Friday, September 2, 2016

I'm still not a New England Patriots fan

So, two days after arriving in Costa Rica I found myself standing atop a 40ft, roughly 12 meter, cliff seriously contemplating whether or not to jump off.  I'd been to this cliff/waterfall several times during previous trips to Montezuma, but never mustered up the courage to take the jump.  To put this in perspective, I’ve freefall parachuted from planes at 14,000 feet and have quite a few static line parachute jumps and high altitude rappels under my belt during my Army days, so it wasn’t the fear of heights or anything like that.  I’ve seen dozens of people jump off this cliff, hell, even Tom Brady did it in 2015.  I stood in the same exact spot shown in the video clip at the link. Also, for anyone who doesn't know, Tom Brady is one of the most successful quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL.
Same falls I jumped from - Dude unknown
Side note, this waterfall, shown on the right, is about 30 feet shorter than the largest falls in Montezuma, which the one I find myself perched atop flows directly into.  I've heard stories of people dying, mostly while climbing up the cliff, but I’ve also seen Tico’s (local Costa Rican boys) scale the cliff and jump from the top of the big one.  I’m convinced the only reason they can do it is because their gigantic balls would cushion any semblance of a bad landing.
Anyways, I finally mustered up the guts, despite April’s insistence to for me to abstain, and took the giant step off. And they lived happily ever after. The End. I wish.
I’m not sure what kind of thing happened when I hit the water. I mean, I was pretty much vertical upon landing, didn’t do a back flop or anything like that, but my body was at just enough of an angle that it felt like whiplash.  Yeah, that’s it, I got waterfall jump induced whiplash. We'll leave it saying I had a somewhat less than optimal landing experience.  Like we used say in the Army Paratroopers, “Falling out of the sky doesn’t scare me, but the sudden stop on the ground if my parachute doesn’t open terrifies the shit out of me.”  The pain in my back was instant and very intense, but I gave April and the ten or so other people watching a thumbs up to indicate I was okay.  Truth be told I was barely able to pull myself out of the water and April tells me I was white as a sheet.  Nonetheless I continued the vacation doing everything as normal, that is if you call horseback riding through rugged terrain, hiking in the “ruggediest” of terrain, ATV driving in very ruggedish terrain, and boat trips on choppy seas normal.  I wasn't able to go to yoga classes or surf, the two things I really wanted to do down there...I was even planning on teaching some yoga at a studio in town.  I’ve had my share of back pain over the years, but this particular pain has been pretty intense, especially in the morning when getting out of bed...and anytime I bend over. Yesterday I went to my doctor here in Virginia as soon as I got back from the trip. Doctor told me it was just a bad muscle strain, but sent me for x-rays to rule out worse. This morning I received the telephone call from the same doc telling me the x-rays show two spinal column compression fractures in T-8 and T-12, with some other compression thing going on with T-9 and T-10. Basically I broke my back.  Great.  The radiologist compared this film with one of my chest x-rays from a couple years ago to confirm the damage was recent.  I’m going to see an orthopedic doc next week, probably for CT scans and perhaps an MRI.  I’m a pretty active and healthy guy for the most part, so I imagine I’ll heal fine, so all I have to do is take it easy and hug a bottle of Motrin, right?  No, I think my work here is to use this whole thing as a learning experience.  What if I’d not jumped?  What if I’d just stepped back and said (spoken in the voice of Dana Carvey doing George Bush) “Nope, not gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.”  I’d certainly not be sitting here writing about my broken back, but I’d also not have had the experience of doing a jump I’d wanted to try for several years.  Would I do it again if I knew what the outcome would be?  Uh...hell no.  I’m too old to be playing around with spinal fractures and am just grateful there was no nerve damage.  The great part about life is that we never know exactly how things will play out.  Challenging times like these are the very reason I believe mindfulness practices such as yoga help us in the first place.  It’s not about finding calm waters in order to be happy, it’s about remaining calm and allowing peace and happiness when we hit the rough waters, being present with whatever experience we find ourselves in.  Desiring to not be in pain only makes us focus on the pain even more.  Thinking about the pain, the sadness, or the things we’re missing out on only serve to bring us further away from what actually IS.  Taking that giant leap, from a cliff, to a new job, new relationship, going back to college, or whatever is calling you, is a personal choice. Thing is, we never know what the outcome will be, but if we trust in our abilities to handle whatever challenges life throws at us we can rest in the fact we have made it this far, and that being present with whatever that is goes a long way towards reaching our goals.  Hey life, take my hand, let’s jump.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Space to Grow

