Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Poem for a Summer Sunday

The Sun

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats towards the horizon

[A photo I snapped of my friend, Caroline, taking in a Boston sunset]. 

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone--
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance--
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love--
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world--

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?  

-Mary Oliver, New & Selected Poems: Volume One 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Hey, Baby, What's Your Mantra?

A mantra is a thought or intention expressed as a sound.  These sounds include syllables, words, or phrases, which may or may not have their own translatable meanings.  "OM" is the most popular mantra.

A mantra can be said aloud, repeated silently to oneself (as in meditation), sung with devotion (as in kirtan and bhakti yoga), or visualized in written form.  Many Sanskrit mantras, such as Om Mani Padme Hum, a central mantra in Tibetan Buddhism, are often captured in art, beautifully written or carved on stones and sculptures, or incorporated into clothing, jewelry, and talismans.

A yoga student and Buddhist friend of mine generously brought this stone back from Nepal last year; it features Om Mani Padme Hum (a mantra without direct, translatable meaning but believed to encourage enlightened awareness) on one side and the eyes of the Buddha on the other.  It resides on the bookshelf above my desk, where I write.

Mantras anchor the mind during meditation, soothe or energize the body in times of physical challenge, and connect the soul more deeply to God or spirit.

And yogis aren't the only ones to incorporate mantras into their lives.  Athletes, for instance, often use mantras or affirmations to improve performance, which is nicer than steroids, don't you think? World-class distance runner Kara Goucher chooses a new word while training for each race.  Words like "confidence" and "fighter" helped Goucher maintain focus in grueling races at the 10,000 meters and marathon distances last year, according to an article in the March 2010 issue of Runner's World.  

I'm not running any marathons this week, but I've chanted Om Namah Shivaya and repeated Catholic prayers under my breath, over and over, on multiple occasions.  It isn't intentional, which is the interesting part, and I realize, now, how much the brain craves the structure and repetition provided by mantras, especially in difficult times, such as the loss of a loved one.  For me, it's been one small, silent outlet for staying calm and remaining present.

Do you use mantras, as a meditation tool, coping skill, or sports performance enhancer?  What are your favorites?    

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Om Gal's Take on Eat, Pray, Love: What's Yours?

Eat.  Pray.  Love . . . Three individually simple and unanimously positive words that, when combined, as in the title of the book by Elizabeth Gilbert and newly released film starring Julia Roberts, conjure up mixed feelings within the yoga community.  It’s hard to pinpoint the precise root of these feelings, especially when the book was, by most accounts, well-written and well-received.  I suspect our reservations stem from the ongoing dialogue about how yoga’s mushrooming popularity and commercialization makes us feel—a discussion we have on this site often.  

“I’m curious because it’s Julia Roberts,” says a friend several weeks before the movie debuts.  “If it were, say, Jennifer Aniston, I would NOT see Eat, Pray, Love.  And I like Jennifer Aniston, but I would already know what kind of movie I was getting, and—no, thank you.”  

With this statement, my friend (who happens to be from India, where a portion of the book and film take place) summarizes the precarious task of taking a heartfelt and hilarious spiritual memoir and turning it into Sex and the City for the yoga set.  The girls-night premier parties, product tie-ins (Fresh cosmetics released a line of fragrances in conjunction with the movie; they include—wait for it—Eat, Pray, and Love), and oodles of coverage in the media all suggested that the film adaptation might be nothing more than a spiritually bereft and trite “chick flick.” 

Thankfully, it wasn’t Jennifer Aniston, a lovely and infinitely likable comedic actress but one lacking the depth of Julia Roberts, and it wasn’t Sex and the City for the yoga set.  It just wasn’t that great of a movie.

It was entertaining, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t rock my om gal world.  I liked it most after the first 1/3 of the film, which was slow and clumsy.  I recall Elizabeth Gilbert’s heartbreak in the beginning of the book as being more potent, with the subsequent pilgrimage to Italy, India, and Bali legitimized by the level of that heartbreak and her determination to heal.  Moreover, Gilbert’s craft (writing) was more prevalent in the book, and it was evident she intended to write about her travels from the start.  Without this underlying objective, the movie bordered on self-indulgent at times.  How many newly divorced people can afford to heal their broken hearts by vacating all responsibilities for a year and taking a soul-searching sabbatical around the globe?  When a laptop finally made an appearance more than an hour into the film, I breathed a sigh of relief.  Then again, I’m a writer, so it’s possible this didn’t bother anyone else . . .

