Thursday, July 2, 2009

Love & Death

When I heard that Michael Jackson had suddenly passed, I was shocked but not really that surprised. In the last few years as his skin took on the look of alabaster and his features were sculpted into a doll-like mask, it seemed obvious that this was a tortured soul who was crying out for…help…love…truth…friendship…

But now, as life-after-Michael unfolds in the media, I am struck by the incredible outpouring of what seems to be love coming from ‘close friends’, family, and fans. Every TV channel, newspaper, talk show, and website replays a constant loop of Michael in various stages of skin color and diminishing features. His music is everywhere. He is praised for his songwriting, his dancing, his generosity and his kindness. A few weeks ago I doubt if many of these people would have admitted as much.

Without getting into a discussion about his innocence or guilt regarding charges of child molestation, after his acquittal, Michael left the country in a self-imposed exile. He felt betrayed and hurt. He was bankrupt and he couldn’t sell a record or fill a concert hall.

I can’t help but think that if one of the people claiming to be a close friend, or “brother” had reached out with an authentic heart and offered a loving hand, things might have been different. It’s obvious that many of his family and so-called friends saw Michael as a money train. He understood that; I think he probably even forgave it, and now that he’s gone and firmly established in the pantheon of celebrity royalty, that train is likely to deliver carloads of cash to whoever’s on board. I sincerely hope that the money is able to fill any holes in their hearts.

I don’t doubt that there are many fans and many friends who do truly love Michael. Maybe it took something as monumental as death to make them understand that love. It’s just too bad that Michael never heard the praise or felt much of the love. He needed it.

As yogis we can use this tragedy as a reminder about being compassionate. Some people are easier to love, while others are easier to judge. Each of us can surely make more of an effort to offer love instead of criticism. There may be someone in your life right now who is struggling terribly. A kind word, a genuine smile, or a warm hug may provide the only light in an otherwise gray existence. Remember that one small compassionate gesture can save someone’s life. Maybe one day, even yours.

Don’t stop till you get enough,

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why New Yorkers begin to practice yoga long before they hit the mat

There’s such a wide variety of yoga studios in NYC, you could probably take a month’s worth of classes and never visit the same place twice. You’ll never be bored and you’re bound to find the studio that exactly suits you, which is a wonderful benefit of living in the big city.

Actually getting to class, however, is not always easy, and requires a certain amount of patience and adaptability -- also a trademark of living in the big city. So if you’re not operating in the right mindset, by the time you reach your destination you might be so frazzled that it will take half the practice to de-stress from the trip, and the other half to prepare for the return.

Before I go any further I’d better explain that I live in Queens. For those of you who are not familiar with the metro area, Queens is one of five boroughs that comprise New York City. And although Manhattan-ites don’t believe it, we are a viable part of the city, proven by the fact that we pay city taxes, enjoy alternate side parking, and have relatively easy subway access. But I digress. [I’ll address that situation in a different blog.]

So let’s say you live in Queens and want to take a 10AM class in the Union Square area. First, plan on leaving your house by 8:15AM at the very latest [by the way that’s rush hour so don’t bet on getting a subway seat]. Depending on house location it may be necessary to drive to the subway. If it’s a Tuesday or Wednesday, count on looking for a parking spot for about 10 – 20 minutes because alternate side parking is in affect. [You might want to consider an early afternoon class on those days so that you can get a great spot precisely at 11AM when you can legally park on the alternate side.]* On Monday, Thursday and Friday it will take a little less time to find a spot but since everyone else knows this too, there’s usually more cars so it still takes a fair amount of hunting time.

Once you park [don’t forget the steering wheel lock – car thieves know you won’t be back for a while], get ready to enjoy a half-mile walk to the subway. Hopefully it’s not freezing cold, raining, snowing or unbearably hot. Once you get to the station, make sure that the subway lines are all running correctly. It’s not unusual for the express F train to go local without explanation, or to sometimes be re-routed on the E line which will end up taking you too far west. Most of the time, the local R train which stops directly in Union Square, will get stuck in between stations or be held up in a particular station for an undisclosed amount of time. At this point it’s a crapshoot so the best advice is to follow your intuition or take whatever comes first. [FYI: There is no train schedule. You simply stand in the station and wait.] My advice to hop onto an express F and walk the extra blocks to Union Square – the R is just too unreliable.

You might be wondering why, since you have a car, you wouldn’t simply drive to your destination. But traffic aside, the parking rules are even more complicated in Manhattan, which would mean you’d need to park in a lot. That’s usually pretty expensive unless you find something all the way cross-town. In that case you‘ll need to get your yoga booty back over to the east side which could take a while so allow for walking time--unless you take a cab. If you decide to taxi, add an additional ten dollars onto a $20 -$30 parking fee.

