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Posts Tagged ‘Yoga’

The Bangkok Flâneur

Last week I arrived in Bangkok after 24 hours of travel and despite an initial urge to hustle to the islands in the south, I remained for 3 days, enjoying my solitude and exploring the city. I had horrible jetlag for some reason this time and always found myself awake at 4am, which I realized was actually a wonderful opportunity to see the real Bangkok. The Shanti Lodge, where I always stay in Bangkok, is a little gem of a guesthouse located away from the crazy backpacker/partier haven of Khao San Road, in a nondescript Thai neighborhood. For 3 nights in a row I made my way to 7-11 at 4:30 to buy a caffeinated beverage, then I would wander over to giant outdoor market a few blocks away. By 5 the action was really happening: fish being chopped, spices mixed, things moving this way and that. The mixing smells of raw fish, sewer and red chile to name a few were poignant. Men on motorbikes delivering ungodly amounts of things on their little machines zipped through the narrow passageways . It was clear to me that most of the vendors slept in the back of their little shops, starting each day by immediately going to work. There was such a feeling of aliveness and energy as they prepared for the day’s business. 

Eventually I would return to the TongJan coffee shop across the street from the Shanti Lodge and watch the world wake-up. The proprietors at TongJan were very kind to me, often bringing me free tea and snacks to try. I observed the orange-robed monks move from shop to shop with their begging bowls, seeking the sustenance that they would eat for the day. Students making their way to the nearby University and parents taking their children to school would stop by for a quick coffee or treat. I’ve been returning to the Shanti Lodge since 2009 when I first stayed there; and in most aspects, one could not differentiate this little street corner 4 years later. The same street vendors stood in the same places, the tuk-tuk drivers and massage parlor owners looked incredibly familiar. I thoroughly enjoy this element of timelessness. There is a sense that the folks in this little neighborhood cared little about progress, but treated their lives much more as a daily ritual of work and family life. I appreciated their willingness to allow me to sit and observe in silence.

I continued my days wandering the city, never finding myself too busy for a Thai massage or mango/banana fruit shake 🙂 I noticed how much I enjoy this sort of aimless wandering, and recalled the concept of the flâneur that my Zen teacher has mentioned a few times. I thought it was quite a fitting description of what I was doing:

Charles Baudelaire presented a memorable portrait of the flâneur as the artist-poet of the modern metropolis:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not – to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.

I eventually journeyed to the island of Koh Phangan, where I’m preparing to begin a 12-week, 600 hour Yoga training course at Agama Yoga. I found a nice house to live in and am enjoying a few easy days on the island before the course begins and the intensity of the schedule and practice takes over.   Bye for now!

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Its early October, yet summer lingers here in Boulder. Fall is sneaking in slowly with its changing leaves and cool nights. Snow is in the forecast soon. I find myself in transition along with the seasons. After a whirlwind of travel from Thailand, Holland, Crestone and Seattle, I finally settled in Boulder in mid-September.

I traveled to Thailand with the pure intention to deepen my spiritual practice, to explore different paths and simply to get away for a while. My experiences this summer were incredible. I traveled differently than I ever had in the past. I simply went to one location and stayed put. I rented a house and integrated myself into the local community. I became active in the Agama Yoga school, taking several workshops, two months of intensive Yoga study and practice as well as two 10-day silent meditation retreats. I experimented with fasting and cleansing. I lived simply and slowly.

I set a clear intention that this would be a summer of inner work, that I would not seek social gratifications or female companionship.  Yet one cannot deny the human existence and the powers at play between certain individuals. The most extraordinary element of my summer, and possibly my life to this point was meeting Ingrid at the conclusion of a ten-day meditation retreat together. I could fill this page with all that we’ve experienced and explored together, but as a general rule, I try to keep relationships out of my writing. I must however say that our meeting has coincided with an opening of my heart, with a deep yearning to to be united with someone as inspiring, beautiful and amazing as she is. A wild set of circumstances have collided that have allowed an American man and a Dutch woman to dance on loves stage together.

