Moving “authentically” in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

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“An authentic movement is in and of the Self at the moment it is done.  Nothing is in it that is not inevitable, simple.  When it is authentic, I can almost tell you what is coming next.  When I see somebody move authentically, it is so real that it is undiluted by any pretense or any appearance or images.  Often, it can be the movement of just one hand turning over, or it can be the whole body.  To get to this authenticity sacrifice is involved.  At first it is a discovery of all of the tricks, needs and demands that separate you from what would be genuine in yourself.  Then after you have discovered what this trick is and what it prevents, it must be sacrificed, as must each subsequent one as it is discovered.  The reality of impulse and movement come from such a different place in oneself that when it is experienced, the person comes to know when it is there and when it isn’t, and then she can stop cheating.  What I call ‘cheating’ would be the personal arrangement of movement on many levels…”  Mary Starks Whitehouse in Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow

MSW is speaking about a therapeutic form in which a client is witnessed as he or she begins to move in whatever manner feels right at that moment, a conscious exploration of sensations and impulses.  The form is thus intended to be completely free and unfabricated, at times highly idiosyncratic and steeped in layers of emotion.  Much more would need to be said to do this kind of practice justice, but what I would like to address here is how much we need this kind of attitude even within a seemingly prescribed movement sequence such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

The polarity often discussed in Authentic Movement is that of moving and being moved.  Any of us who have tried yoga have worked on the moving part, the purposeful arrangement of the body and use of various techniques and theories.  Only the most elite masters seem to have grasped the being moved part, which is evident when you see them practice, though many of us have no doubt had at least some moments where we become possessed in this way.  Like Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, you are not the Doer.  However, most of us on some level feel we are and we look like we are when we get down on the mat…  No, it is not about looks in the end, however, we can also feel that something is missing when we are not completely attuned to the deepest aspects of our being.

Many Ashtangis will jump to say, “Yes, that is why we have always said Iyengar yoga (focused on alignment) sucks,” but this is not at all what I mean (I love it).  The body actually wants to move in an organic way, yet unless we sense into every split-second of the movement, we lose this flow and replace it with top-down or automated dictatorship.  You cannot really have one side without the other, also talked about in the 2-fold yoga path described by Patanjali as abhyasa-vairagya.  If we do not get the body in the vicinity of brilliant alignment where natural impulses can actually function, they are unable to work efficiently for us, (and these inner impulses seem to involve a great deal more than simply squeezing the anus, which is all the glory internal form is given in some circles…)  Likewise, deity visualizations and anatomical/kinesiological understanding can help our body to start to move in the ways that will feel most liberating.  We may try to understand what it means to allow the pelvic floor or “mula bandha” organize the pose, or let the breath do the work, but in order for this to happen, we need to listen so deeply and carefully (and continuously), setting the stage and sending the invitations, and finally allowing those impulses to direct us or perform for us when they actually show up.

For me, and I think for most of us, this involves relinquishing a great deal of cognitive control.  So many of us are in lock-down, totally wedded to a form we have imagined or seen in a book or another practitioner.  My teacher always jokes that it’s like he’s teaching in a morgue!  Our minds have gotten the body so stuck that the breath and life are choked right out of us.  We are not likely to look for the authentic movement going into poses or staying in poses, where so much magic can take place.  There are infinite numbers of transformations possible for however long we are in a pose.  This might simply involve micro movements and fine tuning, finding more dignity within a contortion, or at times becoming more contorted in order to feel certain other polarities.  Sometimes it might be stillness, which reveals its opposite and background.  It’s a dance, though it might not look like any kind of dance we have ever seen, nor will it ever happen in the same way again.  Just as we are all composed of waves and spirals, so too the body enjoys moving, which is strangely alien to the ego, who wants us to have a solid identity and just stick the pose “right” and move on to the next victory without feeling into the vast and groundless reality that there is no end to any pose, nor to us for that matter.

In asana, as in life, we follow the prescription, do the forms as obedient little students, and miss out on the real juice.  If we managed to tune in for even a few moments, we would start to feel the emotional and archetypal energy in our bodies and simultaneously feel the immense relief and freedom of total embodiment.  My teacher always says that if we could pay attention for even 2 seconds, we would fall into the central channel (Sushumna Nadi) and experience great insight.  It is humbling to truly inquire into whether we have ever managed to pay close attention for any amount of time at all in our practices.