All of this travel negotiation is very good practice for non-attachment and letting go, and is one of the reasons why we’re great at going with the flow. It also serves as a reminder of the great dedication to practice we New Yorkers have necessarily cultivated.

If you’ve timed everything correctly and the Universe has been on your side, once you reach your destination you just might have enough time to roll out your mat and enjoy a few minutes to chill before class begins. Gratitude fills your being as you connect with the energy of the space and the other yogis, along with an unspoken camaraderie of the journeys that brought you all together.

Once the asana practice begins your body and mind are eager to leave behind the streets, and even though you can still hear the muffled sounds of traffic and distant sirens, yoga enables you to find the solace of your own inner tranquility. It may have been a circuitous path to class, but there is peace on the mat. At last.

Travel safely,

*(Note: If you take a later class make sure class is over by 4PM so you can leave in time to avoid rush hour and possibly even get a seat. Or you can make plans with friends and leave after 7PM.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Rich Life

These days my heart is heavy. It seems as though everything I thought I could count on is fading away. The economy has placed a terrible burden on everyone I know, and has hit publishing especially hard, resulting in the brief [hopefully] suspension of my beloved, little magazine. It’s kept me on the verge of tears for quite a number of weeks – it has been such a big part of how I define myself – and I felt as though it was a little bit like a child. But they say when one door closes another opens, and that doorway has gratefully led to more teaching, including the opportunity to instruct the stress management portion of the Ornish Program for the reversal of heart disease at Stamford Hospital.

Lucky for me that through all of my angst I have been able to pour out my worries and fears to my friend and teacher Sudharma, an 80-year-old Buddhist nun who had recently been living in London. Somehow Sudharma always knew exactly how to snap me out of my pity parties and would often admonish me by saying things like: “Why you worry you no more fancy famous editor? You do mush better work for people who suffer with heart.” When I shared my money concerns she reminded me about what was really important: “Having big house or new car or fancy things not make you rich. What in your heart make you rich. Love make you rich.”

Then last Friday I received the unbelievable news that my dear friend had passed away. She had a heart attack, and then during open-heart surgery, a stroke. She was gone. I can’t find the words to describe how I feel; devastated is a feeble understatement. We had been making so many plans for her visit this summer. She even wanted my daughter to take her surfing. The sadness is incredible.

Sudharma left behind no worldly riches – only her robes and her mala beads – but the richness of her life is evident. She was devoted to helping all those less fortunate, and worked tirelessly in homeless shelters. She spent years raising money for orphanages all around the world. In the last year of her life, she worked endless hours to start a home for girls who had suffered terribly in the sex trafficking trade in her homeland of Burma [Myanmar]. Sudharma had to battle all kinds of obstacles but the determination of her compassionate heart persevered and the home was finally opened. When the news of her passing spread through the Buddhist community, hundreds of nuns and monks sat in an all-night meditation vigil to honor the woman who had been their teacher and their friend.

Susharma lived a life of love and compassion. She loved to laugh and drink jasmne tea. She loved Buddha, her friends and the beach, and the fragrance and beauty of flowers shimmering in the early morning sun. She was the richest woman I ever knew.

I have nearly three hundred emails from my dear friend and someday, when the tears have stopped I will print each of them and keep them with me always. She sent me many Buddhist prayers and offered me such loving guidance. I know her words and her heart will continue to light my path, and when I’m getting a little too caught up in ‘Rita’s World’ I’ll try to remember that being a fancy, famous editor isn’t what defines me . It ‘s the love I hold in my heart.

I love you very much Sudharma. May your heart be at ease. May your heart be at peace.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Take Your Seats

Through a series of events too complicated to explain, I have recently acquired an e-pal. There’s nothing really extraordinary about trading daily e-mails, except that my new friend is a Buddhist nun I’ve never met.

In the beginning, our correspondence centered around my asking a lot of dharma questions, and her reminding me to meditate. Eventually, as our relationship has grown, our communication has become quite detailed and revealing, and I’ve come to appreciate her as a wise and wonderful teacher. I’ve always struggled a bit with Buddhist philosophy but, miraculously, my new friend has somehow gotten through to me. And as I muddle through life’s ups and downs and repeat the prayers she sends me, I try to smile as much as I can and let go of the things I can’t control. When I get stuck (which happens a lot), all I have to do is head for my keyboard.

Lately, though, things have taken a bit of a surprising turn, as my friend has started asking me for advice. Imagine that? You might ask yourself, as I have, what possible answers a middle-aged American woman could offer a 80-year-old Burmese Buddhist nun who has lived in a monastery since she was 10 or 12? But as it turns out, it seems I can offer very good counsel about social situations, woman stuff, and especially yoga: “Yoga good for joint I think. Much relax to take nap.”

