Spring's breath: detox, saucha, resurrection.

flexible enoughSometimes things touch us.  A breath of green air from an opened window after a long, cruel winter.  The combination of innocence and insouciant wisdom out of a kid's mouth.  Suddenly, a robin's song.  The bud of a flower, not opened yet, but full of kinetic energy, potency, brilliance.  The chords of a song, perhaps.  The whispers and shades of flirtation.  Briefly, suddenly, we are snapped out of our day to day lives.  We feel the pangs of longing, we desire.  To live more.  To know more.  To learn.  "Normal" is doubtful.  We hunger and thirst. Of course, other things can touch us: the death of a dear one, recognition of passing time, a diagnosis, an old pain become so pervasive you realize you are a prisoner.

Years ago, before I knew anything of yoga and while I bounced from barroom to bedroom to suicidal moments alone on my kitchen floor, a friend sat across from me in a dirty hospital room.  I was sick.  She was not.  The pity on her face made me more sick, but I didn't have the audacity to send her away.  And I was afraid to be where I was, alone.  I am so sorry for you, she said.  I don't think you know how good it is to be alive.  A few minutes later she stood up, touched my hair, and left.  This same friend, in a different crisis I'd imposed on myself, said you can't do this any longer; you won't survive.   She went on with things about self-respect, responsibility, yadda yadda.  I scowled.  How, I wondered, do you possibly begin to 'love yourself' when you hate yourself so very much?  It begins with your behaviors, she said.  Sooner or later, you just start to feel better about yourself.

She wasn't entirely right.  I did have hunches about the sweetness of a human life.  I had memories.  I had loved, once in a while.  I had known the passions of travel and art. I had a dog, once, and I had walked in the woods.  There had been times I'd felt something like the breath of spring on my body and the riptide of a mind on fire, but all I had of it at the time was echo and memory.  Memory so vague I doubted it's authenticity and disbelieved in it's return.

I once spent Easter in Guatemala.  Once, I spent it in Greece.  Once, in New Orleans.  All are places that celebrate holy week in visceral, ritual, soulful ways.  I consider myself an agnostic at best.  Yet the passion plays of bloody crosses, pilgrimage, fasting, ashes, and rebirth move me deep.  I described to a cerebral, 'life of the mind' kind of friend back in New York the way Greek widows, hunched with age and dressed in black, spend days crawling over broken streets on their knees to reach a sacred site.  She listened, with a wry look of pity and dismay, as if I were telling her about something just as human but less profound.  Abusive families, maybe.  Blue collar beer bellies.

How pathetic.  she said, and shifted the conversation.

I wondered, though.  The dark clothes a widow wears, always.  The bearing of crosses down streets.  The falling of rose petals through an Eastern Orthodox chapel.  Fasting, feasting.  Not pathetic, I thought.  Not pathetic at all.  Passionate.  Heart wrought.  An emotion I don't quite feel, but recognize.

And how can we say healing is real, that hope exists, unless it is possible out of broken family histories?  Why should not blue collar beer bellies be profound?

We long to be reborn, we humans.  Sometimes we realize that life is not 'normal', that day to day is not enough.  We ourselves want to be resurrected.

Rites of spring and rebirth are not unique to that Christian heritage.  They are earthbound and global.  With them, with spring, we have all sorts of ideas of being reborn, starting over, going further.  Cleaning house.

Detoxification, purification, are deeply embedded in this.  Now, years away from hospital rooms but not so far away I've forgotten what alcoholism and major depression are, I sometimes want to drop flowers from cathedral ceilings or blow into people's ears like spring wind.  I walk around at dawn, deeply busy and yet still in a life I love and find challenging.  This morning I heard a robin, after a very long, very cruel winter.  Brown, muddy stuff shimmers in April sun.  I want to show people, promise them, somehow reveal: this works.  This is real.  Detoxification and purification and rebirth, resurrection, are coded into you. Deep as your thumbprint and DNA.

Most human beings have no idea how good the human body, the human mind, is designed to feel.

And yet we can.  There are ways.


The first personal observance of the yogic tradition is roughly translated as purity.  It seems to me that purity is what spring time does inside us.  It stirs and awakens our inherent, deeply human longing to live more, to taste more, to shed our pains and step into something greater.  To become, ourselves, greater.  Perhaps simply to not hurt any longer.

There are very specific practices of food, of cleansing, purification of both body and mind in the yogic tradition.  But the heart of the thing is relational.  The heart of it is recognition - sudden remembrance - of our deepest self and the beauty of aliveness.