If the central channel opens, it is said that core sensations are unleashed at an intensity our distraction usually keeps at bay.  Our protective ego structure would rather keep us out of this experience of the Self.  It would rather keep us in our reductive stories and limited beliefs and behaviors, which are safer and far less gratifying.  However, somehow we know we are missing something.  We naturally seek out intense experiences that will allow us to get a taste for this true absorption, anything short of which leaves us feeling like phony shells of our true potential.

Later in the same chapter, MSW speaks about simply becoming more aware of our tendencies, constrictions and ways of posturing ourselves, how we sit, shake hands, etc.  All of this will be reflected in our asana practice.  We move as the mass of habits we have become over the years, in most cases far more inhibited than when we came into this world as children.  As soon as we start to truly tune in to whatever we are doing, we will start to feel something asking us to adjust, or leading our attention to some aspect that was previously being kept out of our awareness.  In fact we might be shocked to find that we have been slouching in an incredibly uncomfortable position for hours!  Many of us torture ourselves throughout our practice as well, zoned out to the sensations until they become intolerably excruciating.

Of course, so many spiritual paths converge on the view that future suffering can and should be avoided.  Looking into our being and discovering needless restrictions, rules, layers of conditioning, shame, guilt, whatever else keeps us feeling stuck, allows us moments of relief when we can let go of some of the needless tensions, involuntary recoiling and brainy rigidity that make certain we have to keep striving and struggling rather than just being and actually letting so many things take care of themselves, as they truly will when we are alert enough to get out of the way.  At the same time, when we notice we are suffering and no easy solution appears, we do not take the attitude of whitewashing over it without listening.  We hold it as we would a baby who has begun to cry and needs our tenderness.  We start to discover who we really are, far more capable and vulnerable than we may ever have realized.

I find it extremely helpful personally to do Authentic Movement practices with their apparent lack of form.  They have helped me to begin to see how even within form, there is so much openness and freedom.  (The Heart Sutra comes to mind…)  In addition, allowing the body to go where it wants without censorship quickly throws up in one’s face all kinds of repressed shadow material.  Suddenly I might find myself acting out some kind of sequence that feels highly willful, primitive, seductive, furious or whatever else I might hide from polite society.  Repression will show up in yoga and inhibit everything from the breath to range of motion and might even cause pain and illness.

Making friends with those aspects of myself that nobody else is befriending allows for an experience of unconditional love that we rarely find in our daily life (and it is particularly powerful, not to mention healing, if there is a witness in Authentic Movement or a teacher in yoga who has explored her own depths and who is comfortable with the irreducibility of the self and awesome complexity of the universes, to be there with you as you explore in this intimate way).  The practice has helped me to start to crack my own heart open and have some self-compassion for all of the components that seem to make up “me” at any given time, and to give them what they need when I can and be with them when I can’t.  Slowly I start to see that being with myself this way helps me to be with others.

Shankaracharya has said that true yogis serve (rather than “do”) mula bandha.  On some level, in an Authentic Movement practice or and authentic Ashtanga practice, we are always asking how we can best serve our bodies and other aspects of our being.  In that way, we are continuously confronted with whatever we might have overlooked, be it physical, emotional, or on some other plane.  Ultimately we can see limitless freedom even within the boundaries of a certain yoga pose or transition, and in acknowledging this mystery, we are naturally drawn to look closely again and again and feel into each crevice of our being, allowing very profound feelings and sensations to emerge and meet our warm and kind acceptance.  This is how the practice is becoming increasingly meaningful for me.  It requires a very different attitude than I was used to, so much sensitivity and love, but it’s rewarding immediately, even in the earliest phases of implementation.

Practicing in this way we cannot avoid our humanity, aloneness and interconnectedness.  Sometimes what we feel is not at all pleasant, and sometimes it is pure bliss.  At any rate, it’s prana, and when we feel this pulsation, life becomes more lively.