The absence of yoga, in asana form, bothered some.  Alas, not me.  I rejoiced in seeing nary a poorly aligned yoga pose or Hollywood orchestrated yoga class in the film.  Even if executed well, a yoga practice in Eat, Pray, Love might be too obvious or, worse, kitschy.  And it doesn’t hurt to show a Western audience that there’s more to spirituality in India (and yoga as a whole) than the tricky yoga poses featured in chick flicks such as: The Next Best Thing (Madonna), What Women Want, Spanglish (Tea Leoni), Failure to Launch . . . Do I need to keep going?

For some, the film not only didn’t rock their worlds; it pissed them off thoroughly.  Ask our pal David Romanelli about the response he got from heterosexual male friends when he suggested they see the film together and get some “fro-yo” afterward.  Peruse some of the critiques, comments, and blogs online, and you’ll find that people describe Eat, Pray, Love as everything from "fickle," to "insufferable," to "racist."     

I disagree with the harshness of these reviews; I liked the movie and found it charming, albeit a tad bland and unfulfilling (not the food, though; the food in Italy looked exquisite).  I walked away feeling entertained, which is I think the point of going to the movies, no?  It’s a visually alluring story of heartbreak, friendship, forgiveness, and love, peppered with some male eye candy (hello, James Franco) and infused with a few spiritual nuggets (though not as compelling or complex as the book).  

Wait a second . . . maybe it is a chick flick?  Maybe I’m OK with that.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Quote: Strength

An oak and reed were arguing about their strength.  When a strong wind came up, the reed avoided being uprooted by bending and leaning with the gusts of wind.  But the oak stood firm and was torn up by the roots.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ask Om Gal: Which Direction Should My Yoga Mat Face?

Hi Darling*: 
So, I was doing yoga, yesterday, after my run, and was wondering . . . Is there an optimal location/direction that one should position a yoga mat (i.e. towards East, or Northwest)?  I realize this may be a weird question, but it got me wondering about whether or not there was an optimal, zen-capturing position for a yoga mat?
xo Angie
Should she face this way . . . 
. . . Or that way? 
Hi Angie:
Not a weird question at all!  I'm happy you thought to inquire about the optimal "zen-capturing" placement of a yoga mat.  Traditionally, yoga is practiced facing the sun.  Sun salutations (surya namaskar), for example, literally "salute" the sun, so, ideally, we position our mats accordingly.

In the event that this is not possible given the layout of your space (at home or in a yoga studio), I recommend doing what feels best.  Feng shui, a Chinese system of aesthetics, may naturally be a factor without your knowing.  For instance, you might gravitate toward an area of your home that feels light and airy for your yoga practice, as your body will absorb these energies by being there.  Also, you might not enjoy resting in sivasana with your feet toward the door, as the Chinese believe this is an inauspicious position.  (I once heard that the reason for this is that the dead are carried out this way.  Spooky, I know . . .).

In summary, face the sun if you can.  If you can't, choose what feels best.  Good luck with your home practice!

xo Om Gal 

[Disclaimer: this person is a personal friend, hence the "darling."]    

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

DRINK, Pray, Love: Water for Widows

The yoga community is abuzz this week over the film Eat, Pray, Love, based on the eponymous spiritual memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts on the movie soon, so please stay tuned.

In the meantime, I am moved and humbled by a much shorter film, by Katie Ullman and her classmate at Vanderbilt University, Vasanth Kuppuswamy.  You may recall that this inspiring om gal and I (along with help from a dear mutual friend, Abby) collaborated to create a yoga benefit here in Boston called Put Your Money Where Your Mat Is.  I taught a class at Brookline Ballet, and all the money raised by the yogis in attendance was donated to Katie's fundraising efforts for a freshwater pipeline in India, serving an ashram for widows with nowhere else to go.  You can see photos of the event here and watch a short film about Katie and Vasanth's fascinating, sometimes-frustrating, and heartfelt journey.

Thanks to their "karma yoga," the women at the ashram in Vrindavan, India now have access to one of life's most basic necessities: clean water to drink.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

With All My Heart: Thank You

Open the heart
and the heart opens you--
salt of the creator
eye of the beholder
stretch your arms overhead
the rainfall of pure clarity
and let it come down.

Surrender to the boundless
earth, sea, and sky
place them like a garland
around the altar of life,
a prayer for peace
at its base,
in its mysteries, 
unafraid of sinking.

Open the heart
and the heart opens you.

