If Not Now, When?

Now Green CircleThe Luna Yoga summer retreat last August at Spa Eastman was illuminating for many reasons, one of which had to do with a tidbit of information communicated to us by guest lecturer Eugénie Francoeur, a Radio-Canada reporter and meditation lecturer. She spoke to our group about the patterns of the mind, and to be more specific, the thoughts that jumble around in our minds. 85% of our thoughts are actually useless, which is to say that they do not provide insight, illumination or any help in planning on the path to accomplishing something. Instead of guiding us somewhere productive, these thoughts are spent worrying about what cannot be changed, mainly to do with what is in the past.

This statistic creeped back into the forefront of my thoughts yesterday when I was on my way home from my 2nd-to-last teacher training weekend. We were treated to another lecturer last night, Antoine Tinawi, a specialist in Ayurveda from The Art of Living, a volunteer-based foundation created by His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Antoine had many things to tell us, all delivered in an incredibly sweet and pure manner, à la Prabakar (one of the most memorable characters from my favorite book of all time, Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts). He talked to us about the Doshas, about food, about body characteristics and the Gunas, but the thing that stayed with me the most out of everything I heard was, “We live as if we have all the time in the world to obsess over the past and the future.” I’m still recovering from that one. Occasionally I read or overhear a phrase or idea that is the manifestation of my being, something that I consider to be so ingrained in my outlook and life philosophy that to have it exist outside of my being leaves me reeling. That occurred last night, and I’m still thinking about it.

I’ve spoken and written about how I feel our society is moving away from awareness into ignorance through sense of entitlement. About how teenage boys and girls today absolutely need to know where the rights that are afforded to them in today’s world came from, and what it took to get them. Girls need to know who Gloria Steinem is. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered community need to know who Matthew Shepard was. I could go on and on…any sub-culture that has any visibility has had to shed blood, sweat and tears to get it, and the way of the Western world today seems like fewer people are asking questions about the journeys that have led to today. The danger that exists in this complacency is potentially frightening, because, as we all know, the proverbial pendulum doesn’t only swing to one side. What swings to the right will inevitably swing back to the left, and vice versa. What dictates how far it swings is the momentum of ignorance that has built up before it starts moving again.

We are so insanely lucky to live where we live in today’s society. To be afforded the freedoms we have to pursue happiness, regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender or age. To be able to grow up assuming that those freedoms constitute our rights…that we’re somehow entitled to opportunities, to be able to choose how, where and with whom we spend our lives. On a global scale, we are in the minority, and it’s imperative that we remember this. We need to take every opportunity available to us to be thankful for the lives we lead, for the bodies we have that allow us to follow our paths and for the people around us who provide our safety nets, our extended families. We need to start living in the now, to stop obsessing over what exists in our pasts, and to not put an overt amount of significance in the future. Don’t get me wrong, now…it’s obviously wise and practical to plan financially and otherwise for where we see ourselves in the future, but we must always keep in mind that the future is as uncontrollable as the past. Nothing ever ends up being what we thought it would be, and is we really pay attention to how many of our thoughts consist of harping on what cannot be changed or affected, we’d probably be a lot more focused and productive, a lot less physically and mentally exhausted, and probably more accepting and compassionate of each other.

All I’m trying to say is that we can’t go wrong by living each moment to the fullest instead of looking back at what could have been or focusing on how we’d like to manipulate the future into being what we think it should be. It’s about appreciating and being present, about loving and sharing that appreciation with everyone around us. People will not only gravitate towards that kind of energy, but will want to embody it as well to pass it on, because at the core of that energy is the Truth. About ourselves and the world we live in. Where we came from and where we’re going. If we absolutely have to think about the past, then let’s agree to credit ourselves with having been as conscious and aware as we could have been, as productive, loving and compassionate as we could have been. And let’s agree that that energy is what lies ahead of us. More of the same. We may not necessarily be entitled to it, but we deserve it.

Calm Is The Morn

Costa Rica DawnI’ve started teaching an early morning class over the past month, and despite my initial (and ongoing) aversion to alarm clocks and the awkward fumbling along the wall to find the light switch in the darkness of the early hour, I’m surprised at how I look forward to each AM class.