Ashtanga 3rd & 4th Series Video

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Hi friends, hope you enjoy this video of my shoot with Liana Romulo assisted by Regina Cannon at Ashtanga Yoga Denver. These two series have a very special place in my heart as they have been very healing for me. One often sees this kind of practice implicated in injury and I’d like to share a different kind of experience. I learned 3rd & 4th during the past three years while recovering from a chronic inflammatory condition brought about by excessive and prolonged biotoxin exposure that began several years before. Although I have had to employ every means available to get well, including prescription medications and every ancient and new-age remedy I could get my hands on, this practice has been at the root of my desire to heal and has supported me on that journey, which continues to this day. 

I’m grateful to have practiced these series in an atmosphere of non-judgmental respect for the body as well as my true nature. Whereas I see many naive teachers placing undue emphasis on striving, perfection and athleticism, I was extremely lucky to learn from Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, who helped me to focus on internal forms and gradually let go of some of the driven attitudes that had propelled me up to that point.  When I practice, I have warm memories of them being there for me, and that has made it easier for me to do the same for myself.  It is nearly impossible to move forward without accepting where we are first…  We had so many occasions to joke about the awkwardness of some of these poses, and at times, when all I could do was lay over a bolster and cry or sleep, I felt a tremendous dose of compassion from them that made me certain that I needed to pull through and begin to develop that sacred presence for the sake of others.

I feel fortunate that I have always done a variety of styles of yoga and had creative teachers who have encouraged me to find optimal alignment, organic movement and the right outlook, all of which are indispensible for a safe and enjoyable practice that can last a lifetime. There are plenty of sources of injury in life, so we do not need asana to fulfill that role! Of course there will be the inevitable tweaks and soreness, and we’ll get banged up from going about our daily business and have to deal with it on the mat (I have had tons of pain due to inflammation from diet and disease that required extensive modifications of my practice), but pathological pain from cranking ourselves aggressively in yoga feels different, and I hope all practitioners will hone their intuition and that teachers will respect that. We have the potential to discover so much of value about ourselves and others through this practice. May we continue to explore what matters most and act on it!

When a Teacher isn’t Right for Us

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Buddha garden at Upaya Zen Center. Photo by Jen

“It’s a simple answer, truly. If a teacher’s behavior causes you more conflict than you’re capable of practicing with, it’s better to leave. It’s better to leave. There has to be a fit between a teacher’s behavior and your capacity to handle and negotiate that behavior while still seeing it as a transformative tool.” Georg Feuerstein in The Guru Question: The Perils and Rewards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher by Mariana Caplan

This is a very important point.  So often we are told that we should cultivate equanimity in yoga, and it can seem as if sticking it out in a bad situation is heroic or character-building.  We may believe the situation will improve with our devotion or that our karma bank will be filled up by our efforts.  We may badly want to remain a part of a certain spiritual community.  We may have a hundred good things to say about the teacher and only a few bad ones.  It all depends how aversive the situation becomes and whether we have the internal and external support to take something positive from the circumstances.

In my own opinion based on a few previous experiences of mine and stories shared by other students and teachers, this attitude that we should take whatever comes as a teaching can be quite dangerous.  Ultimately, yes.  However, while we are practicing we are especially vulnerable, or at least, we should be.  We have the incredibly precious opportunity to become intimate with the breath and to open up the core of the body and nervous system, bringing up our conditioning, memories, and sometimes very powerful sensations, feelings and emotions.  If we are constantly tensing in a state of hyper-vigilance due to negativity or some other kind of instability in the relationship with the teacher or others in the room, we can easily exacerbate patterns of fear and reactivity.  Sometimes this is just not worth it…  The practice is supposed to be liberating!

There are dozens of tales of people making monumental strides on the path with very controversial or even apparently unethical teachers.  These people must somehow have been thoroughly convinced of their path and the teacher’s importance in their lives.  Personally, I would have to admit that studying with an incompatible teacher and benefitting from it is more of an advanced practice than I am capable of at this point on my journey.  For incompatibilities to arise, it is not at all necessary that the teacher be a psychopathic demon.  In fact, the teacher may be very well-intentioned, knowledgeable, and adored by throngs of students, or even greatly loved and admired by you.  If you, however, feel there is a mis-match that is severely interfering with your practice, please do not suppress or disregard your intuition.  It’s your life and practice!