-Matsyasana/Fish by Leza Lowitz, Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By

Practicing matsyasana/fish, a posture of gratitude, with kids at the Franklin Park Zoo this week and below-- to represent proper alignment.  (In the top photo, we're still in motion).

With all my heart, thank you for another year of support, insight, and readership.  My birthday is tomorrow, and I'd like to celebrate with you.  In the coming days, you'll receive a sparkly present to play with: a NEW  We've outgrown our home, here, on Blogger, so we'll be changing hosts and improving the user experience.  Stay tuned for the site's upcoming launch, and, as always, please share your thoughts.

Much love,
Om Gal 

Friday, August 13, 2010

This Just In: Erin the Intern is Famous

Famous people like New York, and New York likes famous people.  Ask anybody who lives there to rattle off their most recent celebrity sightings, and you'll hear about starlets in yoga class, gaggles of models at the club, the latest It boy or girl strolling the streets with a latte, or a professional athlete in line for the loo.  NYC Gal, a Gawker-stalker before Gawker existed, was sure to text me when the last one happened.  It was A-Rod.  She says he's even prettier in person.

This week, however, was the first time a friend of mine, nay, ours, was the celebrity being spotted.  It's true; Erin the Intern was recognized in New York City by an reader.

I don't know all the details yet, as Erin is now too famous to call me.

The best intern on the planet shooting the recent Salutation Nation event in Boston--probably the last time she'll be on this side of the camera.  The paparazzi will be unbearable soon.

It made me wonder, though: If you could spend time with any celebrity yogi, who would it be?  Lady Gaga (a new fan of yoga)?  Julia Roberts (a fan of Hinduism and star of Eat, Pray, Love, which debuts tonight)? Someone famous for being a nimble yogi: B.K.S. Iyengar?  Or, a karmic one: Mahatma Gandhi?

I can't wait to hear your choices! 

Monday, August 9, 2010

Free Yoga for Kids: Franklin Park Zoo

What: "Roar like a lion; pose like a camel; float like a butterfly" with a FREE yoga class for kids. 
Where: Franklin Park Zoo (on the grass at Serengeti Crossing)
When: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 (11:00 AM, 1:00 and 3:00 PM)
Please bring: Mat or towel. 

We'll have lots of fun doing yoga poses inspired by . . . 
SNAKES . . . 
. . . DOGS ("Remy" is hiding behind me!) . . .
. . . HORSES, and much more!  See you there, yogis.

I Can Do Fancy Yoga Poses; I Have No Problems

Since the age of 16, I have been practicing challenging yoga poses, and my life has been devoid of problems ever since.  I have never been poor, issued a parking ticket, dumped on my ass by someone I loved, or woken up with a massive zit on my nose.  I am unfamiliar with backstabbing co-workers, road rage, and the ire that Sarah Palin inspires in so many of my friends.

What's the big deal you guys?  If you can do fancy yoga poses, she won't bother you at all.  In fact, you might think she's kind of charming.  Maybe even a savant . . .  

Do you believe me?  Of course not!  (A savant?  Seriously, people . . . Give me a bit more credit).

Intricate yoga poses are fun, require focus, and cultivate great flexibility and strength; however, they do little to improve the quality of our lives.  They cannot stave off illness or hardship, and the intrinsic value of, say, hanumanasana (shown above) is no greater than that of sivasana (below).

So, why bother?

Challenging yoga poses are useful because they allow yogis to practice being in challenging life moments (however small and controlled, as they are on a yoga mat) with courage and compassion.  Unfortunately, it's easy to be seduced into thinking that the flashy pose is the goal.  Don't be fooled, friends!

All yoga poses serve the same greater purpose: to prepare the body for meditation and thus, samadhi, the superconscious state and eighth and final "limb" of the yogic path.  Instead of feeling defeated because we can't touch our toes or balance on our hands (check out my near faceplant below), we should see these "experiments" as blessings.

Rather than curse tight hamstrings, what if we viewed them as a fond nod to our active lifestyles, spent running, cycling, and simply living in motion?  What if faulty balance became a luxurious opportunity to recommit to quieting the mind?  And, gravity defying arm balances helped us to look fear and physics in the face and say, "Yes, I see you, but I am going to try anyway."

Which asanas challenge you?  Why are they difficult (or scary, or frustrating)?  And, how can this challenge help you elsewhere in life?  

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Quote: Problems in Your Life

The problematic situations in your life are not chance or haphazard.  They are specifically yours, designed specifically for you by a part of you that loves you more than anything else.  The part of you that loves you more than anything else has created roadblocks to lead you to yourself . . . it doesn't want you to lose the chance.  It will go to extreme measures to wake you up. 

