Beyond the Mat

To know the truth we have to deepen ourselves, and not merely widen the surface.

~ Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

From the sidelines of a yoga class it may appear that touching the crown of the head with the pinkie toe is the pinnacle of practice. After all, how is yoga different from any other type of fitness regime? The two elements on which this answer depends are the teacher and the student — and their intention. Okay, maybe this makes four elements, but regardless, it’s this mojo that determines the direction of the experience and it’s the individual that brings it.

The process of Yoga has the potential to move the body in a different way but this is only the beginning. Asanas (postures) are designed to influence the expansion of space, not just in the body but also within our thoughts. In this way, how we experience life also begins shifting in a new direction.

When we first begin a mat practice it’s all we can do to find our feet when instructed. However, as confidence and comfort (yes, this does develop over time) begin to expand as does our ability to concentrate on the nuances within each pose. Deepening into a particular stretch does not refer merely to increasing mobility or strengthening muscles but our ability to focus as we develop the freedom to explore the subtle fluctuations within the body and mind.

Our practice becomes juicy when our experience on the mat begins taking on the rhythm of a guided meditation. Flowing with a bit more assurance, our initial feelings of uncertainty evaporate into something different. Postures that once generated inklings of mild loathing become an opportunity to observe our bodies and minds from a place of relative ease.

The mat becomes our safe place. Creating the unwavering foundation beneath us to continue expanding beyond our boundaries, each session uncoils a fresh opportunity to open to our true selves without judgment or fear. Supported in this journey, gradually, we begin penetrating deep pockets of clarity from within.

These gentle openings establish healthy, grounded connections with our bodies and beliefs. It can only happen gradually, with patience and loving acceptance that no matter what we find, it’s going to be okay. Over time this process is what equips us with the authentic stability we need to move with life’s challenges, not merely cope with them.

We discover our true selves.

Together on a planet with billions of other people, we are engaged in a singular game. Our shared experiences are truly known from only one perspective and Yoga is one method of discovering the depth of these perceptions. With the guidance of those who have walked this path before us, there is a clear direction.

It begins with taking the first step. If we believe we are walking into an exercise class, this is the benefit we reap. If we believe we are stepping into something more, this is also what we experience. No right or wrong; merely a difference of perception — a perception that morphs and changes with every breath. 

~ by Christine Fowle (Lewiston, NY)

~ Photo: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 2014

I am You

It’s time to break from the program and get a little personal; it’s been a while since my skeletons were brought out for a dance. For those unfamiliar with the steps, it may be assumed that seeking OM has been the obvious direction since the beginning of my world. However, as it can be undeniably attested to, up until seven years ago I was running an undeviating path towards far more conventional pursuits.

Until this time, both the freedom of expression through the written word and any spiritual inklings were both buried deep. It was the simultaneous igniting of this dormant union that fused an insatiable desire to drum out the beats of this quest to the tune of life’s great enigmas. Scrappy and disjointed, this fire emerged, seemingly on cue, from the grit beneath the city streets of Paris.

It was 2006 and I’d stepped into a fairytale designed by Salvadore Dali.

From the moment the airplane touched ground, every cell in my body vibrated in anticipation. An irresistible job opportunity and subsequent relocation, it was a decision that would radically alter the trajectory of my life. Never having written anything personal before, ideas, instantly morphing into shapes, started composing what would later form a memoir.

However, enchantment had its limits and as soon was to be discovered, so did I. As the façade dropped, both the job and city, began taking relentless whacks at my psyche. Darkness covered light and with repeated with waves of intensity, each surge thrust me deeper into the mire until suffocating, I was dragged toward the answers.

I began to meditate. From where the idea first originated will forever remain a mystery, but it was in this space that I was led to Buddhism and Yoga — and the air to breathe.

As the shadows began to dissipate, the determination to express myself grew more urgent. Direction unknown, the only certainty held was that I had something to say. The need to release the words finally overwhelmed my desire for safety and security; against the advice of many, I ended my career to explore what this meant. However, months flew past and still, I had not yet discovered my voice.

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In the search for my voice, the continuum of past and present exposed a gallery of raw imagery, fusing a fading history with recent impressions. Separated from the chain, these individual links revealed the pieces of a long-obscured puzzle. Values, ethics and beliefs were challenged, dissected and smacked against the wall. Penetrating layers of emotion, the desire for validation and inhibiting judgment were slowly scraped away until all that was left was a naked reflection. It was in this moment I realized precisely what Paris had lured me there to discover; I wasn’t proud of the woman I’d become.

