sauce or soup, they won’t eat dal! That excludes half of the vegetarian’s repertoire right there. Over the years, I’ve learned that finger foods are a hit, so I make something akin to a toddle tray for dinner that’s suitable for the whole family. Cast aside the idea of making fish fingers and french fries for the kids and preparing a whole separate dinner for the adults. Instead, slice a brick of tofu into five large slabs and place them on a baking pan. If you have time you could marinate them in olive oil and tamari, but I usually just drizzle Bragg’s over the tofu right on the pan. Lay a bunch of washed asparagus spears on the pan beside them. Then cut a sweet potato (and potato if you like) into long pieces like fries with the skin on. Drizzle the lot with olive oil and sprinkle with with Celtic sea salt. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes. Serve as a simple, finger-food meal that includes two super foods!

In my next blog posts, I’ll look at a Vegetarian Christmas dish that fill the house with the smells of the season. I’m also working on a post on holiday mindfulness entitled Leaning into the Holidays.

Raising Bi-cultural, Bi-racial Children

Yesterday, my piece on raising bi-cultural, bi-racial children appeared in the Facts and Arguments section of the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers.

Raising Bi-Cultural ChildrenIt was really a treat to be involved in the editing process, and I’m thrilled with how the article ended up, except for the title, which presumably had to be catchy and slightly edgy. I’m not a big user of the word ‘hate’, and the article was not meant entirely as a reaction against the phrase we are often greeted with, ‘one of each’. Rather, it is about the multiplicity of identity, and the ways in which culture, ethnicity and religion can sometimes intertwine, though clearly culture is not ethnicity, nor is it a monolithic, fixed entity.

It is also about the tendency I’m seeing in Canada towards monoculture, not only in the sense of the Code of Secularism and the hesitance surrounding displays of faith, but in the de-culturing of school winter concerts away from multicultural winter solstice celebrations of light towards a more decontextualized Disney pantomime that often does not even reference the season of winter.

Finally, it is about the personal journey of identity and how I hope to be sharing positively in that with my kids, and their bi-racial, bi-cultural context.

Here’s the link to the article:  Two of a Kind

Being More Fully Present by Acknowledging the Past

Within the practice of yoga and mindfulness, we often stress not dwelling on the past, or being present. This is an incredible practice, as anyone can experience, when they let the thoughts of regret, or what if, and take a few moments to savour the crisp, fresh breeze, or the sun on the land, or whatever they are experiencing in that micro-moment. But/And, do we sometimes use the practice of yoga to avoid the past, and therefore fail to learn the lesson? My last post was about seeing through drama in order to learn from it, as opposed to avoiding it. Here, we’re looking at a similar balancing act: how to learn from the past without being obsessed by it.

Firstly, I think it is helpful to understand different aspects of the broader Indian wisdom tradition. While in Classical Yoga there is more of an emphasis on stilling the thoughts, including thoughts of memory, rather than exploring them, and a paring down of identity, in other areas of the tradition, we see family, calling and connection to the land etc. as grounding and stabilizing. I think the Bhagavad Gita, which is a vastly integrative text of various wisdom schools within the broader tradition, explores these different kernels of wisdom and how they apply depending on who we are and where we’re at on our journey, and what we’re looking for or need. This may depend on stage of life, stage of development in consciousness, family situation, Ayurvedic dosha or affliction. Further, letting go of attachment (read clinging) to family, social identity, and geo or cultural sentiment is different from having an aversion to it. Our sense of who we are and where we’re from can be grounding and stabilizing if we are also able to understand that this is just one aspect of the self, and we are aware of how it may affect our choices and decisions. Aversion to the past, however, or disallowing the grounding effects of heritage and community are even more likely to create obscurity rather than clarity. Sometimes I think it is important here to note the context of teachings and texts. Classical Yoga teachings were intended for people who were from an incredibly long, stable socio-cultural tradition. The lesson was to cultivate the ability to see outside of that. In our modern society, we tend to be dislocated from family and the sense of heritage culture and tradition, we are often distanced from nature as urban dwellers, and due to many moves throughout life, change of jobs, and communities, there is even further dislocation from our histories within communities we have been a part of. This is why, I believe, along with Patanjali’s amazing teachings about clarity of mind and emotional peace, most of us are drawn to the teachings of Ayurveda and Vedic ritual. We are seeking balance between Patanjali’s radical discontinuity with the past and with socialization as a method for clarity, and the grounding and healing practices of Ayurveda and other Vedic practices.

