Yoga and the Art of Gaining More Freedom through Love

Tribute in lights, September 11, 2019, view from midtown manhattan

Tribute in lights, September 11, 2019, view from midtown manhattan

This past month, as sadly we have been doing for the last 18 years, we commemorated the events of 9/11 once again. It’s always been a time for me to pause and take refuge in this teaching from the Buddha:

Hatred is never ended by hatred - but by love alone is hatred healed. This is an eternal rule.
-Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha)

So easy of course to say, but so difficult to put into practice. Perhaps that’s why the song All We Need Is Love became popular, as it serves as a constant mantra to help us remember that indeed we need more love in the world to help it heal the many sufferings.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about how to increase my own capacity for being able to meet hatred with more love. I think it has a lot to do with cultivating more compassion, first for my own self, then outwardly towards others. Thich Nhat Hanhs’ words inspired me:

 Even when you see a lot of violence, discrimination, hatred and craving, if you are equipped with understanding and compassion, you don’t suffer.

 We certainly do see a lot of violence, hatred and craving in the world – especially in this current political climate – and yes it makes me mad. But if yoga and meditation and various contemplative teachings can have any value for us, it’s that they can help us to rise above our base needs – food, clothing, shelter – and give us more room to hold more understanding and compassion.

 And this thought gave me pause to consider, as well:

 If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
Jack Kornfield (b.1945), American Buddhist Teacher

 I face a lot of challenges in my own life running Keoni Movement Arts, a nonprofit organization that I founded. Sometimes it’s a very lonely place, as I face multiple decisions and struggle to come up with answers to questions that I am making my best educated guesses on. But through the struggles, I have learned that these moments are great opportunities to have a bit more compassion for myself. What I am doing is not easy. And anyone who has been in my shoes, faces similar challenges and experiences similar feelings. I may feel lonely, but I know that I am not alone and my feelings are universal.

 One of Pema Chodron’s core teachings that I love remembering from time to time is that essentially the discomforts of life, the difficult moments, can be the very ingredients we need in order to grow spiritually and to cultivate more compassion. Ultimately, we are trying to move in the direction of a greater capacity to love, and – no less important – an ability to receive love. One of Jesus’ teachings was this:

 The most sacred places of all on Earth is where an ancient hatred becomes a present love.

 Aaahh, for those of us fortunate enough to create space in our lives to step back and witness past hatreds with less anger, what a place that is to be. It’s from that place that we can witness that people are only doing acts of hate because of feelings of fear and insecurity deep within their core. Perhaps we can’t always reconcile past conflicts with the parties involved, but perhaps we can at least send some love in that direction. As Jesus also said, “forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

 Thomas Merton, a 20th Century Theologian and Writer, said it best in imagining what it would be like to look into another’s soul:

 Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the Divine. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.

What’s the hardest yoga position of all? Perhaps the one where we witness the interconnectedness of all beings, and bow down deeply to each other’s divinity.

 May you be happy,
May you be healthy,
May you increase your capacity for meeting hatred with love, …
For the benefit of All Beings everywhere.

 Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Yoga and the Art of Freedom through Service

An image of Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God, on  Hinduwebsite.com . This image is a reminder to each of us to open up our own hearts to see what's in it that we most revere, and figure out how we can be of service to it by using the talents we’ve been gifted with.

An image of Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God, on Hinduwebsite.com. This image is a reminder to each of us to open up our own hearts to see what's in it that we most revere, and figure out how we can be of service to it by using the talents we’ve been gifted with.

You have conquered your mind, you move as fast as the wind.
You have conquered the senses,
You overflow with wisdom and mercy.
Son of the Wind, you are Ram's messenger in this world.
Lion among Monkeys! Give me refuge!

- Devotional Chant Prayer to Hanuman, by Krishna Das

To take refuge in something means to find a safe space, and to flee a place that is unsafe. The above prayer chant by the inimitable Krishna Das, so beautifully reminds us that within our very own being, there is something that can help carry us to such a safe place.

Each year around this time, I take refuge in remembering the story of Hanuman. I love sharing this story with my students.

Hanuman, also known at the Monkey God, appears in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Essentially, in the story he is serving someone named Lord Rama, whose wife Sita gets captured and taken to an island in the middle of the ocean. Hanuman, because of his deep devotion to Rama, takes up the mission to go and rescue Sita and return her to his master. He comes to the edge of the ocean, sees the island way out in the middle of it, and in that moment, he is reminded that he is powerful and strong and capable of doing the impossible. He gathers up his resolve and does a giant “split-leap” over the ocean, lands on the island, rescues Sita, and returns her to Rama.

Hence, as Religious Studies Professor Joshua Greene says:

Hanumanasana is the forward-splits position. The arms are raised overhead in victory. The body is stretched out in all 6 directions. Practicing the pose, we gain victory over our own selves, our ego and our tendencies towards evil.

Essentially, the character of Hanuman reminds us of the powers that lie deep within ourselves that are awakened when we engage in being of service to the humanity and the greater good…

According to Jayaram V in this article on Hinduwebsite.com, Hanuman “is regarded as the Superman, the perfect man ….”

As yoga practitioners, we’re faced with a similarly “impossible task” – one that is no less difficult than the one Hanuman was tasked with doing. Our mission – impossible as it may seem – is to overcome our own selves. We do this by working to purify our own body, mind and heart. We are aided by our remembering – like Hanuman did – that we are indeed powerful human beings, with many talents and huge quantities of resolve that can be put to good use for the betterment of humanity and all sentient beings on this earth.

Jayaram V writes that in the microcosm:

Hanuman represents, the breath. When ego and the senses carry away the mind and body and put them to wrong use, with the help of breath the embodied soul restrains the senses, silences the ego, regains the control of the mind and body and stabilizes them in the contemplation of God.

We can take refuge in our breath, for it will help bring us back to our senses and lead us to doing the right thing.

The right thing in each of our individual cases is to figure out a way to be useful to the world through the talents we’ve been given. So, in a sense, we can also take refuge in our individual life missions. Being engaged in fulfilling them will carry us to freedom.

Jayaram V writes:

… He also symbolizes the story of animal man in us who through the path of devotion and service to God, can purify himself and attain immortality.

Hanuman saw what was in his heart and listened to its call-to-action. We can too. In so doing, we can gain more freedom and move closer to being reunited with the Divine that is in all of us.

May you be happy,
May you be healthy,
May you listen to what lies deepest in your heart,
May you take refuge in your breath and ride it to freedom,
May you take refuge in your life’s missions and find the strength and resolve to complete them …
… each for the benefit of All Beings everywhere.

Aloha with metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Yoga and the Art of Being Freer through Fearlessness

Spotting Janie, a yoga student of mine, in a handstand. She’s fearless!

Spotting Janie, a yoga student of mine, in a handstand. She’s fearless!

 

Perhaps there are not many yoga poses more fear-inducing than doing handstands. If you are new to doing them, please do know that you have every right to be afraid.

I wanted to write about fear, because I for one have been stopped by it from time to time in my life. And for this past month, I wanted to see if I could free myself up more by moving closer to things I want by simply asking for those things and taking appropriate steps to try to obtain them. I wanted to see if I could take the approach of “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” as I’ve heard several spiritual teachers suggest over the years. Giving myself the gift of this mind-set has actually freed me up in some ways, and I’ve taken some chances I may not have before.

This month we celebrated the 4th of July, which to Americans symbolizes independence and greater freedom. As yogis/nis, we practice yoga to try to gain greater independence from the “little self” and to feel freer. I think one aspect of the pursuit of both is to meet our fears a little more head-on and to demonstrate to ourselves that we can be fearless, more so than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.