I find it difficult to articulate my experience this summer, as much of what occurred for me was very subtle – shifts in my world views, my relationship to myself, others and the world. Aspects of my personal experience I once had taken for granted or simply dismissed are now accessible to me. There is a sense of surrender to the unknown ahead, a diminishing need to control the uncontrollable future. I consider much more often what is nourishing me in this very moment rather than in some projection of the future. In a practical sense I have no idea where my life is headed, yet the clarity of simply trusting my heart and intuition is very powerful.

Throughout the summer I weighed a large decision for early 2012 – would I participate in a 90-day Practice Period at my Zen Monastery in Crestone, or would I travel to Mexico to participate in a 90-day teacher training program in Yoga and Meditation? Over time the decision became very clear for me – I found myself longing for time in Crestone, to be immersed in the stream of ancient teaching passed down over the past 2600 years. A teacher’s training program might very well be in my future, but right now my path is asking me to spend more time practicing, deepening my meditation practice more so than gaining an intellectual understanding of what meditation is. Helping others bring meditation into their lives and bring their lives to meditation would bring me tremendous of joy, yet right now I feel the most nourishing way for me to move towards such a vision is to live and practice in a monastic setting.

imageIngrid will be joining me for the move to Crestone in a couple of weeks, where we will practice together at the monastery this fall.  In January, I will begin Practice Period and she will travel to Mexico to help organize and teach the Teacher’s Training I nearly decided to attend. You can see this was no easy decision for me! In all I will be at the monastery for at least 6 months, finishing the practice period in mid-April. Other then the desire to reunite with Ingrid at that time, the world is a blank slate, full of possibility.

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I’m at it again. Today is the third day of a new 10-day brown rice only fast, otherwise known as the Ohsawa Diet # 7. This is the extreme form of the Macrobiotic Movement, a diet based in the principles of balancing our Yin (receptive/lunar/feminine) and Yang(emissive/solar/masculine) energies, aligning what we eat more closely with what our body actually needs. I talked more specifically about Oshawa and Macrobiotics in my Austerity Measures post.

The morning of Day 1, I performed a Shanka Prakshalana:

In Sanskrit shanka means ‘conch’, and refers here to the intestines, which are as tortuous as a conch. Prakshalana means ‘cleansing’ or ‘purification’; therefore this technique could be called ‘the purification of the conch’. In other Yogic treatises it is also called värisära dhauté (‘the purification through the essence of Water’).

In other words, I drank 6 liters of salt water, then alternated between doing Yoga exercises and going to the toilet. A slightly different version is described here. I performed a Shanka about a year and half ago in Rishikesh with a couple of friends who were taking the Agama First Month Intensive with me. My memory was that it was a lot more difficult the first time! All together I think it took me about 2.5 hours to complete the process, and I wasn’t as affected by the horrible taste of the salt water this time. I added a couple ounces of lemon juice to each liter to make the water taste better, but the reality is you cannot do much to improve the flavor of salt water…

More background on the shanka prakshalana:

According to the Yogic outlook, one of the keys to health lies in the intestines. The physical body becomes ceaselessly and systematically intoxicated throughout the entire duration of life. One of the main causes for premature ageing and senility is the accumulation of poisons in the body through self-poisoning. Every living cell produces toxins. However there is an even more dangerous source of self-pollution, consisting of the poisons which filter through the intestinal walls and which intoxicate the entire body. Even those who believe they are not constipated still have a permanent source of self-pollution in the large intestine. Daily evacuation of the intestine does not exclude the possibility that the mucous membrane of the intestine may gradually be covered by a shell of sediments (generally known as “mucoid plaque”) which become encrusted there and are never removed. There they ferment and rot, and these toxins spread into the entire body. The origin of several forms of cancer is due to the permanent irritation of this intestinal mucous membrane. Cancer of the intestine is one of the most common cancer. However this illness is not the only evil to be fearful if the large intestine is covered with a crust of un-expelled feces. The illnesses which may be directly due to self-pollution are cirrhosis, rheumatism,dysentery, rhinitis, arthritis, neuroses, psychoses, heart disease, skin disease and rashes, foul breath, insomnia, sciatica, anemia, genital infections, piles, gall stones, hysteria, depression, enlargements of liver and spleen, etc. The sedentary life also promotes this self-pollution.