So, I sat on the floor of my little Parisian flat and I cried. Not because I was upset or even sad. The overwhelming sea of tears was because I was so profoundly grateful. I’d finally figured it out. I could stop pretending — pretending that I was a sum of all the things I’d surrounded myself with. For in fact, I was none of these. But buried far beneath this truth, I discovered something even more precious; it was my voice.

The reason I've shared this is actually quite simple; it's because I am you. At odds within my own self, my search for OM began long before Paris and quite possibly, long before I was born. It’s only been in the last several years that gradually, the process of change has taken root and flourished. It’s not been easy but the value has proved immeasurable.

Know you are not alone. The desire for fulfillment isn’t spiritual. It’s human. In the words of the time-honored, Loving Kindness Meditation: May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.

May you find peace on this glorious path towards your OM.

~ by Christine Fowle

~ Mirror Image by Schizo Cheese

Have we met?

Maneuvering baggage from one country to the next, I can’t help but take notice of the subtle and at times, pervasive, differences found within each culture. One such difference is the role religion plays in daily life and how behaviors are reflected within these beliefs.

As cultures, we generally believe something. The foundation on which our values stand is shaped by these ideals, developed by the generations that have come before us. And although it may appear that the influence of religion is waning around the globe, it’s from these roots that the nature of our modern-day convictions have grown. This includes our ideas about life and death and the interplay of the time we spend in between.

Religious doctrine not only includes thoughts about how our actions affect our time here now (karma) but also whether or not we continue on in a physical form after we die (rebirth). These implications influence our opinions, judgments and behavior and it’s between these lines that the moral codes of societies have been written. But what if our views are askew?

The experience and understanding of our thoughts and actions are the parameters that create the world around us and are highly individual. How this information is taught and received however, is largely cultural. Public opinion can be swayed just as powerfully by a lack of information as it can be from its availability and in the West, the value placed on the tangibility of what we encounter inclines the mind to remain closed instead of open.

Death is a fate that no one escapes, and although the matter of what happens after death affects everyone, very few questions are asked. Perhaps it’s that lack of tangibility: with the inability to recall a time before, it’s difficult to conceive of a time after. But just because it can’t be seen, does this mean it doesn’t exist?

Each of the major religions present a position on our experience after death. Using this as a door, we can open a dialogue on rebirth to more closely examine our own beliefs. With Christians comprising 33% of the worldwide population and Muslims following at 23%, this places those who believe we will not revisit the earthly realm at about 56%. With Buddhists and Hindus representing 7% and 14% respectively, this 21%, although the minority, still equates to 1.5 Billion of the world population who believes we do return in some form. (The remainder account for Unaffiliated or Other.).

Viewing rebirth through a religious lens is not meant to distinguish who is right and who is wrong. It’s a course to turn the light inward and perceive our beliefs from a different vantage point. It’s easy to consider ourselves openminded. It can be slightly more difficult to objectively examine our long-held beliefs when they are challenged.  

The truth that we will all die one day is indisputable and whether or not we will experience rebirth in some form is not up to us. The laws of Universe are not concerned with our views, no matter how steadfast. Would it however, change our behavior to know that every thought, word and action reverberates far beyond the limiting scope of death?

Think about it, in this supra-organized Universe, doesn’t it appear slightly imbalanced that God, Allah, Brahma, Cosmic Consciousness, etc., would lavish one individual so generously with wealth and privilege on one side of the globe while his brother, on the other side, is born into struggle, need and starvation?

Would behaviors change, if due to over-indulgence in this lifetime we knew we’d be returning as a Haitian woman in the next, fighting poverty to keep our family alive? What if we were to come back as a Korean street dog due to mistreatment of animals or as paybacks for a role as an abuser bought us a one-way ticket on the receiving end? What if, as part of the rules, we return time and time again to learn Universal lessons until we manage to get them right?

What if this isn’t it at all. What if beyond life as we know it there lies a way of being that our human mind is incapable of wrapping itself around? What if it isn’t something to fear or to know. Actions have consequences and the choices we make and sometimes more importantly, don’t make, predicate the creation of our world. What happens after we leave this body isn’t nearly as important than the choices we make while we’re in it.

Choose wisely.

 

Relevance

The striking gong propels a resonate hum into the distant horizon. Slowly stretching my arms to the sky, an escaping sigh indicates it is indeed time to greet a new day. I scan the dark room to ascertain where I am. The constant travel still tosses a confused haze over my waking eyes however, outside the tall windows a familiar Himalayan silhouette gently tickles an azure halo.