As I was reflecting on what fearlessness means to me, these two thoughts came to my mind:

True Fearlessness sometimes involves saying “yes” before saying “no.”

And, true fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but rather taking incremental actions in the face of fear.

Scary as it may seem to say “yes” before saying “no,” sometimes we can surprise ourselves and (as the slogan goes) “just do it.” We don’t always have to know the outcomes in advance, rather we just have to say “yes” to the moment that is in front of us. We can almost feel it in our gut that saying “yes” is the right thing to do, even if we are feeling fear.

I can remember feeling some fear when my dancer friend Norman asked me back in June 1985 when I was trying to decide if I should move to New York to pursue dance at the age of 26: “Are you going to move here soon? Because if you don’t do it now, you might as well give up on being a dancer.” I don’t remember if I answered “yes” at the moment, but surely I must have said “yes” at some point soon thereafter because 3 months later I landed in NYC ready to pursue a career in the performing arts here. The rest is history. I look back now and am so glad I said “yes” to that moment.

And in my 34 years here in New York, there have been many moments when I experienced fear. I experienced fear when I use to audition regularly, and even as the years went on I don’t think that fear ever went completely away. I experienced fear in my early years as a yoga teacher facing students who were expecting me to help lead them towards nirvana (or at least closer to doing a handstand!). I’ve experienced a lot of fear as I founded and grew my nonprofit organization, Keoni Movement Arts. In those early years, I knew I had a dream to help others through yoga, dance, and gymnastics, but I didn’t quite know how it all worked. I’ve certainly learned a lot over the years since we were founded in 2008, and we have garnered a great amount of impact and success to this date. Still, admittedly, as we continue to grow and I do new things with it for the first time, I do feel fear.

But as I reflect back now at age 60, I can say that I am glad I said “yes” before saying “no” at least on a few important occasions in my life. And I am glad that in pursuit of these major life goals that I proceeded incrementally. Certainly, doing so has helped to mitigate some of the fear I’ve felt.

I am comforted by some of the Buddha’s teachings about fear and fearlessness. Pema Chodron said:

Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the Truth. If you don’t know the nature of fear, you can never be fearless.

So, in other words experiencing fear might be an indication that one is moving closer to the truth. Especially if one is doing a lot of self-examination through therapy or self-observation though meditation, undoubtedly one will be confronted by many things that are quite fear-inducing and down-right scary. But if one can just stay with the fears a bit longer each time, over time one will become more fearless, more free.

Another aspect of being fearless that is oft-overlooked is this sentiment by Pema Chodron’s teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche:

“… Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. …”

In other words, if we can’t have compassion for our fears and know that they are the by-products of our heart which is opening up to the truth more and more, then we can never be truly fearless. Fearlessness is not some “machismo” thing where we act without feelings, but rather it is acting in the face of our feelings – or at least being still with them – rather than running away from them.

I’ve heard several famous actors talk about their fears and how they’ve dealt with them. Hearing them open up about their fears certainly made me feel less lonely in this respect and like I was in good company. Here’s one quote by the SAG Award winning actor Sterling K. Brown (also a fellow Stanford Alum) which he gave in his commencement address to the Class of 2018:

“When I feel fear, as uncomfortable as it may be, I know I’m in the right place. Whether you’re 22, or 42 [or 62], never allow fear to keep you from expanding your definition of self.”

I hope that in some way yoga and meditation can help to normalize your feelings of fear, and help you to expand and know greater definitions of your self.

And I hope that you will take on the challenge of practicing handstands – one incremental, and perhaps fearful, step at time.

May you be happy, …
May you see fear as normal, …
May you move closer to your Truth, …
May you be tender-hearted, …
May you be Fearless, …
May you ask for what you want, …
May you be Freer, … for the benefit of all beings everywhere.

Aloha, with Metta,
Paul Keoni Chun

 

Yoga and the Art of Balance

The Laughing Gulls and other migratory birds are back for summer in the Rockaways! They bring joy and a wonderful balance to our life in NYC.

The Laughing Gulls and other migratory birds are back for summer in the Rockaways! They bring joy and a wonderful balance to our life in NYC.

Have you ever found yourself procrastinating over a task and given in to continuing to procrastinate? Have you ever felt so caught up in your own problems thato it blinded you from seeing the bigger existential threats to the planet? Have you ever lost your equanimity – your mental composure in the midst of a difficult situation – and longed for it back? Have you ever wished for the feeling of having more balance in your life? If so, then perhaps yoga practices and its accompanying philosophies can help.

The classic yoga text, the Bhagavad Gita, teaches:

You have control over actions alone, never over its fruits. Live not for the fruits of action, nor attach yourself to inaction. Established in Yoga, O Arjuna, perform actions having abandoned attachment and having become balanced in success and failure, for balance of mind is called Yoga.
Krishna speaking Arjuna in Bhagavad-Gita (Chapter 2)

I come back to this theme annually in my yoga classes because I think it’s so important and helpful. Often times, I get caught up in worrying about the results of my actions that it stops me in my tracks and prevents me from taking the first action. Are the results going to be perfect? Are they going to get me what I want? What If I don’t know what I want or even know how to get to what I want right now?These are questions I find my mind asking often. Perhaps they sound familiar to you.

What Krishna is advising Arjuna – and all of us really – is to let go of thinking and worrying too much about what the fruits of our actions will be. Rather he advises that we take the best actions we know how to take in each moment and not to put our attention on what the results might be. In doing so, we can experience balance in our mind. 

Similarly, Buddhist teachings, I read somewhere, says:

Equanimity is letting go of the fruits of our actions. 

I saw an interview with Admiral William McRaven on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He said the number one quality of a Navy Seal is that s/he is “a person who just doesn’t give up.” In a sense, this is what we’re striving for in yoga practice – a “don’t give up attitude.” I have a feeling that the Navy Seals who end up surviving the training can do so because their minds are not overly occupied with what the results may be. As a result, they have more head space to just keep going on and trying their best, moment by moment. This “never give up” attitude might help keep their mind in balance and prevent them from panicking and helping them to remain calm in the midst of very difficult situations.

I also sometimes find myself so concerned about the results to the point that I become paralyzed by procrastination. A NY Times article on procrastination and what you can do about itwas very helpful to me in this regard and provides insights on how we can all maintain more balance. It says that procrastination is not about self-control and is not a laziness problem, but rather it’s really an emotional problem. According to Dr. Fuschia Sirois, “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.” The article gives useful tips for managing procrastination, including practicing self-compassion, cultivating curiosity, and considering just the next step. Similarly, in yoga we strive to be as kind to ourselves in each moment as we can be. We strive to keep our minds open and free, and having a “curious” mind can help us to do that. And we strive to just take the next step, which can help us to stay in the moment and not live in “future” moments.

Another aspect to the art of maintaining balance is to realize that in life on and off the yoga mat there will always be moments of contraction and moments of expansion. The 13th Century Persian poet, Rumi, wrote on this subject of balance these words so eloquently:

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open. 
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting 
                                        and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as
birdwings.

The art of balance as it relates to yoga asana practice art is that there will be times when one is actively engaging muscles and breath, and there is the time for surrender and letting go – sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in balance. In every asana, some muscles are expanding while the opposing muscles are contracting. Someone, I read somewhere said: Balance exists in the equality of opposition. To find optimal balance in any yoga asana, there has to be equality of contraction and expansion, effort and surrender, yang and yin.

Extending this concept out into our lives, everyone has some things they do really well, and other things that they don’t do so well. Same in yoga asana practice. I think this is a good thing. When we can find a harmonious balance between our successes and failures, we can appreciate and be grateful for our natural gifts when we succeed and also realize compassion for ourselves when we fail. If we never failed, we would not be able to have compassion for others. Think about this deeply – might you not become arrogant if you only knew success while others around you mostly experienced failure? Rumi might say that this kind of arrogance is paralyzing.