According to the definition used by my friends, I would fall into the category of a “morning person.” I usually wake up before the alarm clock is set to go off, regardless of the time it’s set to do so…I don’t need a cup of coffee to get going, and I’m more often than not cheery and alert upon rising. Never having been a fan of breakfast (despite being fully aware of its benefits), I don’t need to eat to kick-start myself in the morning…I can just get up and go, no worries and rarely without a smile on my face. All of this does not, however, mean that I like doing it. In fact, there are few things in my life that I hold dearer than the fact that I rarely have to wake up before 9am. This reason for this may lie in my past career, where it was not unusual to have to be at work for 7am, which required waking up at 5:15am (something that has since been relegated to catching early morning flights). One of the many pleasures I have encountered since leaving that career behind is catching up on sleep. As far as I’m concerned, depriving one of sleep in the line of duty should be reserved solely for those saving lives…doctors, nurses, our brothers and sisters in the armed forces. As was my situation, selling clothes to people who are buying said merchandise as a form of therapy is unnecessary and will never be part of my reality again as long as I live. Having gotten that out in the open, and now having the opportunity to return from the tangent I found myself forging, nothing has surprised me more since starting the AM class than the overwhelming feeling of tranquility and connectedness that I find myself immersed in at 6:30 am outside waiting for the bus.

Standing outside watching the absence of light recede, hearing the om-like vibration of the silence that descended on the city overnight, feeling the ocean-like sound of my breath as it operates my body’s mechanisms, even making eye contact with my fellow early risers as we pass each other on our respective ways through the murky morning…there’s a certain perfection to being awake at that hour, regardless of all the other factors and how they play a role in creating an atmosphere. If I close my eyes and just focus on my breathing, I could easily convince myself that I’ve tapped into another level on consciousness, some primordial essence of being that has existed long before human beings and will outlast us by eons. It is commonly suggested that yoga be practiced during the wee hours of the morning as there are few distractions and more organic energy to tap into throughout the asana practice, and I now understand why. I have obviously gotten up earlier than usual to practice yoga throughout my years as a yogi, most consistently for my teacher training weekends, but I must have been so focused on getting there on time that I missed all the beauty and purity of those mornings.

Teaching the class also offers a meditative quality that rarely presents itself in my later classes. The tone, cadence and fluidity of my voice takes on a unique quality during those sessions that leaves me feeling as rested as I do after the most restorative of savasanas, and so I look towards these classes with anticipation each week, knowing that not only will my altered state benefit my students, but will leave me feeling like I managed to tap into an energy reserved for the select few, the fortunate ones, the ones who understand the validity and benefits to rising early.

I can’t say that I’ll be rousing myself from my slumber daily, or that I could easily go without as much sleep as I’ve grown used to over the past year, but my intention is to get myself up and receptive earlier, and more often, so that I can partake in that feeling of connectedness to the universe that has presented itself to me. I’ll keep you posted on my progress, and feel free to try it out yourselves…and let me know what your observations and findings are 🙂