-A.H. Almaas

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Salutation Nation

Today, lululemon athletica encouraged yogis to "take their asanas outside" by practicing in community parks and lawns around the country.  To see more pictures of the event, check out the Fan Page, here.

Did you attend Salutation Nation in your town?  What was it like to practice outdoors among so many other om guys and gals? 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Yoga in Mainstream Media

Perhaps you've noticed there's been a lot of yoga coverage in the media recently, in major journalism outlets covering "serious" news.  Typically, yoga in the news largely consists of Yoga Journal,  the defining voice of yoga in print media, or glossy celebrity and fitness magazines occasionally featuring worthwhile yoga stories but often falling prey to crafty publicists touting "celebrity yoga gurus."  You might recall from the Facebook Fan Page that I received a press release pitching a "celebrity yoga guru" earlier this summer and can assure you the teacher was neither a celebrity, nor a guru . . . Conjoining these words (along with a dash of ignorance) makes serious yogis think only one thing: This person just doesn't get it.

Thankfully, mainstream media is starting to get it.  Sometimes.  And, their focus on yoga is both expanding and improving.

The New York Times, for example, carried three articles about yoga in last Sunday's paper alone, and none of them caused the involuntary eye rolls that can strike when food or travel or beauty editors are assigned yoga stories-- resulting in ho-hum coverage if we're lucky and drivel if we're not.  The most ballyhooed piece in the Times, featuring founder of anusara yoga John Friend and his grand plans for the future of one of the newest and fastest growing styles of yoga in the world, was written by Mimi Shwartz, whose experience with yoga seemed apparent and appreciated by the yoga community following the article.  Not only does she claim several years of asana practice, but she also tempered "The Yoga Mogul" with insight from Judith Lasater as an expert source.  You may recall Lasater as a seasoned teacher, author, and the founder of Yoga Journal.  I recently recommended her book Living Your Yoga and shared a short excerpt from it, here.

At the crux of the article lies a conversation we often have on What is lost when yoga and capitalism converge?  In other words, as yoga evolves from a centuries old (5,000+ years) spiritual practice in Buddhist and Hindu cultures to a fashionable and fitness-oriented pursuit around the world, how do we preserve its tradition . . . or do we care?

The answer, of course, is that some care, and some don't.

Chronicling both camps (yoga purists who care deeply about its roots and the yoga populous who cares less) and the progression from one to the other are The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America and The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, two new books recently reviewed in- yes, you guessed it- the New York Times by Pankaj Mishra.  Mishra trains a critical eye on both, which I appreciate.  However, he appears quick to lump all American yogis into one shallow, spiritually bereft bunch.

To which, blogger Paul Raeburn wondered aloud later this week, Why is the New York Times Obsessed with Yoga? and provided his assessment of the latest yoga media blitz:

For about $15 or $20, anybody can sign up for a yoga class, and spend 60-90 minutes bending, twisting, and sometimes chanting.  Some like it; some don’t. For some, it’s exercise. For others, the exercise is a prelude to meditation, and perhaps even part of a voyage of self-discovery or a spiritual search. I’ve practiced yoga for 10 years, and I’m pretty sure I figured this out after my first few classes. It’s not that complicated.  For the New York Times, however, yoga seems to be something of an occult art, riddled with danger and badly contaminated by greed and corruption, more about fashion and fads than fitness.

He makes an excellent point.  Put simply, yoga means different things to different people, and that's OK.

It means a lot to yoga bloggers, like Yoga Dork, for example.  The Times also ran a piece on this New York based blog, which you may recall seeing nominated for Best Yoga & Fitness Site in the 2010 Intent Web Awards, along with Elephant Journal, Tara Stiles, Living Room Yoga, and yours truly.   (With your gracious support, won).  The Yoga Dork coverage brings to the fore the fact that bloggers (good ones, anyway) provide expert insight and spark informed conversations on niche subjects.      

Let's review, shall we?  The New York Times, one of the world's most respected media outlets has been bitten by the yoga bug.  In one week, they've given us a "yoga mogul" in John Friend, an informed and acerbic review of two new yoga books, and featured a charming "dork" who digs yoga.  Are they obsessed or earnest?  Joining a movement or jumping on a bandwagon?  Shedding new light on an ancient art or diluting something sacred?

As people who belong to the camp that cares the most about yoga and its future (that's you, readers), what do you think about all this attention?