Another way we can achieve more balance in our lives is to shift our perspective a little bit. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, a 20thCentury Hindu guru, states:

Love says ”'I am everything.” Wisdom says "I am nothing.”. Between the two, my life flows.
I Am That, Chapter 57

As Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj suggests, we can help our mind to stay calm and steady if we constantly shift the focus of our attention to realize that through letting love flow within we come to remember that we are a part of everything that exists. And through letting wisdom flow within us we remember that the individual self is not as important as our own ego would have us believe. He suggests we step back every so often to shift our perspective away from the “small me” to the “big We,” from our false perception of separation to the reality of union. Our life is a balance between Wisdom and Love, Nothingness and Everything, Nisargadatta Maharaj concludes this concept by stating:

Since at any point of time and space I can be both the subject and the object of experience, I express it by saying that I am both, and neither, and beyond both.

So, to be in balance from a yoga perspective means that every so often we need to see ourselves from the perspective of being the subject and the object. We can achieve this by taking time to sit in meditation and just observe our thoughts. Over time, it’s said we’ll experience our non-dual nature, and be in Union with our True Self. 

I know this is a lot to unpack. Yet, I also hope that some of this information can be useful to you. Whether you’re a long-time yogi/ni or relatively new, a regular practitioner or just an occasional one, I hope that your practice can somehow bring you into feelings of balance more often in your life.

May you be happy,
May you be healthy,
May you live with ease,
May you let go of the fruits of action,
May you be OK with your moments of procrastination,
May you be OK with not being the best,
May you flow between the small picture and the big one, …
… for the benefit of All Beings everywhere. 

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni Chun

 

Yoga is Community

Gorgeous sunset in Arverne, NY, on Memorial Day -- a perfect way to remember those who served the greater community with their lives.

Gorgeous sunset in Arverne, NY, on Memorial Day -- a perfect way to remember those who served the greater community with their lives.

For whatever reasons you are practicing yoga, try to remember also that you are one of many who are seeking further enlightenment. You are part of a much bigger community – a community that is trying to do right not just for each individual but for the entire community as well. Therefore, your practice is not entirely just your own, or of your own making. And your efforts are undertaken with the hope that both you as an individual and the beings all around you on the planet will benefit.

The venerable Thich Nhat Hanh believes:

The next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community; a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the Earth.

With the earth in peril due to the ignorance of many, it’s so important that we as yoga practitioners live mindfully, and with greater awareness. Perhaps this quote from the website whenonepercent.org can give you hope: 

When just one percent of a community spends time in prayer and meditation, the whole community moves toward peace. Scientific studies record as much as an 80% decrease in violence within that community. With so much uncertainty in the world, One % of us committing to a daily meditation practice can make a significant difference.

I have no idea of whether this statistic regarding reduction in violence is in fact true. But one thing I have no doubt about is that when I/we practice meditation as individuals for sure any violent tendencies within ourselves are at least mitigated and held at bay, if not eliminated entirely. And that helps everyone, because we are all connected. As the Dalai Lama said:

My call for a spiritual revolution is not a call for a religious revolution, nor for a way of life that is otherworldly - still less to something magical or mysterious. It is a call for a radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self, a call to turn toward the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others' interests alongside our own.

Some come to yoga and meditation for escape, and some even come in hopes of experiencing ‘otherworldly’ experiences. I am of the belief that we should all come to yoga so that we can experience the actual day-to-day realities of life more fully – with clearer and wider eyes – and to truly work to see our connections to the whole of sentient beings with fuller awareness. Consider George Bernard Shaw’s words:

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.  I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.

Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me.  It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

What part will you play in helping the planet and all it’s inhabitants? As a yoga and meditation practitioner, know that you have a bigger role and responsibility than you may be aware of. You also have more power than you may realize.

May you be part of the next Buddha, …
May you be part of the one percent, …
May you let go of preoccupation with the self, …
May your candle burn brightly for future generations, …
May you deepen your connection to the greater community, …
… for the benefit of All beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni  

 

Yoga and the Art of Cultivating Faith

Tulips blooming on West 43rd St. -- a sure sign that spring is here!

Tulips blooming on West 43rd St. -- a sure sign that spring is here!

New York City is a concrete jungle for sure, but there are pockets of nature that spring up in the most unexpected places that make this city quite beautiful. Spring is nature’s expression of faith that all things are re-born. We see it all around us – eggs hatching, flowers blooming, trees becoming filled with green leaves – once again. 

Christians just commemorated Easter Sunday, which is also an expression of faith in the rising of Jesus to Eternal Life, and an expression of faith by those who believe in and follow him that they too can be born into Eternal Life as well.

Practicing yoga is an act of faith. We know it is supposed to lead to some greater awareness that most of us can only imagine at this point in our realization. Yet, onward we go with our practice, one breath at a time. 

Here are some words of inspiration from various sources that have guided – and indeed comforted – me at this time as I’ve pursued my goals with an abiding faith.

Mother Teresa said:

We can do no great things, only small things with great love.

Reading these words helped to remind me to try not to chew off more than I can bite at any one time. Though it’s important to have goals in mind and to know what it is I’d like to achieve, the important thing is to just try to do small things with great love and see where they lead me. I’ve often been surprised to have been led to unexpected places and been ultimately drawn to things that are bringing me measurably closer to my goals simply by first having had the courage to act. And in that first moment of acting, I’ve tried to let the joy of what I am doing help keep me moving forward. Joy and love – these are expansive energies, and they can help to keep fear and doubt at bay, and ultimately move us forward. 

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: 

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step....

Sometimes the hardest part of our journey is that first single step. I’ve experienced at times that odd, uncomfortable feeling of seeing a major and important task on my plate in front of me and observing my mind figuring out ways to delay starting — such as taking a look at Facebook one more time, or reading unimportant junk emails. That first step often takes a lot of courage, but then later we look back and often wonder, “why was that so difficult” and “why didn’t I start sooner?” Know the feeling? Indeed, that first step almost by definition is imbued with a great deal of faith. I’ve been inspired by athletes who are able to reach those seemingly unconscious states where they are just flowing, without the baggage of overthinking. So, I began saying to myself with each new task, project: “just be unconscious.” This has really helped me to take the first step.  

The Literary Nobel Prize Winner Rabindranath Tagore penned in his poem Fireflies:

Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.

To me, this says that even though we may not know the path that lies ahead as we work towards our goals, we can still sing knowing we are getting closer to them, and in singing, the journey is made that much more joyous. With joy in our heart, the path will be illuminated easier. I learned I don’t always have to know the final outcome in order to act. This has moved me to simply take action. 

And the 13th century Persian poet Rumi penned:

Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.

One of the wonderful things that yoga and meditation have illuminated for me is an awareness of what I love doing. I love teaching. I love discovering new ways of blending yoga, dance, and gymnastics together with inspiring music into a fluid movement art form. I love tinkering and challenging myself to figure things out on my own the many parts that go into running the nonprofit I founded, Keoni Movement Arts. I love writing this blog! And as I’ve become aware of what I love doing, what moves me to action, I find myself wanting to do those things more and more.

As this NY Times article “Productivity Isn’t About Time Management. It’s About Attention Management” suggests: stop worrying about how long something is going to take you to complete, rather just find out what it is your mind and attention are drawn to doing and take as much time as you want to complete it. Having practiced this myself, I’ve found my many tasks to be much more enjoyable to undertake. It’s helped me to be kinder to myself, get more accomplished, and in the end to enjoy my journey more even more.

May you do small things with great love.
May you take the first single step.
May you sing as you walk Your Path.
May the beauty of what you love doing guide you towards doing more of them.
May you have an abiding Faith that can somehow benefit all beings everywhere. 