Therefore, the ideal method is shanka prakshalana. Water is simply absorbed through the mouth and reaches the stomach. Aided by certain movements it then travels through the entire length of intestine until exiting from the anus. This procedure is continued until the water expelled is as clean and limpid as when it first entered the body. Depending on various personal factors, it involves an amount of 3 to 5 liters of water.

After completing the shanka, I began my brown rice regiment in the evening. This time around I’m adding a little variety to my 10-day Oshawa. Fortunately in Boulder its very easy to find organic whole grains, so I’m including Quinoa, Buckwheat and a few different types of brown rice. The purists wouldn’t approve, but I think I’ll need the variety in order to get through this on my own.

Like last time, I’m focusing on chewing my food as much as possible, to aid the digestion and retrain my eating habits. I’m meditating and doing yoga daily, going for walks, absorbing sunshine whenever possible. I feel pretty crappy today (headache, bloodshot eyes), but I think this is what happened to me last time. My body is detoxifying and getting used to the smaller quantities. Wish me luck for the remainder of it!

I also wanted to take this opportunity to update you on several fasts I attempted over the past months. I described my initial experience back in June. In late July I participated in a second 10-day Hridaya Meditation retreat. The retreat runs from a Friday to the following Sunday so I decided to attempt two 36-hour fasts from Thursday evening until Saturday morning focusing my fast on Friday when universal love energy is most resonate. I drank only water, spending most of the day in meditation, using my lunch breaks for long walks rather than food preparation. I found both days to be relatively easy – the daytime heat of Thailand helps as you don’t really feel like eating when its so warm. The hardest aspect was late morning, when my body was accustomed to getting its first meal, although this was primarily psychological suffering and once passed I was able to get through the rest of the day without issue. Fasting during retreat was a fantastic experience and I will likely do it again in the future- my body was more settled in meditation, not distracted with digestion or wondering what I was going to make for lunch. I felt a soft clarity that inspired me even past the initial fasting day into the remainder of the retreat.

Now after these two fasts you can imagine I got a little confident and I attempted a third one in late August while I was doing work exchange at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center. Work Exchange consists of hosting large groups, cooking, cleaning, doing millions of dishes and generally being on your feet all day long. Oh and you do still sit 3 or 4 periods of meditation in the morning and evening. Needless to say the time there is quite demanding and after about 24 hours ( I was hoping to get to 36) I felt very dizzy and light-headed. I still had the dinner shift ahead of me and decided to call it quits on on the fast, eating a light meal. While I do think you can do the majority of your daily activities when fasting, keep in mind it may be difficult if you are doing a lot of physical work.

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OK, not quite like Gandhi. But I did accomplish something I’ve never attempted or thought I could do, a 24-hour fast. I’m not sure why I have been so apprehensive about giving it a try, although I think it relates to some deep, root chakra insecurities I hold around being hungry, poor and alone. Strange, I know, for a person in a reasonable financial position, with an amazing network of family and friends, a healthy body and a set of skills highly valued in this imageworld.  This is an area I continue to explore through my meditation and yoga practice, slowly unraveling something that probably began very early in life. Because we are unable to form memories very early in childhood, this unraveling often exhibits itself in purifications such as fevers, crying, physical release or lucid dreaming. With continued intentional practice, through awareness one realizes when you have dropped one of these insecurities or fears.  Being OK with not-knowing its source can be difficult for us, in our western-psychology of cause and effect, but for me, feeling a blockage release in my heart, body or mind is enough.