     Sometimes the toughest thing to do is to let go of the need to control every aspect of our lives and to trust the process of living, especially when we don't know what that process will entail.  The human tendency is to be restless with what is, which explains why it is sometimes so very difficult to be able to just sit and do nothing, to remain the observer, the experiencer, with mindfulness - to meditate.  We LOVE to put labels of description on everything, "That was a great party!"  "That vacation was awesome." "Dinner was delicious." but as my teacher Doug Keller explains so perfectly in his book Heart of the Yogi, once we define the 'experience' we have already moved out of experiencing. To be in the moment, with what is in all of its' pretty and ugly parts, is what experiencing is.  I truly believe that when we wholeheartedly embrace the subtleties in the spaces between those labels we craftily assign we begin to truly live.  
     Most of you have probably read "The Power of Now", but if you haven't I can't recommend it enough.  Tolle teaches us that for pain to exist it has to have a past and a future.  While physical pain in the moment can often be a very real thing, the pain he is getting at is the mental and emotional pain we allow to have a life in the present moment.  We take on the identities of the bad things that have happened to us in the past, giving ourselves labels, not unlike the labels we ascribe to our experiences.  We wear the badges of our illnesses, the beliefs we were raised with, the breakups and divorces -  the physical and emotional injuries.  By the same token we should spend much less time worrying about potential pain in the future. I mean seriously, what is future pain anyway? It's a myth, that's what it is. We can't have pain in the present moment over something that doesn't even exist yet. Observe your thoughts the next time you start to worry about something, an undesired outcome, and see if you can let go, to simply sit with the sensations you are feeling about that unlikely reality you are unnecessarily stressing over.  When we make the decision to not allow unmanifested pain to exist it loses its' power to be.  It's certainly not an easy task to assimilate the teachings of Tolle into our lives, to disallow those things the power to exist in the moment, but it's in doing so that we find the peace that is always available. In fact it's the only way we can ever find that stillness. 
     While at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas last month I was fortunate to hear a talk by a brilliant individual, Dr. Richard Moss. He spoke about how being there amidst all of the positive energy helped us to exist on a higher frequency, say 1500 (to assign an arbitrary numerical value to it), and that when we jumped on the boat and returned to the 'real world' that was operating at say, between 200-300, it would be painfully obvious to us how so many people exist unconsciously. Even our 'stuff' begins to lose its' value as we realize how little we need in order to be truly happy.  So we begin to downsize, to declutter, to simplify, but somewhere in that process we feel the need to get back on the boat to the ashram, to recharge our frequency battery. This cycle continues until we realize the only lasting recharge available to us has existed within us all along, so we start to tear off chunks of the boat that is taking us there and throw them into the furnace. We realize we don't need the boat anymore - we can fuel our own fire.  So instead of worrying about arbitrary questions such as "Does he care about me or not?", it's better to have the mindset of "Screw it, throw it all in the fire."  Hell, he may not even care about himself, so what good does it serve to eat yourself up with those questions?  I greatly paraphrased his talk, but seriously, anything by Richard Moss should be on your reading or listening list. 
     Almost two years ago I left the United Arab Emirates and headed off to Costa Rica to enter yoga teacher training. The two places could not possibly be more different from each other, but each was and is beautiful in their own right.  I experienced tremendous personal breakthroughs in my life during that period that would have never happened had I not taken the leap to venture off 7,000 miles away, to remain in the "safety" of my life before that time. Between you and me what I had was a lot of financial debt and a lack of peace in my life. After venturing back to the states to set up 'camp' in Norfolk I wasn't quite sure exactly what I was going to do with myself, which was a very new experience for me having lived within the confines of the structure of a 20 year career in the military.  It has served to be quite a liberating experience as I've been able to develop meaningful relationships in community that, unlike being stationed somewhere in the military, truly feels like a home.  I've heard a lot of people speak ill this town for many different reasons, and while all of them are not unfounded, it always leaves me questioning what they are doing to make it a better place to live. That's a subject for another blog, but I love living here

     While in Costa Rica I saw many beautiful things, one of them was this little plant sprouting out of a very large boulder along a stream located at Piedra Colorada, a sacred little spot along the coast outside the village of Montezuma.  This little guy kinda sums up the spirit of this post - sitting with what is, with what you have to work with, and make the absolute damn best of the situation.  It also reminds me of some very wise words from Pema Chodron in her book The Places That Scare You.  "At the beginning joy is just a feeling that our own situation is workable. We stop looking for a more suitable place to be. We've discovered that the continual search for something better does not work out. This doesn't mean that there are suddenly flowers growing where before there were only rocks. It means we have confidence that something will grow here."
     Trust the process, give yourself space to grow. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Let Life Polish Your Edges...