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni Chun

 

Yoga and the Art of Relationships

view from midtown west Manhattan

view from midtown west Manhattan

New York City has around a population of around 8.6 million. That’s a lot of people in a very small area. With so many people to contend with daily, people are bound to get on one’s nerves. Just ride the A line from the Rockaways on the NYC subway system and you’ll know what I mean!

One bit of yoga wisdom and practice that all New Yorkers might be well served by can be boiled down to two words: “upekshanam” – acceptance, equanimity, neutrality – and “apunya” – non-virtuous, evil, bad. The yoga idea here as suggested by SwamiJ’s translation and explanation of Sutra 1.33 is that in relating with non-virtuous people, our mind can become purified by cultivating feelings of neutrality toward such people and their evil acts (evil, of course according to our own perception.)

In looking inward at my own self, I think I have a higher than average level of dislike for people who do evil things. I’ve always felt rather disturbed by the injustice of and suffering that results from people who are doing things that are just wrong (which is probably why it led me to eventually creating Keoni Movement Arts). In NYC, little things “get my goat,” such as kids playing loud music on the subway trains, people littering the streets, and aggressive drivers who try to cut to the front of the line. I think that my mind gets disturbed more than most people’s. I know that as a kid I was particularly sensitive, and I really disliked people who did bad things. I think this hyper-tendency of my mind has stayed with me into my adult life.

I won’t go into details, but several events in personal encounters in my life recently have really disturbed my mind. As I reflected on this sutra this past month, what has really helped me personally is to cultivate an attitude of neutrality towards the people involved and the events. SwamiJ suggested the following, which really helped me:

It can be difficult to cultivate this attitude [of acceptance or neutrality], since it might make us think we are approving of their bad behavior. We seek the neutrality of inner balance and equanimity, which does not mean approving of the person's actions. In fact, cultivating attitudes of neutrality might go a long way in being able to cause change. It surely helps to stabilize and clear the mind for meditation.

I would agree in theory with the notion that remaining as neutral as possible will possibly help the situation to be resolved in a way that is most beneficial for all. And in my own practice, I have witnessed moments where cultivating a neutral attitude afterwards that my present moment responses to certain “gets my goat” experiences recently have actually helped to bring my mind to a place of greater acceptance, stability and calm.

I think the character Mr. Spock is representative of this idea. He doesn’t overreact – for better or for worse – but rather just states the facts. Perhaps President Obama is also someone who exemplifies this characteristic of neutrality in the face of dealing with the wicked and evil. I’ve heard he has an amazing ability to keep his cool in the face of intense pressure. Conversely, president Trump might be representative of someone who doesn’t display “upekshanam” towards those he considers to be “apunya.” He is highly reactive towards his “enemies.” In dealing with the current state of American politics, we might all be well served by cultivating a more neutral and accepting attitude about the way things are as that might be the best way for us to get ourselves out of the mess we’re currently in.

This might be carrying this idea to the extreme, but in dealing with the “wicked” I sometimes remember the words Jesus uttered on the cross: “Bless them father, for they do not know what they are doing.” On occasion, this has helped to calm and stabilize my own mind. As someone who practices yoga and meditation regularly and sees how my own mind can get disturbed by wicked acts, I can only imagine how much harder it is for people who don’t practice to see clearly and remain neutral. After all, at least from the yoga stand point, we’re all living under a veil of illusion about what is real and what is not real – some more than others.

I think about my older brother, Dr. Bernard, who has told me that he deals with wicked people by saying to himself “I forgive myself for my feelings towards those people.” In a way, this is his form of meditation practice, as it helps his mind to come to a higher level of stability and calm.

According to SwamiJ, “stability and clarity of mind are necessary before being able to experience the subtler meditations.” In addition to “cultivating an attitude of neutrality toward those we perceive as wicked or evil,” Sutra 1.33 also suggests we try “cultivating feelings of friendliness (maitri) towards those who are happy (sukha), compassion (karuna) for those who are suffering (dukkha), [and] goodwill (midita) towards those who are virtuous (punya).”

Broken down, SwamiJ suggests that:

• When we are unhappy, our tendency is for us not to be around happy people. This is perfectly within the realm of normal human experience. Cultivating positive thoughts about such people can at least help to neutralize our own mind’s negative thoughts and emotions, and move it in the direction of more clarity and stability.

• When we’re around or hear of people who are suffering, we sometimes find our mind looking for an escape route. We have compassion for such suffering, but we don’t want to have to deal with it personally. Recognizing this attitude of our minds as just a normal human tendency can go far in helping us to truly have compassion for those who are suffering. SwamiJ says “awareness allows freedom and peace of mind.” It will also likely lead us towards taking appropriate and meaningful actions towards relieving the suffering.

• When we see the “do-gooders” of the world doing more than we can to try to try to be of service, we can get jealous, due to our feelings of inadequacy. Swami J says: “Better that we cultivate attitudes of happiness and goodwill towards such people. It is not always easy to cultivate such positive attitudes when, inside, we are feeling negative. But something very interesting happens as we become a neutral, non-attached witness to our inner process. That is, humor comes; the mind is seen to be a really funny instrument to watch, in all of its many antics. Then the happiness and goodwill seems to come naturally.”

If I’ve gotten anything from this yoga lesson, it is that our very own minds can be very tricky to be in relationship with, but if we can bring humor, awareness, and compassion towards our own tendencies, it will go a far way towards helping our minds to become more calm and stable. If we can achieve just a little more of this, perhaps – probably – in our own small, humble, yet not insignificant ways we can help out the planet and all its inhabitants.

Try a little thought experiment at the end of your next yoga/meditation practice: bring to mind someone who has “gotten your goat” recently. Then staying with the feelings and your breath, see how your mind shifts ever so slightly in the direction of acceptance. This practice has helped me, I’m hoping it can help you.

May you be healthy,
May you dwell in your heart,
May your mind be calm and stable, …
For the benefit of All Beings.

Keep practicing!

With Aloha and Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Yoga and the Art of LovingKindness

Adorable animal at the Bronx Zoo, name unknown - how can one not help falling in love?!

Adorable animal at the Bronx Zoo, name unknown - how can one not help falling in love?!

In the past ten years, I’ve co-created two beautiful things with the help of the Universe – a loving marriage to a wonderful man, and a nonprofit organization. Both have brought me great joy. And both had very tender beginnings that were filled with fear, anxiety and uncertainty.

Back around 9 years ago, when I discovered that I had strong feelings for this man who would eventually become my husband, I was in a state of panic. Did he, would he love/like me back? If I couldn’t have him, would I be able to go on living without his affections. I was afraid to find out. Around that time, I went to a Buddhist meditation practice and Dharma talk given by Gina Sharpe. Afterwards she allowed for people to come and ask her questions. I don’t remember exactly what I said to her, but did communicate that I was feeling very afraid. And I’ll never forgot how she looked me directly in the eyes – with deep compassion and understanding flowing out of hers – and said: “the antidote to fear is lovingkindenss.”

In various ways since that time, I have tried to cultivate lovingkindness as a practice and a way of life. Some of you who take my yoga classes know that I often finish with a simple lovingkindness practice. 

I had a dream to start a nonprofit organization many years ago, back in the early 2000s. I dreamed of creating a place where children who have a natural ability to do gymnastics but not the means to do it could come and learn something that had brought me so much joy and exhilaration in my younger years. I dreamed of a place where people of all ages could come and learn the joy of movement through dance, something that I was immensely passionate about in my 20’s and 30’s and at times brought me moments when I thought I was experiencing nirvana. And I dreamed of creating a space where people’s lives could be transformed and healed through yoga, as my life has been as I’ve practiced it in various forms over the past 25 years. That dream did eventually become Keoni Movement Arts, which is now just over 10 years old. It has brought me moments of great joy – what better thing is there than seeing a child laugh out of sheer excitement or seeing a person with a disability doing something she never thought she could do? And it has also brought moments of great fear and anxiety – for e.g., how do you cope with a changing funding landscape every year not knowing if our projects are going to be funded from year to year?