UK Musings

IMG_9351The church bells, clanging through the viscous blackness of the chilled night, their peals travelling through the mossy graveyard and over the rolling back lawn of the Walpole’s house, have just announced the start of a new 24-hour cycle, and, coincidentally, the end of my 36th birthday. I’ve been here in Norfolk visiting my extended family for over a week now, with another few days ahead of me before I return home to the plummeting sub-zero temperatures of another prematurely frosty Montreal autumn. As I get ready to go to sleep at the end of this latest birthday, I find myself more than ever aware of the irrationality and fleetingness of time, and how intently I find myself holding onto the moments and events that are taking place around me. Doing so also serves to offer up a different slant on the life that exists for me here in England, one that lies waiting patiently, yet anxiously for my inevitable return, year after year. I come to England to reconnect with my oldest friend Helene, her husband Kerry, and their two sons Freddie and Wills, the latter of whom is my godson. It seems like whenever I come over to visit, I end up getting sick, whether it be from missing a night of sleep on the plane over, or from being immersed in a household containing two young boys building up their immune systems with bacteria and germs solely on offer on the floors and doorknobs of the local daycare. Regardless, my inevitable decline into feeling less than robust succeeds in setting the tone for my stay in this breathtaking country, one whose history of gothic and medieval tales can easily be forgotten in the light of the blazing mid-day sun, but which takes microseconds to regain its position and influence with the return of a single charcoal-edged cloud. Spending months of my life in this history-drenched corner of the country has allowed me to understand what it must feel like to live among spirits, as every turn of the ultra-narrow roads that wind their way through the English countryside reveals another centuries-old church, cathedral, or cemetery, usually complete with a detailed history retold on a tablet nearby for passers-by. As fortunate as I am to be able to have this magical land as part of my make-up, I’m even luckier to have people here who I feel close enough to to refer to as extended family, and, in turn, whose respective families have become part of that extended network of mine. I’ve been treated, this birthday of mine, to a visit from more UK friends who drove from the other side of the country to spend my 36th with me, to a gorgeous meal in a Thai-themed country pub as well as a pub birthday lunch, all topped off with a full, home-made Indian feast that Hel painstakingly prepared over two days. The food, the company, and, ultimately, the network of lovely people and the mutual affection we hold for each other has left me feeling like the luckiest guy in the world, and I feel the need to acknowledge that…to appreciate how blessed I am in this life knowing how much light I’m surrounded with, and to understand the responsibility I have to reflect and pass on that light to everyone else around me in the knowledge that it will travel the globe through the actions and words of like-minded individuals. Thank you to my UK family for leaving me speechless, for making me laugh until I can no longer catch my breath, and for loving me so generously…I am more grateful than these words can ever express.

Who’s The Fairest?

An integral part of my yogic journey involves recognizing where my ego tends to appear (and take over) and how to separate it from everyday situations to ensure that I’m not purely thinking of myself, but rather of the more universal Self. At this point in time, checking my ego has been an excercise almost 10 years in the making, and I can’t help but think that it will take many more years to get where I’d like to be with that dissociation. Don’t get me wrong – I am far from selfish or self-absorbed, but it’s amazing how present the ego can be when you least expect it.

With all the changes that have gone on in my life over the past 12 months, I can’t help but feel a little flare-up of pride when I receive good feedback about any of my projects or endeavors. The way I’d been conditioned to learn was by receiving positive reinforcement upon completion of a subject or task, so despite having more personal satisfaction over the past year than I’ve ever had, I’m also hungrier for recognition and more ambitious than I’ve ever been. I suppose this is down to wanting to be the absolute best version of myself that I can be, which seems more loftier a goal than ever considering that a good part of my time now is spent as a student. In the past I’ve never been enamoured by what I was doing professionally, but was more motivated by who I was doing it with and the money I got paid for doing it. My motivation now seems somehow more organic, more of an expression of who I am, but that ends up being more of a double-edged sword, as nothing is more intimidating for me than putting myself out there for everyone else to see. Being that vulnerable and transparent means feeling the feedback ten-fold, whether it be praise or criticism (I must admit than any criticism I’ve received in this new chapter of my life has been solely constructive, for my own good with the best of intentions behind them, and the source of the best information I’ve yet received).

Once I had gotten in the habit of checking my ego at the first sign of an appearance, I started to notice how other people’s ego manifested themselves in their words and actions. Most of them time, the people seemed oblivious of it, but in other cases, it seemed to be the motivator behind those words and actions. What I observe daily is that people who work in different sectors display different degrees needing to have their ego fed. This need is obviously also affected by different upbringings in different environments, but where people end up spending their professional lives is sometimes a very telling marker of how they need to feel appreciated and how intensely their ego needs stroking.

The most obvious example of this would be people in the entertainment industry. The most successful performers of our time, the greatest entertainers who are the most at ease on a stage in front of tens of thousands of people, are very often the biggest egomaniacs of our time. I sometimes think that these people are also the ones who were missing some key element in childhood, some opportunity to bond with a parent or loved one that proved elusive. As a result, the rest of their lives are spent looking for that bond and the person attached to it. Having a stadium or arena full of people adoring and paying to see an entertainer of this caliber would definitely be the most extreme version of an ego getting what it thinks it needs, but this is not always the case. If you speak to or listen to any of these entertainers talk about their experience, the most commonly discussed issue that arises is that instead of walking away from the experience sated and nurtured, the opposite occurs, leaving the entertainer feeling more alone and isolated than ever. Nothing can ever take the place of the bonding that occurs in early childhood, and so some of the most successful, egomaniacal people are simply looking for that bonding.