Detoxification and purification are central tenets to natural medicine.  And yoga is medicine.  The point is simply that life and ourselves in it are good - no matter how batted about or broken or far away from 'good' we have gone.  But it is hard to enjoy life if we are trapped in a body that leaves us sick and in pain.  It is impossible to feel the fire of our intelligence and love if we are haunted by brittle thoughts and emotions.  Therefore, regular detoxification is essential to not only heath, but to love and happiness.

A frantic woman, driven by busyness and over-strain, rushed from one task to another.  Her little boy tried in various ways to get her attention.  Finally, he took her face in both of his little boy hands and held her still: you're not recognizing me, he said.

Saucha, purity, is asking us to recognize ourselves, others, our work, and the day itself without the scrim and junk of past impressions.  It is an invitation to see our bodies and our minds not from a perspective of diet, reform, control, or punishment, but with the idea of nourishing body and soul so we might drink from the depths.  To purify so that we can live more fully.

Many of us - hell, all of us - are somewhere in that foggy land of not being able to see, not being able to feel, not having a clue how to go on or move forward or be kind to ourselves.  Yogic practices are perfect, here.  It is a fact that your body hears and responds to every thing your mind says and every enviornmental factor and dietic factor you come close to.  But it is ALSO true that your mind feels everything your body does and everything you eat.  This is our way in, this is where hope is; there are things we can DO even if our mind and heart waver.  As my friend said - it starts with your behaviors.  You act.  You practice.  You do things with your body and you try to drink more water.  And eventually, suddenly, almost impossibly, you'll one day feel the green air of spring inside.  Even if you didn't really believe it was possible.

TRY THIS: Spring Detox: Food, Stuff, Heart

Food: The body is in a constant state of self detoxification, as we are exposed to both internal and external toxins and irritants.  However, when the body's self healing mechanisms are over taxed, we are prone to illness, injury, fatigue.  Our culture does not make it easy to eat well, and 'diets' are all too often unsustainable, unrealistic, and punitive.  Finding a detox that works for you a few times a year might surprise you with its results.

Spend a day or two not changing your diet at all, but noting everything that you eat.  Spend time asking me, a librarian, or google about different cleanses and detoxes.  Come up with a plan that is realistic and set it in action for three days, a week, or a month.

The cost is minimal, the efficacy is sound.

A body that has not occasionally detoxed becomes less efficient (in sleep, in sex, in attention span, in digestion...) Symptoms of an overloaded body include allergies, PMS, indigestion in all of it's forms, headaches, skin problems, sleep problems.  Diet has been scientifically proven to affect auto immune diseases, ADHD, mental health, and inflammatory issues from asthma to arthritis to fibromylagia.  Lifespan, wise, it means we age without pain or with heart conditions, arthritis, memory problems, failing joints and bowels.

The benefits of detoxification offer increased energy levels; weight loss; healthy aging; greater motivation,; better digestion and assimilation of nutrients; better concentration, memory, and focus; reduced allergic symtoms; reduced chronic pain symptoms; clearer skin and eyes; decrease or elimination of headaches, migranes, joint pain, body aches, colds, allergies, auto-immune symptoms, sleep disturbances, to name a few.

This is true for me: I did not realize or feel how sluggish and lackluster my normal was until I began to incorporate dietic practices into my life.  Things I thought of as 'just the way I am' in terms of monthly cycles, skin, digestion, concentration, and sleep have radically changed.  They radically change again when I stop eating from a wellness perspective.   Within a day.

But they are things you do not recognize, and do not understand, unless you are paying attention.

Stuff: our lives are full of messy closets, half baked plans, procrastination and dirty laundry.  All of this takes an enormous amount of physical and psychic energy to maintain (even when maintence is "I'll deal with that tomorrow").

The lightness, motivation, and sudden eruption of energy and hope and creativity that comes from one task done or one drawer cleaned is almost insulting in it's efficacy.

Look around.  Cleansing and purification will look different for everyone.  Perhaps it's an unfinished project.  Perhaps its a phone call you haven't returned, a sinkful of dirty dishes every night, a closet become chaos.

Give it fifteen minutes.  Or commit to one drawer cleaned.  Or ten minutes every night this week to clean the kitchen up before you go to bed.

You'll feel better in the morning.

to be drunkenly awareHeart:

The first toxin in our lives is stress.  It is more directly related to physical illness than is any fat, sugar, or pathogen.  Just as physical clutter in our houses drains our vitality, mind clutter mucks up our sense of hope, joy, purpose.  Recognizing negativity, resentment, anger, and grudges when they come up is a first step in self-resurrection.