I share these two personal stories to make the point of saying that both experiences have given me opportunities to create a lot more lovingkindness and compassion for myself. There has been a lot of doubt and fear and uncertainly around the creation and sustaining of the nonprofit, and now I am better able to say to myself “well that’s quite normal for someone in my position to experience so let’s try to meet those moments with compassion, gentleness, love and kindness towards myself.” 

I have often shared this quote from Buddhist meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness:

In cultivating love, we remember one of the most powerful truths the Buddha taught … that the forces in the mind that bring suffering are able to temporarily hold down the positive forces such as love or wisdom, but they can never destroy them.… Love can uproot fear or anger or guilt, because it is a greater power. Love can go anywhere. Nothing can obstruct it.

During this month of February during which Valentine’s Day falls, we can consider love in all of its forms – from romantic love to a general feeling of love and goodwill towards all of humanity. For me, it is particularly comforting to believe that this thing called love can actually overcome and render harmless my inner feelings of fear, anger and guilt. In the throes of fear, anger, and guilt, one can come to think that these experiences are real, and boy are they scary. But for me, fortunately I have a stronger meditation and lovingkindness practice to get me through such moments. 

As far as romantic love is concerned, the Buddha’s teachings do have some ideas to offer that could be helpful. According to the Wikipedia entry about Buddhism and Romantic relationships, here are some things to consider:

Buddhism encourages independence through non-attachment. Non-attachment is the idea that in order to be fulfilled and happy in life, a person cannot be attached to any one thing because this thing can cause suffering.[2] In order to be happy and to follow the path of enlightenment, Buddhism teaches people to discard all things in life that can cause pain. This idea is not referring to worldly objects in the physical sense, but in a spiritual sense. To achieve non-attachment, one must detach from the idea of a perfect person and holding one’s partner to an impossible standard. Instead, one must accept a partner for who they are unconditionally. In Buddhism, this is the key to a happy romantic relationship. Accepting a partner for who they are, for who they are throughout their life no matter what changes, and making the best of every situation is how one achieves personal fulfillment in a romantic relationship.

In the early stages of my blossoming relationship with my husband, Ed, I read a wonderfully insightful book called if the Buddha dated: A Handbook for Finding Love on a Spiritual Path, by Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D. Somewhere in the book I distinctly remember Charlotte offering the idea that when we enter into a relationship, we must start off knowing and accepting that we are not there to change the other person. If we can’t love the person for who and what they are right then and there, then we shouldn’t be seeking to be with that person in a romantic relationship. I took this suggestion to heart, and I remember early on in my relationship with Ed telling him that I loved him exactly as he was. Since that time, we’ve both been changed as we’ve learned from each other, and yet still in some ways we are fundamentally the people we were back then. The point is that I try not to change Ed, but rather to only make his life better and to support his dreams – as he has more than amply supported mine over the past 9 years – in any ways that I can. My practice is to try to love him unconditionally.

The Buddha taught:

If you truly loved yourself, you would never harm another. 

I think this speaks to the Buddha’s belief that all beings are interconnected. When we harm another, in a sense we are also harming ourselves.

I think the Buddha could also have said, “If you truly loved yourself, you would never harm yourself.” This would speak to the idea that all parts within ourselves are interconnected. 

For sure, loving one’s self, and being kind and compassionate toward one’s self, can be hard at times. Perhaps, then, that is why the Buddha’s practice of Metta (lovingkindness) meditation, begins by offering love and kindness to one’s own self first. Here is a simple practice you can do daily on your own: 

Take quiet moments – sitting on your office chair, walking down the street slowly without your cell phone in your hand, standig on the subway platform – to silently say:

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.
May my heart be wide open and free.

May your heart truly be wide open and free, for the benefit of all beings everywhere.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

 

Yoga and the Art of Seeing Just What's Ahead

The High Line in late January

Walking on The High Line this week, I came across this whimsical piece of Art. I was immediately captivated, and it put me in the present moment. This is what great art does, and this is yoga in action.

It reminded me of this quote by Robert Louis Stevenson:

The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.

Essentially what this is telling us is that when one is focused just on what’s immediately ahead, the mind can quiet down. This is yoga in action. Quite often in life, we can get caught up thinking too many steps ahead into the future. We get caught up in the web of our big wishes, dreams and desires, wanting them to be manifested right now. And if they are really big ones, they will undoubtedly bring many challenges to us as we strive to attain them, and our journey will likely be filled with stressful moments for our minds and hearts.

But Robert Louis Stevenson is saying that the best things we have in any moment is just what is right in front of us at any moment. Notice as you are walking down the street (without your cell phone in hand!) or doing a yoga asana, how if you just focus on what’s immediately in front of you how your mind does start to quiet down. Especially if you are walking down a street whose path you have traversed many times already you will start to notice things you never knew existed and your awareness will expand as a result of the seeming newness of the moment. Or if you’re doing a difficult balance pose and you just focus on what’s a few feet in front of you instead of way out ahead, suddenly you will find that your balance is easier and your mind is more at ease.

I swim once or twice a week regularly. I’ve noticed that when I am swimming the dog paddle – which surprisingly is a stroke that in doing takes a lot of stamina to traverse the whole length of the pool – and I am focused on the end of pool, my mind starts to get uncomfortably active thinking “how long before I get to the other side?” And I’ve noticed the dog paddling gets to be a bit more uncomfortable and feels more strenuous. However, when I just drop my vision a little and focus on just what’s a foot or two ahead, suddenly the paddling becomes more comfortable and easier, and I find I am enjoying the process of getting to the other side more. My mind quiets down, as I am not focused so much on the end goal, but rather just taking each moment as it comes, stroke by stroke. I feel more present, the journey is more fun, and I find that I arrive on the other with a greater sense of mental ease.

Remember always that yoga is not about mastering headstands or touching your toes. Rather the goal of practicing yoga is to quiet down the movements of the mind. Here is what the first four of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali say with an interpretation by Swami Jnaneshvara:

1. atha yoga anushasanam. Now, after having done prior preparation through life and other practices, the study and practice of Yoga begins.
1.2 Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field. 
1.3 Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam. Then the seer rests in its true nature.
1.4 vritti sarupyam itaratra. At other times, when one is not in Self-realization, the Seer appears to take on the form of the modifications of the mind field, taking on the identity of those thought patterns.

You have come to yoga because your life experiences have prepared you for this moment. You are now ready to engage in the practice and to understand it further because you are now more curious about how it works and you are seeking the benefits it can provide, such as experiencing mental comfort and joy more often.  When the mind is not quiet — which is the goal of yoga — one identifies with the thoughts one is having and believes — wrongly — these thoughts are who one really is. Sometimes these thoughts can be very scary, and sometimes very pleasant. But nonetheless, the thoughts are not who we truly are from the yoga perspective. Rather who we truly are is the Seer of these thoughts. And we can only come to realize this when our mind is quiet.

And when the mind is quiet, suddenly – almost magically – the right path will open up for us as we reach for our dreams. Possibly one aspect of the definition of what it means to be a New Yorker is to be someone who is aspirational. Yet in our pursuit of our aspirations, we can experience tension, worry, and fear. But if you just focus on what’s immediately ahead, a lot of that discomfort can be alleviated. Try it and see if it works!