So, memory, awareness of what we’ve come through as a person, these are very important things on our journey. When we first come to the path of yoga, we might be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater – make radical changes, and departures from people, places, ways of living, and even thoughts or memories of who we’ve been. It is important to acknowledge this as part of our desire for clarity and peace, but also to see the aspect of aversion in it. Aversion of guilt maybe, or of taking responsibility for slow and integrated change within the context of community. It can be easy to make change when we step away, on retreat for example, but then the challenge is to support and nurture that within the context of a community that impacts us and that we also play a role in. To hit the nail right on the head, our tendency to want retreat and discontinuity plays right into our individualistic and ungrounded social context. In the long term it cannot be sustained, or it fails to produce a sense of wholeness or integration within a larger social context. There is a lovely recorded talk of Shobhan Faulds talking at Kripalu about the history of the Kripalu lineage, and the purpose and process of utopian communities. He concludes that a commune, or a utopian community is a stage in a process at the conclusion of which, the community then attempts to integrate what they have learned with the surrounding society. They do not seek to continue to be a micro-community in isolation, and if they do, dissolution ultimately comes. We can look at this with individuals also. Retreat and soaking in a yoga community is a beneficial stage in which we remove ourselves from our context in order to learn and grow, and hopefully gain insight into blind spots that were covered by a given context. Staying in perpetual retreat mode for one thing simply harbours different blind spots (though we may not realize this), and does not allow us the integration of past and present, yoga community and wider society.

As I mentioned above with blind spots, in our yoga practice it is important, as with any healing journey, to have a multi-pronged approach. Holistic yoga, if we take advantage of all of its diverse practices, is just that, a multi-pronged approach. Mantra is great for shifting obsessive thinking. Asana is great for revitalization and detoxification. Pranayama is great for importing prana, and detoxification and clarifying thinking. Visualization and energy work are great for connection to the Vast. Karma Yoga integrates the practice with work in society. Bhakti Yoga roots us in Divine connection. Jnana Yoga is the work of rooting out patterns, erroneous judgements and diminished thinking. Understanding this, I come back to this concept of acknowledging the past. Recently, though journaling and creative writing, I recognized again how powerful this type of exploratory practice is. One takes a symbol or story that seems to continue to come up, and indulge and unpack the symbol or the story through flowing creative writing. If this is done over a month period, for example, though it may seem like dwelling on the past, this practice, if balanced with other practices after each session to keep one present and to integrate what comes up, can really reveal blind spots or aspects of our past that continue to clandestinely influence our thinking and our beliefs about ourselves today. We can categorize this as a type of Jnana Yoga perhaps. If we are always doing practices to replace troubling or patterned thoughts, we may not be allowing for a key insight to rise up, before proceeding with an integrative process. Journaling about recurring symbols from dreams is a similar type of practice.

To sum up, as always, I’ll give credence to the idea of yoga as a path of balance in which being fully alive in the present requires that we’ve also taken time to heal, acknowledge and integrate the past.

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Vision

This poem, also published in ASH (Number 3, Volume 1), is written in French. Writing in a second language is an interesting way of trying to get at images that consolidate a feeling or an experience. The writing may be sparser and more immediate.

Here the cigarette butt that continues to glow after having been tossed in damp grass becomes a faithful pilot light. But this human artifact simply reflects the greater backdrop of the rays of setting sun reddening fallen pine needles that catch its light between the trees.

Vision

Au crépuscule, les raies dorées dans la forêt
Le vent dans les pins, cheveux noirs contre les bouleaux
Mon mégot jeté sur l’herbe humide brûle encore
Une veilleuse fidèle dans le bois déjà en flammes

Describing Ourselves into Being

I wrote my first poem at 10, I believe, and interestingly,that poem is very much in keeping with the subjects of my writing today. Around that age, I began asking my parents spiritual questions. My parents were committed to the idea that each person find their own questions and steer their own way toward possible answers. This allowed me a wonderful freedom of exploration, but with only the background materials of literature, nature and the impulse toward finding the sacred in mundane life experience. My family’s quiet retreats in nature were ripe with opportunity for this type of inquiry, and I savoured my connection with the natural world through writing.

Flying was my first published poet, and appeared in ASH: Arts, Sciences and Humanities, Number 2, Volume 1, in 1994. I wrote it while living in Dijon, France, in the fall of 1992. I remember sitting down to write it out at one of the front tables at Café Granjib on the market square in the cobbled city centre . It is a distillation of the experience of viewing the flight path of birds just before a storm from my room in a mansard roof, an old ‘chambre de bonne’, or nanny’s quarters, that offered incredible views out over the rooftops toward the horizon.