No diet, no asana practice, and no house cleaning will ever truly detoxify you unless and until you have also purified and healed the broken stuff inside.

I speak of forgiveness.  It has nothing to do with other people.  It has nothing to do with fair or justice.  It is much more important to realize that forgiveness and healing are things you need to do for your own damned self and beginning the hard work that it is.

Practice watching your emotions and mind in your asana or meditation practice.  Notice how often judgement, criticism, and blame come up.  Use those same practices - asana, class, meditation in whatever form you do it - to begin learning to let go, forgive, and regard others with compassion.

It is not easy.

But it is the way through.







Ashtanga: Patanjali's 8 limbed path

It is impossible to say when or where yoga started.  It exists back in shadowy pre-recorded history and was, for the most part, handed down from one teacher to one student through face to face practices, not spiritual or historical texts, and not in holy books. But we do know something of what the earliest yogis were doing and looking for, what, in essence, yoga is: it is a set of proven, tested, accessible practices for bringing our bodies and minds to their fullest capacity and to ease human suffering.  Yoga is a path of liberation and souls on fire.  It is a path, if you will, of deep healing and soul work.  But it is more than identifying or ‘fixing’ what is wrong; it is also a means to find life beautiful, meaningful, and profound.

Those practices are not strictly physical, no matter how athletic the word ‘yoga’ has become in our culture.  Yogis realized that a ‘soul awake’ was a soul unfettered by fear and interpersonal conflict; living a good life involves not only a strong and properly functioning body but a deep sense of purpose and meaning, connectedness to others, right relationship with the world.  While we spend a lot of time talking about ‘balance’, ‘strength’, and ‘flexibility’ in our practice, we might catch glimpses of the fact that we’re not speaking of the physical body, only.  The physical is a mirror and truth teller of the interpersonal, the deeply personal, and the spirit.  Don’t underestimate the value of being balanced, strong, and flexible: these are the means to sift through the false to hit on what is true and meaningful.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the path is called Ashtanga Yoga (ashta, eight and anga, limb).  The Yoga Sutra is the oldest extant text on yoga practice and philosophy, but it is understood to be a compilation or summation of practices that were already ancient when Patanjali wrote them down.

Some say the eight limbs are like a ladder one can climb toward enlightenment.  Some say that traditionally, a student would spend years mastering the first two limbs – ethics and personal observances – before he’d be ‘ready’ to begin a physical practice.  There is some truth to the idea that the limbs are progressive, as step; a student truly integrates the physical asanas only once the elements of ethics and personal practices have been glimpsed.  Many point out that the word asana, which we generally translate to ‘yoga pose’ or ‘yoga posture’ literally translates to ‘seat’, as in the seat one takes to meditate.  The point of each and every pose was to prepare the body and open it to a meditative experience.

But no spiritual path has a beginning or an end so much as it does aspects or variations on major themes, like verses and chorus of a song.  Or the inhaling and exhaling of the breath, the rising and setting of the sun. The process is organic, rhythmic, and cyclical.

Truly, one can enter anywhere.

One day, a student approached me after her very first class.  She called it amazing.  Life changing.

I believe that it is.  And I believe that she had touched and experienced many of the 8 limbs in a single class, although she wouldn’t have any reason to know that’s what she was doing or that these things have Sanskrit names, each with thousands of exercises and practices and theories attached to it.

She simply felt it.  She felt the effects of expanding and opening her body, compressing the glands in asana; she felt the immediate, energizing effect of rapid abdominal breathing and the calming, grounding effects of slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths (pranayama); when she focused her attention on the breath in our centering meditations, she is withdrawing her mind from external stimulation (pratyahara); when I guide her to use a mantra or listen to her breathing during the holding of a pose, she is concentrating (dharana).  During the holding, if she follows her intuitive sense and my cues to stay in touch with the sensations happening in her body, her mind is absorbed and she is meditating (dhyana); there may be times during the holding or releasing of a posture when she touches on, glimpses, or is washed with the deeply healing state known as samadhi.

Interestingly enough, Patanjali starts not with promises or should and oughts.  There is no description of god or the meaning of life, no attempt to make you believe anything at all. He starts, instead, by listing the ways human beings suffer and the mental/emotional/physical ramifications or symptoms of that suffering.  Yoga, he says, is the calming of sufferings.

We touch on the experience of yoga without having to know the whole philosophical system or intending to re-wire our brain or balance our pancreas.  Those things just happen.  That student may or may not have understood that yoga is a prescription, a positive how-to list, in the treatment of anxieties and depressions and physical diseases, a path toward whole.  It is a systematic and proven process.  Yet it is enough to simply experience and know you feel better for days after a practice, and that’s maybe all any of us need.