Encased within grasshopper-green rice fields, tucked away in a tiny pocket of Himachel Pradesh, is the monastery and surrounding locales I’ve called home for the last four lunar cycles. Bustling underneath twisting Tibetan prayer flags, time has provided the quintessential classroom for unfolding lessons since before the rains began, providing gentle protection from the suffocating heat and impaling downpours of monsoon season. These Himalayan mountain towns submit to a weather pattern all their own, while the remainder of India has endured the nastiest of nasty summer heat and a ravaging rainy season, ripening the country for travel.

As my North American home balances precariously amidst threats of an impending government shutdown the obscure web appears worlds away, as does the ridiculous nature of a political force involved with such a proposition. What is designed to work for we the people is undoubtedly selfishly motivated and the childish antics of threatening to pull away from the responsibilities accepted to prove a worthless point, are duly recognized.

When pondering the legitimacy of what I am attempting to accomplish on the other side of the planet I continue to weigh whether my endeavors are better served at home. Perhaps making contributions to society through a more active standpoint would move forward the causes for democracy and planetary health that I so adamantly believe are our responsibility to pragmatically support.

The facts however, continue to pacify my sense of purpose. Tantalizing options I’ve entertained to return to the US are equal parts selfless and ego driven moving me no closer to the truths I’ve left home to uncover. I’ve also decided that it is no less respectable to live an alternative lifestyle and adjusting to satisfy the degree by which others accept what I’m doing as relevant is not a move I am willing to make.

It’s an enormous challenge balancing worldly responsibilities with an exploration of the desire to break free from all that binds us. We are mothers, sisters, sons, caregivers and providers; responsibilities exist and there is no way around this, nor was there designed to be. One of the fundamental aspects of this game is accepting the circumstances of our lives not as an unchanging hand that we’ve been dealt, but as ever-morphing diversions that must be recognized as such in order to transcend the constraints we have accepted as self-imposed boundaries to growth. The illusion is not in the rules themselves but in our perception of these rules.

The machine in which we are integrated gathers power by replacing independent thought with automated notions. We’ve been handed blueprints of what success looks like. The American Dream is no longer about reaching our highest individual potential and instead involves surrounding oneself with more increasingly decadent aspirations. Within the societal model we’ve been exposed to since birth, we’ve been convinced that our lifestyle is important to maintain without ever questioning, why?

Taking our country’s leadership as the example, there is little directive for the population to break free from the ingrained patterns of conditioned complacency and fear-based grasping at security and safety. Therefore it is up to each of us individually to unlock our own conventional thinking long enough to glimpse what lies beyond the doors blocking the path to this freedom.

It is only walking through this entryway that we may access the opportunity to develop the fullest expression of ourselves. Knocking on this door however, requires acceptance of the unknown, awaiting our arrival on the other side, a prospect that may be unsettling for most. The illusion of control often explains that no good can come of risk and avoids the uneasiness of questions that may remain forever unanswered. Breaking the façade also means facing the truths we maintain a steadfast vigilance to hide. At either end of this spectrum the internal dialogue is more important than the result of such inquiries, merely signifying the opening of the door and taking the first step.

As for me, Mother India is chanting her playful mantra inciting a delightfully tempting provocation to once again dance with her children. After shaking off the sleepy haze of monsoons, I am rested and beyond ready to learn some new steps.

The gong has sounded; it is indeed time to wake up.

~ by Christine Fowle

What About the Yak

At the onset of this trip, I boldly (perhaps naïvely) declared an openness to the exploration of the weird, wacky and esoteric. So what happened? Not once have I dropped from swinging stars into Himalayan Mountain caves chasing after ascetic yogis. Nor have I been tempted into accepting divine candy from orange-clad Sadhus in hopes of acquiring a sweet ticket through the gates to my higher self.

Scores of interesting characters have indeed danced across my path. But knowing full well that what I am seeking or better yet, what I am finding, is a function of interior exploration, it has appeared counterintuitive to entrust the progression of my own inner wisdom to another.

East and West, spirituality is rapidly becoming the next hip commodity and those espousing the quick-fix, fast-track to self-discovery, need only be examined insofar as their own lifestyles to discover potentially motivating factors. Transcending the ego is a pre-requisite to connecting with the higher work of the soul and those having accomplished this feat are not bragging about it, nor are they looking to pimp it out for a fast buck.

So if I’m not participating Yak rituals under the glow of a hanging full moon, what is it that I’m doing?

As was discovered many years before hopping on an airplane for India, meditation is the key and long before this trip began I’ve attempted to maintain a regular practice. While still living and working in the West the prohibiting factors impeding sustained progress were multifold. Primarily though, my on-again, off-again tendencies were generally due to a fancy for alcohol. Giving it up prior to leaving for this adventure has cemented my choice to make personal health and a purpose-driven life my priority.