Obviously, not everything is black and white. There are highly successful people who love what they do and perceive financial compensation, adulation and praise as by-products of the gig, but not necessarily the motivating factors. The ego probably plays a role in somewhere in the equation, but the benefits of helping others often serves as the imprint that keeps them going. There are doctors, lawyers, spiritual advisors, and countless others that walk away from clients knowing that they have aided in changing people’s lives for the better, and now that I’ve been teaching yoga and living all that it encompasses, I can see how why it keeps people going. I had always heard the expression, “To help others is to help yourself,” but I always thought it sounded like a contradiction – if the aim is to help others, then I shouldn’t be concerned with helping myself. I now, however, understand it.

Most of the literature I’ve read about spirituality, be it Yoga, Kabbalah, Buddhism, Hinduism, all of it points to the fact that despite being separate waves, we are all still individual components that make up the same ocean, and we all share the same source. From that perspective, it makes sense that if we all are from the same source, sharing the same energy, then to help someone is to help oneself. And to help oneself is to help everyone, thanks to the thread of continuity that binds us all together.  Tthe satisfaction and contentment that comes from helping others has allowed me to be more at ease in my career now than I ever was.

Teaching a yoga class is proving to be the best way to remove the ego from my environment. Giving it all up, my words, my breath, my energy, my intention, and seeing the manifestation of my instruction take shape through the students’ postures leaves me with a feeling that only reinforces my belief in what I’m doing. As meditative as their practice is, I’m finding an equally meditative aspect in teaching…the cadence and inflections of my words and voice and the vibrations that are produced in my body by the continual stream of instruction is proving to be a greater teacher than I ever could have imagined. It’s in these moments that I realize the value of removing the ego from the equation, when I sense the truth at the base of our collective existence rising up, making a rare appearance. And so I keep on going, becoming more and more comfortable teaching and practicing, more and more certain of the value of what I’m doing (all the while knowing that I’m simply managing something that works through me without being deluded into believing that I own it). And so I’m grateful 🙂

Note to Self

note-coverI’ll admit it. I was checking out Perez Hilton’s website last week. Even yours truly gets an infinitesimal kick out of reading what goes on among the A-listers of the world (and some of the D-listers as well)…So there I was, going page by page when I came across something that got me thinking for the next couple of days: Perez had written a letter to his younger self. I didn’t read what was written in the letter…I instead kept looking for the celebrity dirt. What stayed with me, however, wasn’t the latest “breaking news” about the cast of Twilight, but rather that letter, or to be more exact, the idea behind the letter. I started thinking about what I would write to my own teenage self…what words of advice, or compassion, or warning would work their way into the letter? So I started writing down the ideas and messages I would have loved to have heard during my adolescence, and I thought I’d share them here…so here goes (and I apologize if this takes the form of all those chain letters that my mother forwards on ;)):

– Understand that nothing ever ends up being what you thought it would be.

– Don’t be so hard on yourself…just because you aren’t making the same life choices as almost everyone around you doesn’t mean those choices are wrong.

– Always do your best.

– Every time you feel that you stick out like a sore thumb, every time you feel criticized and scrutinized, understand that it’s all a story you’ve created…it has nothing to do with you.

– Keep laughing even when you feel like bawling your eyes out (but allow yourself to bawl your eyes out!)

– Don’t pick up that $100 bill.

– Understand that everyone around you is doing his/her best – people display behavior that they are taught.

– Recognize the power of your breath – it will keep your mind quiet and focused.

– Understand that what underlies everything and everyone is what really matters. The rest is just noise.

– You’re never alone.

– You’re already the person you want to be.

– Don’t be afraid to show people who you are.

– You were right when you told Mom that you would never stop swearing 🙂

– What you find mind-numbingly embarrassing will one day be the best material a comic could ask for.

– Recognize how good your life is and be grateful for your body, your family and your friends.

– Even though you don’t know what it means, you want to practice Yoga.

What would you write to your adolescent self? How do you feel about who you were and what you went through to get where you are? Let me know if you actually get down to writing a letter or even a list of messages like I have…and when you’re done, go back through your list and see what messages or advice is equally as valid now as it would have been back then…after all, we are creatures of habit…and, really, let me know…I think this could be an incredibly eye-opening, cathartic exercise!