But knowing the limbs exist invites us to a new depth of the practice, a way to circle around and around again until we hit revelation. And then start over again, because there is more revelation. It is a path, a prescription, that has been followed by billions of people; we can trust their experience.  We are given good directions and a ladder to grab on to, if not to climb.  Ladders, things to grab on to, are sometimes hard to find in our shiftless, startling world.

Over and over again, spiritual paths and spiritual truths will teach a humbling reality: it isn’t a thing you understand or philosophize about; it’s a thing you must do.

The path of yoga begins in acknowledging reality: this being human is difficult.  Like the Buddhist first noble truth (Life is Suffering) it could be seen as a bitter pill, a hard way to look at life.  It is.  But that isn’t the point.  The point is that revolution is possible.  There are ways out of suffering.  It is entirely possible to approach your own potential and fulfillment.  A purposeful, deep and richly nuanced life is both the goal and the path yoga takes us down to reach that goal.  Yoga is perhaps unique in that it doesn’t start with the origins of the universe, the ends of the world, or explaining human relatedness to the divine.  There is little point, yoga says, in trying to wrap our faulty minds around things that are larger than those faulty minds.  There is power in the here and now, in unraveling illusions and abstractions to the solid abiding ground beneath.

The First Limb: Yamas

The heart of yoga is ethical.  It recognizes the absolute truth of interrelation, connection, and disconnection.  We are hardwired to desire understanding, compassion, forgiveness, love, and laughter, as well as a sense of justice.  Most, if not all, of our pains in life come from misunderstanding our self and our connection.  Most suffering is an experience of being alone, unworthy, separate, as though we are viewing life through a window and cannot touch or hear or live as we suspect others do, or we ourselves should.

Yoga seeks to lay down palpable ways to disentangle ourselves from a sense of isolation, meaninglessness, shame, anger, and greed.  To reveal the false self for the true.

The word yama translates to restraint.  There is an element to ‘self-control’ or moderating our own desires and motives to a bigger picture, and in many ways this is hard to swallow.

But it is a way to be more happy, more free, and more in touch with our core.  They invoke a self that is confidant, unafraid, with depth of character and inner resources.  They way we behave in our relationships – and our ability to change our behaviors to act in accordance with compassion and regard – is ultimately a self-loving and self-enlarging thing to do.  As we change our behaviors and ethics, our souls are able to be more at ease.  Imagine what it would be like to walk through the world without shame.

The Yamas are five:

Ahimsa: non harming

Satya: truthfulness and non-lying

Asteya: nonstealing, not craving or keeping what does not belong to you

Bramacharya: chastity or continence, usually sexual or interrelational

Aparigraha: greedlessness, non-hording

The Second Limb: Niyamas

If the first limb concerns our relationships to others and to world, the second limb is usually seen as indicative of our relationship to our self.  It involves our private practices, our solitude, our self regard and self mastery.  Each of the niyamas can be an endless practice (or diagnostic, or exploration) on its own.  Each can be taken very strictly and literally, or endlessly unfurl into sublte layers of meaning and intention.  For example, shauca, purity, is all fine and well as an abstract concept.  But it becomes a lived thing if one actually decides to practice making one’s bed every day.  The idea is so simple as to be laughable.  But the smallest practices tend to have enormous effect on our experience moment by moment, and the tiny pepples add up to gravel that becomes a road that lead to an altogether different life.

Shauca: purity (of body, of mind)

Santosha: contentment with oneself and one’s life exactly as it is in this moment, including self acceptance

Tapas: austerity, fire, heat or zeal

Svadhyaya: self study

Ishvara-pradnidhana: surrender to the Whole, Real, God, or the It-Is.

The Third Limb: Asana

This is what most of us today tend to think of when we think of yoga; those series of postures that stretch, heal, invigorate and remodel our physical selves.  They are both a science and an art.  It is astounding how profound the study of the body can be, and how western medicine continues to realize the limitations and misconceptions we’ve had for centuries about what this being human, this human body, means.

The physical postures are one branch of an eight limbed path (similar and related to the Buddhist 8 fold path); further, while the physical practices do increase health, improve immunity, foster longevity and allow, with practice, a heightened sense of be-ing and moving in the world, the aim was not some kind of Olympic athleticism.  The aim was wholeness.  A purely physical path is not whole.

Although it is a way to begin.