The recent talk of trauma-informed yoga is a nice start (see also a previous post about relational healing), but no teaching environment is safe for the student unless the student can, at least to some extent, trust the teacher.  This does not mean blindly doing everything the teacher says, nor is this simply a cognitive decision.  You may convince yourself that everything is just fine (and outwardly there may be no danger at all), but if you feel strongly otherwise on another level to the point of being distracted and distressed, it’s time to consider other options.

Both the teacher and student are involved in this process of trusting.  More important than the teacher’s technical prowess, I would say, is his or her ability to be open and honest, putting ego and desire to use the student for personal gain as far aside as possible, listening and observing with care, taking feedback from the student seriously and not invalidating his or her experience.  The student is the one inhabiting the body, and pain (mental, spiritual or physical) should not be dismissed as lightly as it often is.  It can come up for many reasons, and we must work with students to discover its nature and what if anything can be done about it and first and foremost, how we can best be with things as they are.  A little presence (without trying to manipulate the situation or turning yoga into a self-improvement farce) goes a long way!  As teachers, we need to be a great deal more humble and recognize the great variety of personality types and backgrounds that come through the shala door, while still doing our best to point out students’ inevitable blind spots and encouraging them to live up to their highest potentials even when they lose faith in themselves or endure trying times.

As students, we should also remain open and refrain from shunning those experiences in relationship with the teacher that are truly transformative, even if embarrassing or difficult.  We will eventually come up against our edges with any teacher, and we can learn to discern when the experience transgresses boundaries that we need to respect in ourselves.  If a teacher repeatedly grates on a weakness that you are not yet able to deal with or wears you down in ways you cannot recover from, making you feel less capable or worthwhile in your life in a way that feels wrong, consider taking a break and practicing at home or elsewhere.  Indeed some of our old patterns need to be broken down, but this too requires great vulnerability, and should be done with somebody we do feel has our back in whatever ways we feel are essential.

It is too much to ask of the great majority of us to face all situations as if they are Brahman, or whatever those people say who pretend to live in the Absolute realm.  Most of us need to accept that we inhabit the relative world.  We need to embrace our humanity and recognize and accept our limitations while allowing the practice to work on us on an often unseen level.  Greater communication between students and teachers could also help greatly!  It is a relationship like any other where both parties need to keep waking up to stay with the reality of the moment.

 

Real Gurus Inspire Change

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Fire ceremony lead by Robert Thurman at a retreat in Molokai. Photo by Jen

“Watch yourself. If you see yourself changing, growing, it means you have found the right [Guru]. He may be beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant, flattering you or scolding; nothing matters except the one crucial fact of inward growth. If you don’t [grow], well, he may be your friend, but not your Guru.”  —  Nisargadatta Maharaj in I am that : talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Since the Guru is largely considered a dangerous, taboo or excessively esoteric subject, it is rarely talked about openly or positively, in terms of what the relationship could be at its best.  How then, can practitioners who want to take practice more seriously begin to discriminate between a good teacher and a bad one?

I personally feel that it’s important to read an abundance of opinions and see how they resonate with me.  I am drawn to this quote because a teacher might indeed have to be unpleasant and scolding at times in order for us to see our inner process reflected more clearly.  The teacher should not reward conditioned behaviors that keep us feeling smaller than we truly are!

Coming to the practice with very little idea of what it is for and wanting mostly just to feel better somehow, we tend to want flattery more than anything else.  We believe that if the teacher invites us to have dinner, that must mean we are excelling on the path, when in fact we are likely just playing the same ego games we have our whole lives, seeking approval from others and giving up our own sense of inquiry and responsibility.

I am not suggesting that a teacher cannot be a profound kind of friend or implying that teachers have full license to be mean just for the sake of it!  This quote leaves it up to us to decide whether we are changing or not, and if so whether it’s for better or worse.  When we feel a teacher is having a poisonous effect without overriding redeeming value, there is no virtue in sticking around and torturing ourselves, which in the end is another way of making ourselves small.