Back to my fast – it was simple enough. At the conclusion of Yoga class a few days ago, our teacher Kirsten (an avid faster herself), recommended we really give this a try. At Agama there is a supportive community of fasters, with quality advice on starting, undergoing and breaking fasts. There are various types of fasting – juices, fruits, detoxes, rice, water, etc.  A simple, but informative website I have been using is www.allaboutfasting.com. Frankly, doing the 10-day brown-rice fast made it clear to me that I could easily fast on just water, as some of the days during my brown-rice cleanse I literally ate only a cup or two of rice. I decided to begin my fast on Thursday afternoon and continue through until Friday evening (more on why I chose Friday later). The fast was actually quite uneventful. I ate a healthy, small dinner on Thursday, not eating again until Friday evening when I enjoyed a Thai curry with a friend. Many people have the assumption that while fasting you attempt to use as little energy as possible and just sit around staring at the refrigerator. The truth is your body is quite capable of going a few days without food and continuing at its normal energy levels. I anything, I’ve observed more energy in this fast and during my brown-rice cleanse as the body does not have to spend much time digesting food and dealing with a lot of the toxins and other difficult things we ask it to try to digest on a regular basis! The most difficult point was around 11am when I was past my typical breakfast time.  I found my mind wavering to food, but simply sat with the feelings and realized it was just patterned behavior, far from true physical hunger. I went to a 4 hour yoga class and felt absolutely great, eventually eating a meal on Friday evening. In fact, I was quite confident that I could have easily continued the fast until Saturday morning and will attempt the 36 hour version next time around.

Fasting has both physical and spiritual effects. A short list of beneficial effects (from allaboutfasting.com):

  • Rest the digestive system
  • Allow for cleansing and detoxification of the body
  • Create a break in eating patterns, while shining a spotlight on them
  • Promote greater mental clarity
  • Cleanse and heal "stuck" emotional patterns
  • Lead to a feeling of physical lightness, increasing energy level
  • Promote an inner stillness, enhancing spiritual connection

Physically, the concept is simple: During a fast, the body takes the opportunity to eliminate a lot of toxins that have built up over the years. The toxins are predominantly stored in fat and mucous cells. When you fast the body will naturally initiate the healing process, first eliminating these foreign entities. It can be quite unpleasant (a.k.a purification process) and people experience symptoms such as headaches, fever, nervousness, diarrhea, etc. On just has to realize these are signs of the body healing itself and continue with the fast! On such a short fast as mine, I didn’t notice any dramatic changes, but on a longer fast these are things to surely look out for.

On the spiritual side there are also a number of benefits. The school here derives most of its teachings from Indian Tantra and therefore incorporates a lot of Indian and Hindu ideology.  Although almost all major religions incorporate various forms of fasting – Christianity, Buddhism and Islam all immediately come to mind, Indians seem to have a very close relationship to it and its not unusual for lay people to fast at least one day a week or during specific times of year. In the Indian system, fasting on specific days aligns you with certain universal energies and depending on your path, you can choose the best day to fast.

Day  Planet Purification Effect
Sunday Sun Solarizing
Monday Moon Receptivity
Tuesday Mars Violent Karma
Wednesday Mercury General Purification
Thursday Jupiter ?
Friday Venus Love Energy
Saturday Saturn Heavy Karma

I chose Friday both for the resonance with universal love energies and also because it is the day of the week that the majority of traditions fast and you can the align with this collective energy.

The experiment will continue!

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Another morning, another bowl of brown rice.  Yes, I’m still at it. This has been a very interesting week, in a number of respects. First, I’ve simply never attempted any serious long-term cleanse or fast. Second, this diet is supposedly very solarizing compared to a typical western diet (increasing imagemasculine and emissive energies). And probably most interesting for me is observing another theory that has been passed down from the ancient Yogis: that the food we eat is only our second major source of energy. The first being the universal energies, cosmic and telluric that we can access through our pranic bodies.

The diet itself hasn’t been all that bad. I haven’t cheated once, allowing myself only the brown rice and a small serving of Gomasio (sea salt and sesame seeds) on top for each meal. I am supposed to have a limited amount of water and the only things I can drink are plain water or tea with cinnamon or mint. Surprisingly I’ve been eating very little rice and feeling quite well during the day.