My Extended Family

Norfolk Sunset
Norfolk Sunset

I have many things to be grateful for in this life. My health is good, my body allows me to pursue my dreams (however physical they may be), I have someone in my life who I love and who loves me. I am blessed to have a wonderful family surrounding me including two parents who haven’t stopped loving each other after more than 40 years of marriage, and that family has slowly grown with the addition of my brothers’ wives and my younger brother’s daughter. What makes me feel like the luckiest guy in the world, the one ingredient that without which I would feel less whole than I currently do, is the circle of friends I have in my life. I literally feel surrounded by friends who support, amuse, inspire, and love me, much in the same way I do them.

I understand the concept of seeing what one emanates be reflected back at them, I understand the universal law of cause and effect..nonetheless, I often find myself in awe of how much I appreciate and admire my friends. One of my oldest and closest friends, Sonia P., relayed something to me this week that she had discussed with the man in her life. They were pondering the need to stop living in a place of “I can’t” and “I don’t have.” When she casually mentioned this to me, I was floored. Sometimes I hear an idea or a philosophy verbalized in an almost inconceivably concise and efficient manner, and this was one of those times. If we (I’m referring to the collective “we”) tweaked our conditioning to bring our awareness to what we’re capable of and to what we have surrounding us in our lives, I’m sure a massive amount of suffering and chaos would be eliminated. Our confidence levels would skyrocket (which alone would bring about a major shift in consciousness), and we would be able to consider ourselves more “awake”…more plugged into the meaning of life, into loving ourselves the way we all should, and consequently, each other. The yoga classes I’m teaching over the next week or two will have Sonia’s pearls of wisdom incorporated throughout the practice, so any benefits that arise from those classes can be credited to her.

On a more physical plane of existence, I have been suffering from pretty intense back pain since my last Teacher Training weekend over 10 days ago. Luckily I am surrounded by a slew of resources (and resourceful friends who can point me towards said resources), and earlier this week my friend Adriana referred me to an Osteopathic clinic near where I live. I have literally just come back from my appointment (my first ever  after 10 years of asana), and I’m amazed at what I learned about what Osteopaths do, about how my body moves. I’m also incredibly grateful to Adriana for directing me to someone who could put my mind at ease about the pain I was feeling and allow me to stop fearing that I had done something irreparable to my body. Referring me to a place that she trusted with her own body allowed me to walk into a new situation and environment with ease and no worry, and am I ever happy I did. After an extensive examination of my posture, my spine, and the tensegrity structure that is my body (that’s for you fellow trainees!!!), I was manipulated gently, but firmly, and walked out of the clinic lighter  in spirit and feeling somewhat better physically. We’ll see what the next couple of days have in store for my back pain, but regardless, I feel better 🙂

On an international note, I have to express my gratitude and love for another of my oldest and closest friends, Helene and her entire family who live in Norfolk, England. Helene is mother to two beautiful boys (one of whom is my Godson) and is married to Kerry, a real British bloke who can make me laugh like almost no one else can. I have seen Helene and her clan of boys at least once a year for the past 13 years as I made occasional bi-annual trips over to the UK, and going back before her sons were born, with trips Hel & Kerry made to come visit me here in Canada. This year would have marked the first year that we would not have seen each other, as a family trip for them to come over would prove too costly, and my change of careers this year has seen me start over from scratch from a financial standpoint. Imagine my surprise, if you will, when I got a phone call from Helene & Kerry over a month ago telling me that because they understood my situation and couldn’t spend thousands of pounds coming here, they wanted to pay for my trip to come and spend time with them all. And spend time with them I shall! I’ll be going over again in a couple of weeks, for a couple of weeks, and I’m literally humbled by the generosity and kindness I’m being showered with.