Whether you quiet down your mind by doing yoga asanas, breath work, meditation, or simply walking through life seeing what’s just in front of you, you are practicing yoga.

As you continue to maintain your new year’s resolutions and reach for your dreams,
May you not get too far ahead of yourself and just see what’s immediately ahead,
May your mind quiet down,
May you live with ease and comfort,
May you see the path of right for your life that is gently being revealed just in front of you,
May you one day reach your aspirations,
For the benefit of all beings everywhere. 

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

The Gift of our Fiery Discipline, Contentment, and Generosity

Sunset from San Souci beach, Honolulu, O’ahu

Sunset from San Souci beach, Honolulu, O’ahu

It’s the time of year when we engage in gift giving. While most of our focus will be on giving material gifts, as yoga practitioners we can also consider giving these “three wise gifts” — our fiery discipline (tapas), our feelings of contentment (samtosha), and our generosity (dana). Tapas and samtosha are part of the yoga discipline and dana is one of main Buddhist practices. As we cultivate each within ourselves, not only will we benefit from having a mind that is more at peace, but our peace will be felt by others — our own peace is the perfect gift to others.

Tapas is one of the niyamas, or yoga observances. It comes from the root sanksrit verb ‘tap’ which means to burn. This practice involves generating heat in the body – something we need as it gets colder during these winter months – to remove impurities from the body, and the mind. In a sense, according to respected yoga teacher, Judith Lasater, it also means being willing to stay ‘in the heat of action’, being disciplined enough to not run away when things get too hard, but also to know when it is smart to leave a situation. Observing ‘tapas’ we ultimately can let go of that which no longer serves us well. As always, it’s a balance – is it wise to stay in the heat of the action, or smarter to leave. But note: run away too often, and that which you’re trying to get rid of may just continue to linger and hold you trapped. The point is: when we’re less encumbered by what is holding us down, it is a courageous gift to ourselves and others.

Samtosha is another niyama. It’s explained in the Yoga Sutras of PatanjaliFrom an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained (chapter 2, verse 42). Related to this is one of the Buddha’s core teachings: Contentment is the greatest wealth (Dhammapada 204). (Note to yogis and yoginis: the Buddha did not say that standing on your head or being able to touch your toes is the greatest wealth. He might have said, rather, doing what you can do already is plenty enough.) As we approach the year’s end, taking stock of what we possess materially, it’s a good time to pause and remember that we can’t take any of this with us once we’re dead and gone.  What is more lasting, and that which can have profound effects on others, is our own feelings of peace and happiness.  Observing samtosha can lead to both.

Dana, or generosity, is one of the “Perfections” in Buddhism. I’ll never forget hearing the Venerable Ariya Nani, a Buddhist meditation teacher, say: 

If you knew what I know about generosity and the results of giving, you would not let one single day go by without giving something to someone else.

Essentially, when we give, not only do we make someone else’s life a little richer, it also makes our own a bit more too by making us less burdened down by too much stuff and making us keenly aware that have more than enough to begin with.

Taken together, tapas, samtosha, and dana can lead to freeing the mind. A freer mind is a gift to all.

I hope you have a peaceful end to your old year, and a gentle entrance into your new one.

May your mind experience freedom, …
may your mind be at peace, …
may you cultivate and give the ‘Three Wise Gifts,” …
… for the benefit of all beings. 

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

p.s., sad/funny/pertinent story with a happy ending: I was about 2/3 through my yoga letter working in Squarespace (a website program) when I accidentally hit the ‘”back” button on my browser, and “bam” … in an instant more than half the work I had done to that point was lost. I panicked! I tried to restore the browser to the page I was working on, but alas I couldn’t get to it. So, I did what any yoga teacher would do. I sat “in the fire’ on my meditation block – practicing the true definition of tapas, I believe – and breathed until my mind was quiet enough to start working on my letter again from memory. Now that it’s done, I can look back and laugh a bit, though I certainly wasn’t laughing earlier! Actually, I think it ended up being better than the first iteration. Sometimes life has a way of making one prove that the lesson one is trying to impart to others is actually a lesson one is practicing on one’s self!

p.s.s., at this time of making year-end donations, please consider giving to Keoni Movement Arts so that we can make yoga, dance, and gymnastics accessible to those with little access.

 

Yoga and the Power of Gratitude

Sunset in Hawaii, I am feeling so grateful for this experience.

Sunset in Hawaii, I am feeling so grateful for this experience.

As I write this, I am in Hawaii soaking up the warm climate and amazing beauty, and reveling in all the experiences out in nature that the islands have to offer. I am feeling so grateful at the moment.

The trick in life, of course, is to carry this feeling of gratitude with us in each moment. This being the month we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, it is a good time to stop and reflect on all that we have, especially this human birth. Why? Well, here is one of the Buddha’s lessons:

The Buddha taught that every human birth is precious and worthy of gratitude. In one of his well-known analogies, he said that receiving a human birth is rarer than the chance that a blind turtle floating in the ocean would stick its head through a small hoop. He would often instruct a monk to take his ground cloth into the forest, sit at the base of a tree, and begin "gladdening the heart" by reflecting on the series of fortunate circumstances that had given the monk the motivation and ability to seek freedom through understanding the dharma.

Whether or not you believe the Buddha’s assertion that each of us have basically won the lottery 10 times over in arriving here, if you stop to look back and think about it, each of us are here because of many fortunate events took place. Especially those of us who are born here in the U.S. can reflect on just how lucky we are. And we arrive at practicing yoga and meditation because we want to experience and know more freedom from within. We’re so lucky to have these contemplative practices which can ultimately bring more ease into our lives. The very fact that we can sit upright is a condition for becoming enlightened, for when the head can rest over the spine, like ours can, the mind can move towards stillness. In this stillness, our true nature can reveal itself.

Another influential teacher of mine, Beryl Bender Birch, said this:

Keeping Your Heart Open

Rain or shine, stormy or sunny, our work in yoga is to stay open, to walk the path of nonresistance. The minute we resist what “is,” we miss out on whatever life is offering at that moment. If we know how to live daily life, which is the point of practicing yoga, then life becomes a very liberating experience. Every moment is a choice—so do we want to be happy, or miserable? Learn the secret to accepting life’s journey with gratitude and joy no matter what is going on in your life or swirling around you. 

Life flows all the time, and we can either stay with the currents or try to swim against them. Often, I pray to God that S/He guide me to being content with the path that is being presented to me. Often life doesn’t turn out the way I had planned, and I seek the awareness to know that God has a better plan for me than the one I prepared. 

For example, coming here to Hawaii, my partner and I had created a list of things we wanted to do, and a daily plan of action for each day we’re to be here. Well, the weather didn’t quite cooperate according to our schedule – the north shore of Oahu got pounded by high waves – so we had to shift things around. And naturally we overscheduled our days – there was so much we wanted to do! – and had to scale back and do the things we really wanted to do. As I reflect back now on our trip, things turned out so wonderfully – and much better than I could have planned. Each day has felt so magical.

Today of all days in my life, I am feeling particularly grateful. Ed, my partner of 7 years, and I are getting married. As I reflect back, I know that I am so very fortunate to be able to marry the man I love. My parents and family loved me unconditionally no matter who I decided to love, and so many have fought equality battles so that two men could be joined in union like this. Gratitude is flowing strongly through me in this moment.

May you realize how lucky you are to be able to have this human experience, …
May you experience gratitude often as life flows in and around you, …
May your heart be gladdened, …
for the benefit of All beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

Hawaiian Shark Encounter off the coast of Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore.

Hawaiian Shark Encounter off the coast of Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore.

 

Yoga and the Power of Devotion

IMG_1155.jpg
My senior chair yoga students practicing seated Hanumanasana - forward splits posture. Yay, a little victory over the self, and our limited beliefs about our possibilities!