This being said, every morning I rise very early to begin. Asanas (Yoga postures) are followed by Pranayama (breathing exercises) and then finally meditation. The entire routine takes approximately three hours and is complete before the first temple bells chime. Breakfast to bedtime, mindful engagement is the core of what I am now calling my spiritual practice.

Until recently I didn’t succumb to the notion of calling what I’m doing a spiritual practice. The connotation of rainbow painted strings, dragging unicorns and fairy dust behind, was decidedly not me. The change in my mindset was brought about by the realization that although the landscape of my interior was transforming, it didn’t require personality modifications shaped to fit a preformed mold. Nor did coming to India mean shaving my head or renouncing all worldly possessions.

The degrees of spirituality incorporated into each individual life are as varied as the planetary population and it's the process of self-examination that is important, not the label. Meditation is universal and personal growth is not about self-help. It's about evolution.

~ by Christine Fowle

Varanasi

Windows open so that her centuries-old mysteries may be gazed upon with awe. Focus, ever elusive, the vision vanishes, disappearing through whatever portal by which it was created. It is only by allowing such experiences to flow through you in a constant stream of expression that India may be known.

“Tell everyone you meet you have been to Varanasi three, no, four times,” says the rickshaw driver, pointing emphatically. “They will think you know.” He spits red tobacco juice onto the dirt. “Everyone works on commission. No one is your friend. Silk pays forty-five percent. Forty-five percent,” he repeats.

Kashi, revered as the most sacred city in all of India, only became known as Varanasi in the eras following her birth. Her strong pulse, attracting centuries of wisdom, developed her heart into a core of religious faith and knowledge. Her magnificence matured into a powerful energy source, the cleansing force of the River Ganges washing away all wrongdoing, venerated by the devout as a center of re-birth. She is known by the ancients as Avimukta.

Sacked and looted, Varanasi was ravaged, raped of her riches. At the whims of the malevolent, decimated symbols of the sacred were replaced with alternate symbols of the same, trumping one god for another, in religious fervors of differing beliefs. Stone by stone her temples were destroyed. Stone by stone, her temples were re-built. Perseverance, conviction and indomitable will; the faithful will be rewarded.

It is in Varanasi that I hit a wall.

Rainy Day Musings

Surrounded by a thickening haze engulfing the tropical greenery, my absorption in the dark, swollen clouds and looming showers is distracted by the women in leafy-patterned sarongs. Observing their gentle maneuvering over the narrow stone bridges I scan the breakfast trays, each conveying two freshly squeezed glasses of juice and two plates of food.

It occurs to me, that I will immediately know which delivery is mine, and it isn’t because of the bright pink beverage and bowl of fruit I’ve requested. The single most identifiable feature of my order — the settings are prepared for a table for one. Before anyone puts on a sad face, don’t worry; this is by choice.

Traveling this way gives one a tremendous amount of headspace in which to ping around such persistent inquiries as to why I’ve chosen the singular path. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

It’s kind of like adopting a new puppy. The exhilaration of taking the initial decision generates a euphoric buzz as daydreams of frolicking through the park, long hikes in the woods and latte-runs to Java Pup, pander through your mind. Excitedly, you create a list of mental boundaries: Rule Number One: No sleeping in my bed. This leads to Exception Number One: Okay — but just this once.

Then there's the anticipation of the trip to Furburbia. Playing with ears of each potential pup, patting their fluffy heads, holding their soft, scrunchy faces, cuddling their fuzzy little bodies — does he whimper when you walk away, the allure is overwhelming — soft fur, wet nose and happy wagging tail! It's all too much! The tug on your heartstrings releases a fervor you can’t resist and finally you buckle under the pressure of the little puppy panting.

Bringing him home and opening the door you know, life will never be the same. After giving your new playmate a sniff around, it appears this new arrangement may just be acceptable. A few more tentative steps into your life and what does he do? He pittles on the carpet. Then the realization sets in; this is going to take some work. No, I’m not saying the men in my life have urinated on my rug; it’s a metaphor, keep up. What I am saying is that good relationships, puppies or men, are a commitment and commitments require effort. I’ve instead used this time to work on myself.

In a very real sense, my reasons for traveling this way are analogous for my lifestyle. Setting the routes and determining the random rights and random lefts are a measure of self-reliance — pushing the limits of resourcefulness, personal capabilities and tolerance, tapping a river of inner strength hovering dormant beneath the surface. The rewards flow generously; a truly sustainable high.

But the question could certainly be asked; do I miss the look in a man’s eyes as he holds me and tells me he loves me?

Only when it rains.

~ by Christine Fowle