Flying

Leaning out the window,
swallows just above my head circle around and around.
I look up and am lost in a spiral of sensations,
transported to the height of my ideas,
spiritual heights just beneath the clouds.
Flapping lower down,
they glide in a swift orbit between the parallel
limestone blocks, here and back and around again,
flapping and chirping,
entranced in a kind of rhythmic ecstasy.
In pairs, and fours,
the swallows play at the height of my rooftop room.
Another electric storm will soon lash out across the sky
cutting the gracefully insistent lasso in mid-flight.
Then, they will rise again.
My eyes mark an imaginary cone.
I am holding the invisible string.
Around and around by the force of the wind,
held in orbit by a central spirit, they are grounded,
yet free to fly.

Sometimes Less is, Well, Just Less: Consumer guilt, self denial and financial woes in the yoga community

Spare Change

I recently read an article about ‘spiritual bypass’ by Buddhist teacher John Welwood. It resonated with me, and I felt I could relate it to what seems to be finally coming to the fore in the yoga community also – the way we use our spiritual path as a means of neglecting to deal with our personal baggage. You might say, “but yoga is all about working through our karma.” Yes, but it can also play into our blind spots if we are of a more reclusive nature, for example, or have patterns of “playing small”, or being minimalist junkies.

I don’t want to make it sound like I think we yogis are all self-flagellating hermits who subsist on nettle tea (actually, I probably need three articles to unpack that image), but I’ve seen and experienced yoga practitioners who:

  • spend a lot of time alone and exacerbate their tendency to introversion;
  • fast easily, and slip into very minimal eating and fasting that is not beneficial to their body type;
  • but most prevalent, yogis who have long standing issues with artha, or money/abundance:

We say we believe in abundance, and yet, the yoga community is riddled with scarcity and poverty consciousness, and guilt surrounding possessions and prospering. This can show up in so many ways for people from not pursuing careers they really want, to feeling uncomfortable about charging clients for services. And this is why I have trouble with pithy maxims like “less is more”. Yes, this phrase does accurately represent a part of yoga: aparigraha, or non-hoarding, non-aquisitiveness. And people often really feel so benefited by de-cluttering, not taking on too much, consuming less and experiencing more. I get it! And yet, in yoga circles, I’ve often heard monastics preaching non-consumerism to a room full of dedicated abstainers. Many of us are very good at abstention – we’re minimalist addicts. And so for us, less is really just, well, just less. It may affect our health, and it may keep us ensnared for years in a cycle of believing that we don’t deserve a vacation, or a new coat, or to earn anything much above the poverty line. This is where we need to see the shadow side of our yoga culture, and also perhaps of our own tendencies that led us to yoga in the first place. We need to be skillful. As is taught in the Bhagavad Gita, yoga is balance: yoga is not for the keeper of excessive vigils or fasts. Yoga is skill in action.

Recently I heard a report on the CBC about female foreign correspondents who decided to have children. I was gripped by the story which described women who had lived for years out of a suitcase and were ready to leave town at a moment’s notice to go on assignment. It was a story about a career exacerbating a tendency not to cultivate community ties, to live on a shoestring and without allowing oneself to have a sense of home and family. Most of the women who had decided to have children initially believed they would be able to have a child and continue working and living as they were doing. After all, it was their chosen lifestyle. Of course, children bring with them an incredible sense of home and grounding; having them often makes us recognize how much we have neglected ourselves and the simple pleasures of just sitting on the front porch.

As a long time overseas English teacher, yoga teacher and new parent, this rang a bell. I’d moved overseas four times, living abroad for five years out of eight. When I decided community was important to me, and I wanted to live in a place where people weren’t as transient as expats tend to be, I was 30, and owned nothing that didn’t fit into an old ruck sack and a suitcase I got when I was 17. I went to Honest Ed’s and bought a garbage can, a set of cutlery, 3 glass mixing bowls, a set of stainless steel pots, a few wood spoons, and carried it all home in the garbage can by subway. With the cast off furniture of family members, I set up a neat home for myself in a one-bedroom flat in an old house in mid-town Toronto. I was setting up my first real home.

I began to recognize that no one was benefitting from the fact that I was settling for less, and eventually left the ESL profession (which one of my colleagues described s the Cinderella in the closet of the education industry), and started to teach yoga, only to discover that pay and yoga teaching is a whole other kettle of fish. To deconstruct it, you need to start at the beginning by seeing that your being paid less does not stop another person’s exploitation, just the contrary. When we teach on a per/student basis with no minimum fee, it creates a culture where this is the norm, and most yoga teachers do not benefit from the per/head system, especially in December and August. This really hit home when an Indian businessman told me strictly: “Stop teaching for free! Charge a fair rate to people who value your services and can make yoga a priority in their lives. Then give discounts to people who truly can’t”. Again, we see this in the Bhagavad Gita: a balanced type of service is an appropriate thing, at the right time to a person who needs it.