It can be very confusing to tell whether a teacher is worthy of our trust or not, but in my case, my guts are usually shouting loudly, and it actually takes a lot of my energy for me to ignore or act against them.  We ultimately know whether what the teacher says makes sense for us or not and can learn to take what is valuable and leave what is harmful.  Certain authoritarians might argue that this is self-indulgence or taking it easy, but I feel this is a starting place for developing discriminating awareness (the goal of yoga practices in the Ashtanga tradition).

We know whether we feel ashamed because we’ve been found out (and agree that we have stumbled upon something that want to work on) or whether we are simply being abused.  (With time and practice, I feel a little less shame and can have a bit more sense of humor when I get caught identifying strongly with whatever ridiculous ego clinging pattern!)  If we have teachers whom we do trust, we might ponder our interactions with them deeply to examine what they may have been pointing towards and consider how we intend to investigate that further.

Unfortunately, we hear language that requires us to either obey unconditionally or rebel continuously, when in fact, it would be a rare case where either of those solutions would be expedient.  Teachers are usually not 100% perfect, and we can still benefit from associating with them as long as we accept this and practice becoming more comfortable in the uncomfortable space of not knowing how any given scenario will play out.  In fact, as in any relationship, every moment changes.  We need to stay alert and pay attention to what is happening now in order to experience that being in front of us fully.  A real teacher will always be prodding us gently to stay on our toes in just this way.

 

 

Trauma, Relationship, Guru

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Richard assisting me in laghu vajrasana in 2011. Photo by Chris Croft

“The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections. Recovery can take place only in the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In her renewed connections with other people, the survivor re-creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience. These faculties include the basic capacities for trust, autonomy, initiative, competence, identity, and intimacy. Just as these capabilities are originally formed in relationships with other people, they must be reformed in such relationships.” — Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery 

The importance of the therapeutic relationship in psychotherapy has long been recognized.  It has been purported to be the single biggest factor (or even the only necessary and sufficient factor) contributing to positive treatment outcomes for a variety of problems and disorders.  How many of us feel a bit disempowered and disconnected from others?  This is often why we turn to therapy or to yoga.  We could all benefit from profound and selfless relationship, which is not so easy to come by in this world.

Such relationships seem to be growing more and more scarce in the yoga world as it becomes less and less “cool” to accept a guru or make any commitment to study with somebody who is truly qualified to teach.  In its popularized form yoga is seen as yet another fitness and fashion craze, and its ultimate goal (Self-realization and rediscovery of interconnectedness, the very opposite of disempowerment and disconnection) is forgotten.  Considerable disillusionment comes from having watched so many apparently advanced teachers succumb to the basest scandals.  However, instead of jumping on board and behaving abhorrently or losing faith altogether, teachers and students might deeply ponder the gravity of the role and do their best to uphold the highest standards.

It is well-established that memories are stored somatically, so when we work with the body in yoga, we have the potential, to a greater or lesser extent, to re-awaken traumatic experiences and relive them to some degree.  Even if we consider ourselves to be in the fortunate minority of people who have experienced no dramatic or excruciating trauma, we still carry with us whatever we have encountered throughout our development during at least one lifetime!  The choice of who will share this very intimate practice space with us while we undergo these processes is quite a sacred one.

When you fold into that hip-opener and associations with your X or difficult family members bubble up (explicitly or not), it would be ideal if the teacher would not reenact those old pathological scenarios and behavior patterns, reinforcing them in your system!  How terrible (and re-traumatizing) is it to feel unsafe, abandoned or subject to compounded injury and negativity in times of vulnerability…?!  How incredible would it be to share with somebody who supports you and sees your highest potential and reminds you of it in that moment?  A present being can often help us to face difficult feelings with more mindfulness than we can alone.  What a gift, to progressively work out ticks and misconceptions that we have adopted strategically in order to survive, but which build up those very barriers that alienate us from what we truly desire!  Sharing even one instant in true relationship with a genuinely compassionate being can reconfigure how we respond in analogous cases (or overall) for the rest of our lives (and perhaps beyond)!  Then, we learn how to be there for ourselves and others in that same nurturing way.

The necessity and therapeutic-transformative potential of the student-teacher relationship is stressed again and again in the shastras.  Through relationship we either drive ourselves further back into our shells or melt away resistances to states of fullness that we generally feel are too nice and therefore not possible for us.  I would like to beseech everybody to reconsider what is possible in relationship, whether in the shala or on the street (and hopefully here on this blog)!  We can practice this all the time…

New Yoga & Singing Workshops with Jen & Karen!