Found this rock down on the shore of the sea. It is constantly being bombarded by the waves, rarely finding points of not being affected by the realities of the natural world. Like this rock, we too face continual challenging situations in life. The goal of yoga isn't about taking us to a place where we can finally arrive at peace, no, yoga helps us to be able to navigate situations in life off of our mats, finding stillness amidst the raging waters we find ourselves in.

Given all this, adversity is what polishes the stone. The rough edges are worn away as resistance to living with the groundlessness life offers is accepted. Like the stone, we are polished by our adversity; the beauty that has been underneath the surface all along is able to shine when we stop resisting what life is essentially comprised of. Equanimity is the intention to take away from this

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Feed your flame

Much of the yoga practiced in the west is heavily focused on asana - the physical postures.  Students often come to yoga with broken bodies and broken spirits with the hopes it might reduce their lower back pain and maybe one day they will be able to touch their toes, which often happens dramatically fast.  The physical aspects of yoga are most often what initially lure aspirants to a mat, but somewhere along the way we start to notice a difference in our mood, our outlook on life, and our increased abilities to handle stressful situations with a sense of equanimity.  
     I have participated in many fitness activities over the years, and just prior to yoga was a six day a week swimmer putting in an average of 2500 meters a day in the pool. After time, like many things we do repetitively, I developed a nagging shoulder injury that made my daily slog in the lap pool a chore.  It also mentally affected me with frustration leading to stress and anxiety.  The way I typically went about injuries was to just take some Motrin, maybe ice it from time to time, but to just push through it.  Yoga has taught me that I need to listen more closely to my body, for the pain we often suffer is an indication of something deeper.  For instance, if someone is struggling with feelings of self worth it can often express itself in the way they physically carry their bodies. Shoulders and neck may droop forward, which affects the breath and physiological structure of the body.  Sore shoulders and back, weak abdominals, and decreased lung function can result. I mean, who wants that mess?!  
     One of the messages of this post is to serve as a reminder to receive guidance from the inner wisdom of our divine Self.  That Self, purusha, is the divine unchanging presence within us all.  It is our inner wisdom, and it is sacred.  I'm not a religious person, but my studies into yoga have helped me come to terms with what god means to me.  I believe there is a god within us all, and that god is that divine and wise Self. It is in this sense we are all connected as human beings. One of my teachers often says something in class which I'll paraphrase.  "We are not human beings who have spiritual experiences. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."  Simple. Profound.
Photo by Mei Ling, one of my classmates,
a nurse who left her home in Taiwan to attend the Yoga Therapy
masters program in the US for two years. 
    This past weekend in yoga grad school, "Yoga College" I like to call it, we all performed simple version of Puja, which is "the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals." (Learn more about puja here.  We each sat facing the wall in front of  our little makeshift altars constructed of two yoga blocks stacked with a mirror on top. In front of us there were placed several items, including incense, flower petals, uncooked rice, water, a tangerine, and a candle.  We offered each item in a little ceremony, first holding it in front of our hearts and taking in the wisdom of what the object represented to us, then sending it out towards the little altar and back to our hearts three times in a circular motion.  It's a simple yet powerful practice to try. 
     In closing I'll share this thought that came to mind during the puja. The act of holding a flame close to the heart reminded me of the inner light within me, within you...that purusha I mentioned.  Sending it out in circles to the altar and then back towards the heart sent me a powerful message, and that message is that a flame gives so much. It gives light to see, heat to warm our bodies and cook with, enables us to create glass and metal, and even nature uses it to purify and renew the land.  But for fire to exist is must receive oxygen, otherwise it would cease to be fire.  Just like that fire, we as people need to remember to allow ourselves to receive loving kindness and compassion, to listen to our body when it's trying to send us a message that change is needed. It's often harder to receive than it is to give, but remember, you will quickly extinguish the flame within you if you do not allow this to happen.  So keep sharing your light with the world, but do remember to allow others to share their light with you, and most importantly to share your own light with yourself.  It is in this sense we all feed the flame of collective divine Self, which is something the world desperately needs today. 
My little home altar