And so, I set my experience at budgeting to the creation of a business plan, and to figuring out the feasibility of workshops: how many people fit into the space, balanced with the cost of the space, the expected remuneration of the teacher to find the optimal cost (within my clients’ range) of a workshop. I discovered that I actually enjoyed running a business, and once it got going, I was able to own a home, participate in neighbourhood organizations, support two children, and earn a decent salary for my time and expertise.

But something in me tweaks when I hear yoga teachers-in-training talking about the perceived ideal of not charging any money for yoga teaching, or of downsizing, dropping out of society, moving to an intentional community of yurt-dwellers, or challenging me for having a rotation of Indian outfits I wear to teach as if owning several cotton block-print dresses were automatically, ironically, un-yogic.

Yes, I still notice consumer guilt, areas of imperfect self care, and odd incidents of excessive minimalism. You might be thinking that we should have some consumer guilt – we should be cautious that we use our money actively to support businesses that are ethical, and are not just buying into the capitalist machine. You may have heard that halitosis was only really made widely socially unacceptable after the marketing of mouthwash. Yes, yes, yes. I’m not arguing for more denial, or for fewer ethics, or for buying things you’re never going to use from TV infomercials designed to fabricate their own utility. Neem twig, anyone? I’m saying that rather than use yoga philosophy to avoid looking at our issues with money, value, social acceptability, relative deservingness, sense of home and stability etc., we may need to take extra care to cultivate clarity in these particular areas. And if we’re teachers…take time and care in showing the texture of yogic teachings, and the helix like nature of how it works on us. Because sometimes less is more, and sometimes less is, well, just less.

Chetana believes in small family businesses, and communities co-generating wealth. She still has an aversion to “being big” – not small doesn’t mean bigger than other people. She still wears shoes until they’re falling off her feet, but relishes providing herself with new pairs, some of which are unpractical.

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Harry Potter and the Magical World of Yoga

Along with a bunch of other Harry Potter junkies, I am re-viewing all of the films on the big screen leading up to the release of the final film. My family indulges me partly because they know I need a night out now and again, and because they know I am strangely uplifted by these stories. Actually, perhaps it is not strange, as in unusual. When I was first introduced to Harry Potter in 2004, I was helping an ESL student research an independent study project on the first two books. I read the books so that we could discuss themes and symbols etc. I was immediately captivated. My student was interested in researching what people reported they felt moved by in the stories. Even at that time there was loads of material on the Internet by sick or disadvantaged children, shy people, or those facing a challenge in their lives, who felt encouraged by the solidarity and integrity of Harry Potter and his friends.

I believe that art reflects life, and that all art in some sense is creative non-fiction. We relate to the common human struggles, and inner journeys explored. In Harry Potter, I appreciate the navigation of social struggles such as the conflict between pure bloods, half bloods and muggles ‘mud bloods’; the challenges faced by disempowered groups such as the house elves. Also, novels that I have most enjoyed contain kernels of wisdom that call us to reflect. At the end of book/movie two, Dumbledore puts it to Harry that “it is not our talents that make us who we are, it is our choices”. Students of yoga may recognize this as compatible with yogic reflections on skill in action (karma yoga).

In Yoga Teacher Training students sometimes seem surprised to hear me mention Harry Potter. But perhaps what interests me most about the stories is the sense of magic, and how that reminds me of yoga. Of course, the author has drawn from wisdom traditions in the books, and made references to this through names or powers and spells, such as anima, just as in Star Wars, the writers drew from Indian tradition in naming Yoda with a Sanskrit word for warrior. Yes, Yoda was a spiritual warrior – a master of mindfulness speaking in aphorisms. In this way, Dumbledore is to Harry Potter what Yoda is to Luke Skywalker: the teacher, the guru, the one who points to the power within and the key to understanding and tapping that power. These stories are our modern legends, rich in symbolism, and reminding us that there is more to life than “getting and spending”; reminding us that there is more to us than what we see, and what we may perceive our limitations to be.

That magic the wizards and witches tap into refers in my mind to the timeless awareness and transcendental prana that we tap into when we use the tool of yoga, or any practice/ritual/contemplation/meditation. Life is magical! We are much more powerful than we believe ourselves to be! We can connect to the past, present and future through timeless awareness, and knowledge fields that are all around us. We can use our insight and expanded energy to stay present, savour moment-to-moment experience, make choices and to help others. What we see in Harry Potter is both the magic (the tools, the practice of magic), and the daily living of it (the compassion, the integrity, the celebration of nature, friendship, sport, culture and celebration itself.

Pass the pumpkin juice!

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