It gives me a great sense of self-worth to be able to give someone I look up to and respect so much as a teacher any kind of valuable advice. And it makes me think about how all of us serve as teachers for each other. Each of us has a different life experience to draw from and a unique perspective to express, and sharing these experiences is what helps us to grow and to love without all the judgments. Even someone who is doing or saying terrible things is a teacher, as he or she can serve as a perfect example of what you don’t want to do or be. And though I may not agree with everything you say or believe, listening to you with an open mind and heart can only help me become a more compassionate person. Plus, there’s a very good chance I’ll learn something—about myself, or the world—in the process.

We’re all in this together, and all of us existing in the world at this particular time have some kind of karma to play out. So why not teach each other the very best we have to offer? Whether it’s pumping gas, explaining dharma, or simply offering love with no strings attached, it’s time for each of us to claim our special seat as teacher and to heed the words of my Buddhist teacher and friend: “Much remember to give lotus heart sun light for to grow. Much to open door to room in heart for air and light.” Namaste to that.

Keep the faith,

Be the Change

As I write this letter, the presidential election has not yet been decided. The world is in an obvious state of flux, and I have found myself becoming more passionately political than ever. As with any passion, it can be hard to keep it in check, and I have noticed myself slipping a few remarks into my teaching—nothing too incendiary—just a funny reference here or there, but enough to make my choice clear. I didn’t think much about it at first, not until I began to notice how upset I would get when someone made a casual remark or reference about my candidate.

Then, I read something in a yoga book, where the teacher was explaining about changing people’s minds and the flow of energy. The point was simple: You will never change people’s minds by forcing your opinions or getting angry with them. You may make some headway with logic, but even that tact is likely to fail. The only effective way to cause change is to simply be the change. Living authentically in all your actions can, and does, eventually cause an energetic shift that may provoke change.

Another well-taken yogic point is that if you continually focus on negative aspects or poke fun or make disparaging remarks about a person or event, you are feeding into that person or event. You are giving that person importance by the simple fact that you are bringing attention their way. So, in the end, you will have contributed to their cause.

All of this made me rethink my actions, and I recalled that while many people laughed and shook their heads in agreement with my remarks, not everyone was smiling. There were obviously other opinions in the room, and I had probably made them angry and possibly even ruined their practice. Not a very thoughtful way for a yoga teacher to act.

From that point on, in the classroom, as well as out, I have stepped off my soapbox and kept my opinions to myself. People remain focused on their asanas and any political discussions take place where they belong—in the locker room, the parking lot, or at home. But if I do find myself engaged in a proper political discussion, I stay focused on the good points of my candidate, and try to listen with more compassion to opposing opinions. I’m pretty certain I won’t change my mind, but if I can listen and react with kindness and acceptance, I might be able to, at the very least, cause someone to respond with equal kindness.

And that’s change everyone can believe in.
Congratulations to our new president, let’s hope for better days ahead!


Time Out

So there I was, lying in Savasana after a particularly invigorating yoga practice. Of course, I felt good. At least, I think I did. I was doing yoga, wasn’t I? I’d had a particularly hectic week doing yet another teacher training, going to the office, teaching, commuting, running errands, answering tons of e-mails, and planning the next few issues. As I rested in the pose of relaxation, I realized I was exhausted. But instead of feeling better, the class had actually added to my fatigue. I dragged myself off the mat and shuffled my way to the subway thinking all the while that I was actually too tired to stop and get something to eat. Sound familiar?

I know I’m not the only one who’s stretched too thin these days. The world continues to spin faster than ever as we all struggle to make ends meet, do good deeds, and live a happy life. Every now and then, it has to catch up with you. You know the feeling: You’re crashing into a wall of obstacles, and you simply don’t have the will or enough breath to exhale them all away.

As I plopped on my couch late that summer evening, I felt the weight of the world crushing my usually strong shoulders. So, I did what any good yogi would do. I broke down and cried—and continued to cry for a good while. I was at rock-bottom, and my world was spinning uncontrollably.

After a long, hot shower, I realized I probably didn’t need to check my e-mail for the 100th time and, honestly, the laundry could wait. Also, I could edit those stories over the weekend....and sub my classes...and maybe take tomorrow off. Why not get a massage and maybe even a pedicure, and let go of all those burdens (whether real or imagined)? I decided to call a time-out.

The next couple of days were heaven as I indulged in simply being. I attempted only the simplest tasks and considered an afternoon nap high-priority. Re-entering the world slowly, I joined a restorative class instead of my usual hustled flow. After two days of doing less, I felt myself emerge from the shadows with much more lightness. I was breathing more deeply. And my smile returned as I inhaled the last sweet smells of summer.

This is not to say that my burdens had magically disappeared or that my schedule had miraculously become less hectic. That stuff was still there waiting for me. What had changed was my approach to it all. I had realized that the best way to practice yoga isn’t always by pushing myself into a yoga class. Sometimes, doing yoga is all about creating space for yourself and having the good sense to call for a time-out.

Sweet dreams,