My senior chair yoga students practicing seated Hanumanasana - forward splits posture. Yay, a little victory over the self, and our limited beliefs about our possibilities!

I love my senior students. Surely, I am as much a student to them as they are to me. They teach me so much. They have been so devoted to their chair yoga practice over the last 2 years with me, even when I give them hard poses to do, like Hanumanasana - the forward splits.

And I love returning to the Hanuman theme, which I have done so every year for at least the last ten. The heroic feats of Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God from the Hindu myth, the Ramayana, serve as a reminder that, in whatever mission we are serving in our own life, if we are truly devoted to it without ego and if the mission serves a purpose that will help all beings — not just the little self — that we are capable of persevering in the face of difficulty, challenges and self-doubt and complete the mission. In short, there are times in our life when the greater need is so big that we somehow find a way to do the impossible.

In the story, Hanuman basically does the impossible. He is charged with rescuing Sita, the wife of his master, Rama. Sita was taken to an island in the middle of the ocean - Lanka - and held captive there. Hanuman comes to the edge of the ocean, sees the island out in the distance, gathers up all his powers and resolve and does a giant split leap over the ocean, lands on the island, rescues Sita, and returns her to Rama. According to Religious Studies Professor Joshua Greene, “the myth of the Ramayana is basically a story of the reuniting of Yin and Yang, represented by Sita and Lord Rama. … Hanumanasana is the forward-splits position. The arms are raised overhead in victory. The body is stretched out in all 6 directions. Practicing the pose, we gain victory over our own selves, our ego and our tendencies towards evil.”

One detail of the story that I find helpful to contemplate is that before he made that giant leap, Hanuman basically was filled with self-doubt and didn’t remember that he was capable of doing such an impossible feat. As a child he had a lot of natural physical gifts, but was mischievous — as most children are — and was made to forget his powers. But just before his leap, he was reminded by the wise bear, Jambavantha, of his powers and once he remembered again, he gathered up his resolve and set out to complete the mission. Remembering spurred him on to making that giant leap.

We all have people in our lives who know us well, and are constantly reminding us in our moments of self-doubt that we are indeed powerful. For me last week, it was Richard, the bookkeeper for my nonprofit organization, Keoni Movement Arts, who reminded me in a moment when I was doubting a decision I made to not to dwell on it too much and not to second-guess myself. I remember appreciating hearing that in that moment. Perhaps had it not been for Jambavantha, Hanuman would not have done the impossible thing he did. Similarly, in our own lives, much praise must be given to those people who encourage us, and remind us during our moments of doubt just how powerful and capable we are. Especially for a child, those people can make the difference between the child having an amazing future life of productivity or having one where her/his potential is not realized.

We all have special gifts and we all have a mission to fulfill that serves the greater good in our time on this Earth. I hope that you can tap into that feeling of your life as having a calling — a greater purpose — and that you can have enough people around you encouraging you to complete your mission and along the way reminding you of your powers and ability during times when you falter. Like Hanuman, may you be 100% devoted to completing the mission, and because of that devotion have your powers be uncovered and unleashed for the benefit of all. As the yoga scripture, the Baghavad Gita, says:

At the beginning, mankind and obligation of selfless service were created together. Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires. This is the promise of the Creator. - Verse 3.10

This is the power of devotion — the uncovering within us of our capacity for tireless service and our ability to do the impossible.

May you know your life’s calling, …
May you remember your unlimited powers, …
May you do the impossible, …
for the benefit of all beings.

Aloha, with Metta,
Paul Keoni

Anything is possible when you can remember the unlimited power that lies deep within yourself!

Anything is possible when you can remember the unlimited power that lies deep within yourself!

 

Yoga and the Art of Remembering

Art work on the Palestinian side of a border wall that separates Palestinian and Israeli controlled territories in Bethlehem.

Art work on the Palestinian side of a border wall that separates Palestinian and Israeli controlled territories in Bethlehem.

From the Dhammapda, a collection of the Buddha's important teachings, Chapter 1, verse 6 reads (Gil Fronsdal translation):

Many do not realize that 
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.


While visiting Israel over the summer, my partner, Ed, and I stopped at the border wall above. What a truly difficult and tenuous situation it is in this part of our One world, where awareness of death is so palpable on a daily basis. As this recent NY Times article about the meaning of Yom Kippur suggests, the recently passed observance of Yom Kippur is a “dress rehearsal for our deaths.” It quotes a 19th-century rabbi, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, who said, “remembering death in the proper way can bring a person to the ultimate joy” and a contemporary rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, who says, it “compels us to squeeze out every bit of life out of every day that we have.” Indeed, one thing that Ed and can say we observed in Israel is that people there do squeeze out a lot of joy in their daily lives . In some ways, they practice one of the Buddha’s core teachings: “Practice living joyfully amidst all the sorrows of the world.”

I would say that as practitioners of yoga, we are compelled as well to realize, on a daily basis at least, that one day we won’t be here on this earth. As our yoga practice grows over the year, it moves from glorification of the physical to a deeper awareness of the spiritual. It can lead to a greater and deeper experience of Joy.

The verse just prior to the one above from the Dhammapada reads:

‎Hatred is never ended by hatred - but by love.
This is an eternal rule.

Of course it is quite easy to mouth these words, but in fact so difficult to actually meet hatred with love. But as yoga practitioners it is our duty to try to get better and better at practicing this — if not outwardly then at least internally — so that we never have to experience the horrific events of 9/11 again. Hard to believe they happened just seventeen years ago. Hopefully by this time some of the hatred has been replaced by love. It is possible to meet our own feelings of self-hatred — yes everyone has those feelings from time to time — with love and compassion. For example, when we’re practicing savasana or seated meditation and putting our attention on the gentle rise and fall of our bellies over and over again, we’re actually physicalizing this concept of meeting hatred with love.

So much of practicing yoga is actually about unearthing, removing, and remembering. One of my favorite poems is this comforting one by Derek Walcott (Nobel Laureate in Literature from St. Lucia) called Love After Love:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

As I near the start of my 7th decade here on this earth — in just 7 months from now! — I look back now at my youthful days and remember the desperate notes to former would-be lovers and casting directors (during my former acting days) wishing for their love and affirmation of my worth. I can understand why Sally Field said what she said in her Oscar acceptance speech in 1984! I can definitely say that yoga and meditation have helped bring me closer to seeing more fully my little self and the bigger Self. I have more of an understanding and awareness of my Dharma — my duty to serve — and where I fit into the bigger picture of Life. And as I contemplate now returning to acting professionally, I have a deeper desire to be seen for who I am. As I said to a headshot photographer I interviewed recently, I want to be shot as I am today, and not as some glorified image of myself. Yoga as well as life’s natural progression have gently brought me to this point, thankfully.

At this moment in our US politics, we are being rocked with sexual abuse allegations against a Supreme Court nominee. So many minds at the moment are conflicted, and what is needed most right now are quiet minds that can see through the false colorings of the truth and come to quiet decisions on the best course of action going forward. As this passage from A Course in Miracles says:

The memory of God comes to the quiet mind.  It cannot come where there is conflict.  A mind at war with itself remembers not Eternal Gentleness.

So many minds are at war with themselves at the moment, perhaps including your own. As you practice yoga and meditation more and more — as your inner conflicts are assuaged a bit more each moment you put your attention on your breath — please know that you are helping the bigger picture by coming closer to remembering more often — and at a deeper level — who you really are. Remembering God means remembering how inextricable and interconnected we all are.

May you be better able to meet hatred with love, …
May you feast on your life, …
May you remember who you really are, …
… for the benefit of all beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Yoga and the Art of Gentleness

Delicate Hawaiian flower (name unknown) on display at the  New York Botanical Garden  now through October.