A yoga teacher friend and I were chatting, and he talked for a long time about his other job as a psychotherapist.  In particular, he talked about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the practice of learning to identify thoughts and feelings rather than be reactive to them, the power of knowing one’s own mind (and it’s false beliefs or cruelty to the self and others).  He spoke of how our emotional or cognitive set of patterns deeply affects our physical bodies.  This isn’t new.  It’s science.  The way we think changes both our immediate biochemical reality and has the power to literally form or deform our physical tissues.  The body, he said, is attentive to every thought the brain has.

Yes, I said.  But the brain is also very attentive to the body.

The secret is you can work both ways.  You can enter, anywhere.


The Fourth Limb: Pranayama

restraint or training of the breath.  Yogis recognized that the breath is both a root source of our being-aliveness and a easy way to observe and participate in that aliveness.  They learned the experiential reality that an awareness of and participation in the breath can influence our health, energy levels, and mood in ways that nutrition, exercise, and cognitive thought simply cannot do.

The Fifth Limb: Pratyahara

withdrawal of the senses.  Looking within, sensitivity to internal processes and patterns, finding the inner witness.  In a world where we constantly look without for answers and direction, where we identify ourselves as the objects and events of our lives, pratyahara is a radical practice.  It teaches the root truth of how impermanent objects and events are, and how an over identification with them leads to pain.  It also reveals a level of constancy, depth, and unchanging in the midst of chaos.  We are conditioned beings, and often react rather than respond to ourselves and our world.  We have brains that categorize, evaluate, and judge.  The practices of pratyahara teach us to step away from judgement and rest in a place that is beyond judgement and can see whole pictures, as opposed to dualities of black and white, good or bad.  With time, withdrawal of the senses leads to increased discretion, discernment, and compassion.  It is a heart of equanimity.  We become able to respond, rather than react.  Our beings become like the depth of the ocean, rather than the surface of ripples and waves.

The Sixth Limb: Dharana

Intense focus, building of concentration and discernment; the ability to think and see clearly, to heighten one’s powers of thought and cognitive ability, free us from all the layers of misperception and avidya (blindness).  It is interesting that many people think of yoga and meditative or mystic traditions as turning off the mind, when the truth is the practices aim for clarity of mind and right thinking and seeing.  Science is showing in remarkable ways that yoga actually works to change or improve our intelligence; areas of the brain we typically use or do not use actually change with eight weeks of a regular practice; ability to access ‘subconscious’ levels of intuition, insight, memory and self awareness increase.  Study after study shows that a yoga practice improves school and work performance.

The Seventh Limb: Dhyana

Related to the ability to focus and concentrate is the state of Dhyana, or meditation.  We could say that meditation is a deeper level of concentration, but that might lead to judgements of better or worse.  Instead, Dhyana implies a different way of being, not a better one.  Again, science is proving that contemplative states and mindful movements actually result in changed brain waves and cause restorative, rejuvenating processes to happen across the body and mind that are in some ways more profound than REM sleep.  The mysterious ‘gray matter’ of our brains lights up with all sorts of things we can’t identify, yet.  Theta brain waves – unconscious, according to our western science – are increased.  Areas of the brain connected to empathy and compassion flare up and stay more active for days after a practice, and long term meditators seem to have access to this state more quickly, more profoundly, and more frequently.  The hemispheres of the brain increase their communication, balancing our analytic and creative selves, our introversion and extroversion urges, our states of creativity and experiences of ease all increase.

The Eighth Limb: Samadhi

state of oneness or bliss.  We may have touched on moments in our life in which we felt ourselves absolutely alive and deeply connected or in tune with the universe.  Science calls it peak performance or the flow state.  It might be stumbled upon in the most mundane of activities or cultivated through practice.  It’s heart is a genuine recognition of ‘okayness’ and even more than okayness; an understanding or affinity for beauty, power, the order of the cosmos.  A friend describes his first experience of samadhi in the summer of his junior college year, when most of his peers were away and he was engaged to paint and upkeep a professor’s home.  The long, repetitive, rhythmic days spent alone in the sunshine, touched by the sounds and the schedules of birds and insects, drifting on the sensations of sun on his skin, summer grasses in his breath, and long periods of uninterrupted, moony thought peaked in a sense of aliveness that was both cognitive and physical.  Call it epiphany.  It is what Einstein chased after in his long hours of solitude drifting in a little sailboat.  What Beethoven heard – even though he was stone deaf – as he composed his 9th symphony.  It is very nearly an experience of feeling ourselves more than we typically do – the human animal or soul in all its beauty.  Many experience it as a connection to god.  But it may also be a connection to an infant or a puppy or a sunset.  This state, according to yoga, is the ground of who we are.  It is true and trustworthy.  It is a recognition of oneness and a moment of living beyond fear.