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IMG_4636Hi friends, check out our new demo teaser and my Featured Guide Page at Truth in Singing!  I will be collaborating with my new friend and voice pedagog extraordinaire Karen Tucker Patterson on her new holistic approach to finding your authentic voice.  I will teach yoga at the beginning of the sessions and she will then lead some revolutionary voice work.  We are offering two more workshops this year, November 15th and December 13th in Lafayette, CO.  Please click here to register.  We are hoping to offer additional workshops next year in Denver and Boulder so stay tuned…

Om gam ganapataye namah!

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Greetings, everyone!  Thank you for visiting my blog.  I hope it will contribute in some way to true happiness and freedom for all beings.

Ganesha is here to get us off to an auspicious start.  He blesses beginnings and is often said to be the remover of obstacles.  Our material on this blog will address many issues that tend to be seen as hindrances:  sickness, physical limitations, modern worldly commitments, relationship complexities, change and loss, character flaws, habits or addictions that appear to get in the way of our practice or ability to live fully…  They say the trick is to regard the “problem” as Ganesh himself, giving us the chance to behold it with greater respect and allowing for the possibility of learning and growing from it with humility and gratitude.

In this photo Ganesh is looking quite studious, and in fact he is said to be Intelligence itself.  We could all use more of that!  Or perhaps I should just speak for myself…  Well, even in his case, this lesson was hard-won as is illustrated by the following story, a version of which is often told by my teacher:

Shiva (Ganesha’s father) was needing to go out to perform some godly duties and didn’t want to leave his wife, Parvati (Ganesha’s mother) unattended.  He asked Ganesh to guard the door and be sure not to let anybody in.  As a test, he came disguised a few different ways and was very pleased to find Ganesh unrelenting in this task.  Shiva then felt reassured that everything was taken care of and was gone for quite a while.  Upon arriving back home excited to see his wife, he found that Ganesh refused to let him in!  No matter what he tried (entreaties, subterfuge, force…), he could not gain entry.  In a fit of frustrated fury, he sliced the boy’s (human) head off.  Needless to say, this did not go over well with Parvati and the homecoming festivities were further delayed.  Eventually they found an elephant, and Ganesh was outfitted with a new head.  After that he learned to get to the heart of the matter and not take things so literally (or seriously).

It’s astonishing to see how easy it is to develop fundamentalist attitudes and adhere to them even when they don’t apply.  We see this happening in the yoga world all the time when we hear a certain instruction meant for a particular person in a specific situation and we turn it into a universal rule and try to impose it on everybody.  Without understanding that the external posture is there to serve internal processes that can lead to open awareness and end all suffering, we try to cram our bodies into forms fabricated from fantasy and inflict more suffering on ourselves and others.  We then waffle to the opposite extreme, telling our entire social media network that this style of asana is injurious, nonsensical and definitely not meant for me…  We are forgetting its (and our) ultimate purpose (and potential).  Even the best technique will fall short unless we take it in, digest and assimilate it in a way that is appropriate for us.  It is far more challenging to look at our individual circumstances critically and use our own capacities to respond creatively and adaptively to them…

This brings me to Ganesha’s ears, which are quite large for divine listening.  Listening (with any of our senses) brings us into the present moment and our unique reality.  Rehashing the past, dreading or hankering after imagined scenarios in the future, and tugging at our experience right now wishing for it to be other than it is (or as other people tell us it ought to be) are all recipes for distraction and dissatisfaction.  When we listen (be it to our bodies, other beings or our environment), we can act in skillful or even enlightened ways that ultimately benefit us all.

We all want to be happy and discover the real cause of happiness.  The more I study various long-standing and apparently legitimate practice/wisdom traditions and interact with those who have truly immersed themselves in them, the more convinced I become that this goal is realizable and not some New Age magical thinking.  When we inquire deeply and sincerely, guidance comes, whether we see it as such or not.  May we explore together and find our own ways.  May we perceive bumps in the road as little jabs from the tusk of Ganesh and continue on the path with a more open heart and better sense of humor!