…The Yogic tradition advises us to eat only if we are really hungry, while we usually eat when we have time or it is meal time. When the hunger settles down(don’t mistake hunger with appetite, which is only the desire to eat), the simplest food becomes savory, the taste refines itself, while the intricate meals loose their attraction. You will become a refined taster, in the genuine meaning of the word. A glutton doesn’t feel a real pleasure not even in the most refined culinary preparations. The yogis say: ‘Cease eating from the first signs of satiation, do not attain overcharging.’ The advise us to expel any other concerns, worries and talks during our meals…

In some ways, I’m relearning how to eat. One specific part of this brown rice diet is learning how to really chew food.  What is most important is what you assimilate from the food you eat, not what you swallow. The next time you take a bite of bread, rice, or something else, really attempt to chew it 30, 40 even more times before swallowing it. You’ll notice that there is actually a change of taste at some point, often with the brown rice I notice a slight sweetness. When you eventually decide to swallow, the food should be mostly liquid.  Now your food is more than half-way digested and places much less burden on the stomach and intestines, a source of trouble for so many individuals

I attempt to just eat, avoiding reading, talking or other distractions. This is not always possible unfortunately. However I’ve observed that when eating rice mindfully, versus when I’m in a hurry or otherwise distracted, I do assimilate more energy from the equivalent quantity of food.

Next, my energy level. Outside of the third day when I felt very lethargic ( I think it was mostly psychological withdrawal from food and kicking caffeine), my energy has been incredibly high and remarkably stable. My regiment has included a good nights sleep, daily Yoga practice, along with mindful practices such swimming, walking barefoot and sun salutations to the late afternoon sun. I fully believe these aspects have been a major contributor to my increased energy. I’m also carefully observing of my relationships and general mindset during the day: Am I open to receiving gifts from others and the universe (infinite capacity), or am I closed and working only with what I have in this physical body (very finite capacity)?

3 and a half days to go!

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Two years ago I built this website for the purpose of documenting my travels abroad and here I am again, on the cusp of leaving home and seeking something unknown abroad. In one week, I depart for Koh Phangan, Thailand, where Agama Yoga awaits.

My initial pilgrimage sought to explore the world, to uncover hidden corners of the planet, to create new experiences and memories.  My trip in 2009 allowed me to exhaust a long-held myth I had about discovering some form of realization through the accumulation of experience.

Today I have a much different aspiration: Unwinding all of this experience, the false identification of self and my delusion about the actual nature of reality. I realized over time that my journey was much more an inward one than anything external or material. My search has narrowed significantly from the entire world, to the spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism, Tantra and Vajrayana. I’ve discovered that this unwinding process is best accomplished through a life not filled with experience, activities and commitments, rather through self-enquiry and meditation. As Yuan Wu so eloquently stated in my last post:

Sit upright and investigate reality. Within an independent awareness, you must constantly step back from conventions and perceptions and worldly entanglements. Look to the void and trace its outline. Take your head out of a bowl of glue!

If all one needs to do is sit upright and investigate reality, why am I traveling half-way around the globe?  Fair question that I will attempt to answer. Let me back up a bit. 

Almost one year ago, on May 16th 2010, I returned home from India, completing a year (mostly) abroad. The journey brought me back to the same place I began, yet things had shifted significantly within me. I vigorously began practicing Zen, both at a monastery in Crestone and at the Boulder Zen Center, developing strong relationships with the Sangha (group of practitioners), and the teachers. After spending a month in a rigorous monastic setting in the fall, I considered a longer-term stay, considered joining the annual 90-day practice period in the winter. Yet, worldly entanglements and my own fear of such a practice prevented me from moving forward. I was involved in a romantic relationship that has since dissolved, a relationship that I believe represented many of the aspects of worldliness that I refused to let go of.  Once again ignoring intuition, I was drawn towards societal ideas of what it means to live in this world, to relate to another person and basically all of the shoulds that are based on nothing but one’s own projections of society and ego.