Delicate Hawaiian flower (name unknown) on display at the New York Botanical Garden now through October.

Last week, while enjoying the beautiful plants and flowers on display up at the New York Botanical Garden with my partner, we came across this delicate flower above. I don't know its name, but it resembles the ʻōhiʻa lehua or Lehua Blossom, a delicate flower endemic to Hawaii. In Hawaii, where I was born, we have what are called "Ōlelo No‘eau" which means "Proverbs" or "Wise Sayings." Here is one:

I mohala no ka lehua i ke ke’ekehi ‘ia e ka ua

Translation:

The lehua blossom unfolds when the rains tread on it.

Explanation: People respond better to gentle words than to scoldings.

And so too, when we practice yoga and meditation, we will be more successful if we can be gentle with ourselves. Do you think the flower above could possibly open up and be as beautiful as it is if it were forced to blossom by hard and heavy rains? Likewise, can our bodies, minds, and hearts ever be able to display its delicate beauties if we treated them too harshly, forcing them to open up? The path towards Enlightenment is a delicate one.

Many years ago, I took a workshop with Cindi Lee, a widely regarded yoga teacher who founded Om Yoga in New York City. She was describing the qualities of a Warrior from the Buddhist perspective and I recall she said something like:

The warrior acts with gentleness, precision, and by letting go through surrender.

We don't usually associate being warriors with being gentle. Yet if you stop to think about it, the Art of Gentleness is a very refined way of being, and perhaps one that can be known only by people with a warrior-like mentality. Warriors are willing to explore the limits of their awareness for the benefit of all beings. As we practice yoga and meditate more and more, in a sense we are becoming spiritual warriors. And as we test those outer limits of our possibilities, we can come to know that we can reach more of our desired outcomes through a gentle approach, and fewer of those outcomes though forcibly trying to get ourselves and others to bend towards our ego's will. As we become more in tune with our higher chakras, the Art of Gentleness naturally unfolds within us and gives us more ways of solving intractable challenges.

The Buddha taught this lesson:

With gentleness overcome anger.
With generosity overcome meanness.
With truth overcome deceit.

He knew that gentleness, generosity, and truth are greater powers than anger, meanness, and deceit and that they could overcome them. Of course, we can certainly meet anger with more anger, but if you stop to think about it, really how far will it get you? In the end, both sides will suffer.

The American Spiritual Author, Kent Nerburn, wrote a series of essays which became compiled into the book Letters to My Son. In it, he shares wisdom he had gained though much life experience with his son in order to help guide him more gently into adulthood. One passage, entitled "The Art of Giving" begins with:

Remember to be gentle with yourself and others. We are all children of chance, and none can say why some fields will blossom and others lay brown beneath the August sun. ...

Here it is the end of August, and already some fields are starting to turn brown, and some are still lush and green. Who knows why? Some seeds were perhaps lucky to be in a place that received more rain and sunshine, while others happened to land in more barren environs. Most, if not all, Americans are extremely lucky to have been born in the USA -- as Springsteen would say! Anyone who has traveled much to third world countries know that many people are barely surviving due to the circumstances of where they were born. We don't really know what karma is playing out in this lifetime for ourselves and for others. All we can do is to help ourselves -- and thus the world -- by being gentle and treading as lightly as possible on this Earth, as we do our good works in our current lifetimes.

We all know that there is a lot of anger, meanness, and deceit out in the larger at the moment. And yet, we can all help the outer situation by truly being gentle, generous, and truthful with our own selves first. That is, I believe, our individual calling for the collective good.

May you be gentle with yourself, ...
May you be a Spiritual Warrior, ...
... for the benefit of All Beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Yoga and the Art of Peace Making

Sea of Galilee, Israel. Where Jesus preached and walked on water. So peaceful, so tranquil.

Sea of Galilee, Israel. Where Jesus preached and walked on water. So peaceful, so tranquil.

This month, my partner, Ed, and I visited the Holy Land. What started out as a pilgrimage for him to visit the Christian sites became one for me too, as we visited places that both of us had heard about growing up as Catholics. I was able to connect the biblical stories I learned as a child to the actual places where these events took place, and walk amidst some of the paths that Jesus walked. It was a transformative experience.

I remembering hearing the Dalai Lama say something like: “start with what you know.” My roots are in Christianity, and that is what I knew first, before I began learning about other belief systems like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Yoga. So, it was nice to revisit what I am familiar with already and to discover that at the core of Christianity, Buddhism and yoga is a fundamental call to cultivate peace in one’s own heart and minds.

In the Bible, it is written:

For unto us a child is born, … and his name shall be called … The Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Matthew 5:9

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, taught us to try to have peace in our own hearts and minds, even though the outer world might be anything but peaceful. Though I don’t go to church on a regular basis anymore, I recall from the Christian services the part where we are asked to turn to those nearest around us and offer a sign of peace with the words “Peace be with you.” And I recall at the end of mass the call to action: Go forth in Peace to love and serve the Lord. Now this is all making more sense to me.

While visiting Israel – and particularly Jerusalem – the one thing I heard repeatedly about the situation there was “It’s complicated.” Israelis and Palestinians living side by side, trying to work out their differences. Three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – have some of their holiest of sites in close proximity to each other in the Old City. In the case of Judaism and Islam, some believe they are existing one on top of the other.  Yet, with all their differences in beliefs, they somehow seem able to co-exist, however tenuous it may seem at times. 

While Ed and I enjoyed doing various tours and seeing some amazing places – Masada, Jericho, the Dead Sea – what was most stimulating to us was the conversations we had with local people. One in particular stood out to me. It was with a Palestinian Israeli who shared that that while the situation at the moment may seem dire, he is hopeful for the future. He works 6 days a week to be able to provide an education for his children that he hopes will help them to see the larger perspective, from many points of view. He said that in his smaller circle, he has many Israeli and Palestinian friends and that they all get along. In a sense, his basic message to us was “all peace is local.” Perhaps many in Israel – like in the U.S. – live in their own silos, but at least the silos are very close to each other. In the U.S., they seem geographically so far apart.

Here are four quotes that I shared in my yoga classes this past month that perhaps can illuminate for us that we are not powerless when it comes to helping to create more peace in the world, and that we can do something in our own daily lives to help the larger cause:

If there is to be Peace in the world,
There must be Peace in the nations.

If there is to be Peace in the nations,
There must be Peace in the cities.

If there is to be Peace in the cities,
There must be Peace between neighbors.

If there is to be Peace between neighbors,
There must be Peace in the home.
If there is to be Peace in the home,
There must be Peace in the Heart.

—Lao Tzu, 6th Century Chinese Philosopher

The only true guardian of peace lies within: a sense of concern and responsibility for your own future and an altruistic concern for the well-being of others.
– His Holiness, The Dalai Lama

Peace is a daily, weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. 
– John F. Kennedy

Peace can be made only by those who are peaceful, and love can be shown only by those who love. No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
– Alan Watts, Alan Wilson Watts was a British philosopher who interpreted and popularized Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.

So, as you continue to practice yoga and meditation, do so knowing that whatever peace you are able to cultivate within – amidst the chaos that is undoubtedly brewing within your very own heart and mind – that it is having a ripple effect for the better out in the larger world.  Have faith in the slow, long, and gradual process of making peace both within you and outside of you. Take responsibility for your own future as you take time to care for others too. Create silos of hope and peace in your own little part of this big world.

May your heart and mind know Peace, …
May you go forth and be a Peacemaker, …
May you cultivate world peace, locally, … 
… for the benefit of all Beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

For more photos of my trip to Israel, please visit my Facebook page.