I suppose I’m letting Sonia’s words sink into my being with all this gratitude…essentially, her words created a shift in my thinking and in the way I see and interpret the people and events that surround  me…and where I find myself is pretty remarkable. I’d like to believe that none of this is new to me, that I’ve been awake and alert to it all throughout my years on the yogic path, but I apparently lost sight of it all somewhere…thankfully my extended family is there to redirect me back to center, and to remind me that there’s always ground to be covered and humility to be had. And so I’m grateful 🙂

Touchy, Touchy

hand touchToday is a day to relax and recover somewhat from this weekend, which was the latest installment in my 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training, and it was intense. As is sometimes the case with yoga, it was grueling physically, mentally and emotionally (breathing through the physical aspect of it usually drums up the mental and emotional issues that define who we are and how we react to different situations). This morning finds me a little quieter and a little more sore than usual (and a tad more humble, me thinks!). Something we discussed over the weekend has kept creeping back to the forefront of my thoughts, so I figured why not try to make sense of it all by posting it up here?  An article was read to us on the subject of touch; the role it plays in different societies, and its significance in creating and maintaining bonds that link people one to the other. As a yoga teacher, it is my responsibility to not only be confident with the adjustments that I administer to my students, but to know how and when to touch and to not be irresponsible in the execution of the adjustments. To understand the responsibility that we have as teachers and human beings, we need to understand the significance and the science of touch.

North America is considered to be a “low touch” culture, one in which we are more concerned with the idea of personal space than with how we can assist each other by maintaining some sort of physical contact. In a society where the ever-elusive drives the masses to exhaustion and people are withdrawing from the workplace after having “burned out”, I would have hoped that someone in a position of influence would have bothered to look at what we lack as a culture. But that’s not the North American way. Why would we ever admit to being “less than”? It’s this false pride that has brought our society to where it is, and we need a wake-up call. Now.

The medicinal aspects of touch date back over the last 2500 years. Known to decrease stress and increase dopamine and serotonin levels, touch actually boosts the immune system. More impressive than the benefits of touch are the results of touch deprivation. A medical condition named Marasmus (Greek for “wasting away”) was discovered in the 1800’s after a slew of small infants died of starvation. The cause for this ended up being lack of constant physical contact between the child and the caretakers. The children literally wasted away from not being touched. Ironically for us as Westerners, the first thing that a doctor does when delivering a child is to place the child on the mother’s chest and into the mother’s arms. That initial contact is vital to creating the life-long bond that only exists between a mother and her child.

The power of touch is almost other-worldly. Speech, for all its effectiveness and precision, is sometimes less effective as a communication tool than touch can be. Touch can convey a myriad of emotions and intentions: love, grief, affection, disappointment, reassurance, emphasis, anger, aggression, assistance, defensiveness, instruction, congratulations, therapy, punishment, pity, sexuality, sympathy, and the list goes on and on…What serves as the toll of differentiation behind each instant of contact is the intention behind it. Sometimes touch can convey what words and deeds cannot, and it is in these moments of truth and purity that technology and scientific advances take a back seat to what has existed since the dawn of humanity.

As a yoga teacher, I have seen many people’s relationships to touching and being touched. Some students admit to the possibility of being touched by the teacher as a major motivator in getting them to class, as it’s the only interpersonal contact they’re getting in their life. Some students feel that being adjusted is some form of criticism of their form and, ultimately, their practice. Some believe that to not get adjusted during class is a form of abandonment, of being overlooked. Others freeze up when they get adjusted, maintaining a rigidity in their alignment, giving me the impression that they are set in their body positioning and in their minds and do not want assistance. These are usually the same people who approach me after class to let me know how much they loved the class and can’t wait for the next one. Everyone has a different relationship with touch, and walking the fine line that links us to each other is the job of the yoga teacher, one that I take extremely seriously but that will not ultimately alter my method of teaching. I believe that with mindfulness and the correct intention, my students will only benefit from the contact I make with them, and that in some cases, that contact can re-define what they deem as a healthy avenue of communication. I’ve always been an affectionate person, a massive fan of hugging and a believer in the power to communicate the intensity of an emotion with the aid of touch. Funneling this aspect of my character into a yoga setting takes some care, but it’s something I’m happy to do. It’s this kind of influence that makes me proud to be able to do what I do. The ability to help (and potentially heal) others brings a validity to my profession that until this period in my life proved elusive.

Let me know what you think about all this…what your viewpoints are on touching and being touched, on and off the yoga mat. And don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who may need that extra bit of affection or support…sometimes simple contact is all that we need.

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