Part of me wants to say that I’ve been idling the past 3 or 4 months, drifting in this sort of purposeless manner. This is true when examined from the lens of normal that society and we produce for ourselves. I have to step back and remind myself that this is all part of a greater process of renunciation for me, detaching from ideas of self and the world that do not benefit anyone, that only seek to perpetuate a process and mode of existence that perpetuates a world of suffering and discontent.  I meditate a lot, I sit upright and examine my experience. I am constantly trying to step back from worldly entanglements and perceptions.  I examine all the presumptions and ideas of how the world works, what is reality and why I am here.  I attempt to infuse intentions of compassion and wisdom into my body, speech and mind.  Despite on paper being a 31 year old unemployed guy from Boulder with nothing going for him, I feel this tremendous sense of change within, of a new world unfolding before me, filled with Possibility, Beauty and Love.

This still has nothing to do with answering my initial question of why go anywhere? My teacher has told me that practicing in a single stream provides the best results- why swim in another? My answer to this is that my exploration of Agama is, while primarily spiritual in nature, also an opportunity for me to pursue a vocation in the world that has meaning for me. I am considering a meditation teachers training in 2012.  My idea involves bringing meditation and self-enquiry to more people, via any channel possible: Yoga, Corporate Training, workshops, seminars, private consulting, blogging, etc.  It is very loose and evolving at this point, but there is a sense of momentum and purpose for me right now. My intention this summer is to explore the school, evaluate the teachers and the programs, to ensure this is the type of commitment I want to make in early 2012.  This summer I plan to take a number of courses, including Vira Training, Hridaya Meditation Retreat, Kashmiri Shaivism and Naturopathic and Yogic Healing, in addition to continuing my second and third month of studies in the Agama curriculum.

There you have it.  I have a one-way ticket to Thailand, a new Yoga mat and a big heart.

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I have discovered a popular Yoga studio three blocks from my house offering a free first week of unlimited Yoga. This is a nice deal for us unemployed types, primarily because we have a lot of time but not a lot of money. Vital Yoga is a local studio offering a variety of practices. Its core appears to be in the Vinyasa, Bikram and Anusara traditions, but the schedule caught my attention with a few more alternative (or traditional, depending on your perspective!), classes such as Nidra Yoga, Jivamukti and Qi Gong. 

yogiInterestingly, since my time in India, almost one year ago, I have not practiced formally in a studio. I have managed to lead my own session once a week or so (not nearly as much as I would like to). Autumn and I plan to spend a month this summer at a Tantric Yoga school in Thailand, so it is time for me to start ramping up my practice. Additionally, because I hold an intention towards a career in the greater Yogic tradition: one based in meditation, asana, Ayurveda, well-being, it is time for some on-the-ground market research.

I have been carefully attempting to carve out a week where I can take the most advantage of a free pass, but in reality, there will never be a perfect, commitment-free week. There are writing classes on Wednesdays, Zen Center duties on Thursdays and Fridays, Valentine’s Day on Monday…. so I am just going to go for it and see how many I can make. Starting Friday, I am hoping to attend 2 classes a day for 6 days straight. I have several motivations:

  • First, simply to sample the variety of teachers and offerings at this studio.
  • Second, to focus intensively for a week on this practice, simultaneously matching a yogic-like diet and lifestyle to the physical practice.
  • Finally, it will be great fodder for blogging.

I must admit I am a little afraid of the Yoga scene: I have never formally practiced at a Yoga studio, generally preferring casual venues like the recreation center, rock climbing gym or my own living room. My hope is the scene at Vital won’t be similar to one of the scenes in the movie Enlighten Up, a documentary following a guy into various ridiculous yoga practices such as a studio on a porn set run by a former WWF wrestler or a semi-naked hand-stand party in Manhattan…Seriously I hope that something so close to my house will align with my motivations with Yoga. I would be very grateful for such an option.

Stay Tuned. Om.

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