Lessons in Humility

I have always been suspicious of Marianne Williamson’s widely-quoted “call to shine” below.

Our Greatest Fear 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other

people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

—Marianne Williamson

But this week it finally clicked. I was talking with a friend who lives everyday from her creativity, and was telling her about something I feel passionately about, but am fearful of following through on lest it puffs up my ego. That I’m not sure I want to start a Twitter account and start talking about it and putting myself out there about this project. Basically, I summarized, I want to be humble, and that feels at odds with doing things I would perhaps be successful at.

She didn’t even blink. “Wow,” she said. “Get over yourself. That’s the most arrogant I’ve heard in a while. I mean, no…. Just no.”

Now, I know when I’m getting good advice and ready to hear it when I don’t feel bruised by such a call-out, but rather, relieved to have had it called out.

She’s absolutely right and what a great lesson to see how sneaky the ego is. It can disguise fear as humility. It can disguise its need to feel important as humility. Who is this “i” that thinks what it does would be so amazing that it would then “struggle to be humble”!?  Who is this ‘i’ that believes people care what she is doing? And, is this thought merely a disguise for the fact that this “i” is scared that following a passion will end up being meaningless? Indeed, is the “i” just scared of finding out she is meaningless?

This last question is the crux of the matter. The person/ego – whatever you like to call it – needs to feel important, needs to feel it has a purpose. It is terrified that it won’t have a purpose – probably because it knows that without purpose it cannot exist – it has no identity to maintain, and so it is not needed. Indeed, by accepting ourselves as purposeless (or being moved simply by something greater than our tiny selves) then the ego withers.

I’m not sure if this is clear, but there is most certainly a relief in setting aside ideas of being important or failing, and of having any purpose or meaning, and instead, just following what my heart seems to be telling me to do for no other reason that it seems to be telling me to do it. The end. It’s quite humbling, and a little embarrassing (to the ego), to see that I really seemed under some spell that 1) my offering is my own and 2) that I matter.

I don’t need to matter. Indeed, ‘mattering’ surely only stands in the way of whatever it is this person can serve best doing – however unimportant or grandiose the ego believes that action in the world to be.

Of Williamson’s words it is this line that is clearest for me:

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

In other words, we simply exist to allow consciousness to express itself through us, so just roll with it and be wide open to let that expression go all the way. That is humility. And with it a clear space opens up to feel immense gratitude. How wonderful that ‘i’ get to be a tiny tiny part of something so incredible and wondrous and unknowable as consciousness, or God, or whatever word you would choose.

I’m going to pin ‘get over yourself’ to my desk as a reminder.

The Need for Dark Skies

Sark, a small island between England and France, is the world’s first “Dark Sky” island. It has no vehicles—the 650 people who live there travel by bike or foot—and there are no street lamps. When night falls the only thing to illuminate the island of Sark is starlight.

Intrigued as to how living under the light of the stars impacts health and behavior, psychotherapist Ada Blair decided to interview Sark’s residents. She uncovered that the people who lived on Sark truly felt that being in touch with the night sky benefited their well-being. Writing of her findings for The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), Blair says that the shared night sky gave Sark’s residents a deep sense of community. That residents made comments such as:

“last summer we were lying on the field outside the Island Hall with everybody looking up during the meteor shower … people had sleeping bags, thermoses, and hot chocolate.”

And while small talk elsewhere may involve the weather, Blair says on Sark it those casual back-and-forths start with the sky: “Did you see the Milky Way above the Seignurie last night. Wasn’t it amazing?”

Not only do the stars bring Sark’s community together, but the residents observing the night sky results in positive (and sometimes transformative) feelings. 

Sadly the experience of turning our gaze to look up at the skies is one that is increasingly lost on our generation. While Sark may have dark skies, much of the world has become illuminated by unnatural light. Journalist, Ron Judd, in an article for The Seattle Times, says that 99% of Americans never routinely see a true dark sky – and that’s if they even step outside…

It’s a stark contrast to how humanity used to interact with the stars, where constellations were our guides, our friends, our gods.

By failing to look up above, we miss the prompt to ask ourselves deep questions. David Ingram, who heads a Seattle-based group of dedicated dark-sky advocates underscores what we miss when we stop looking up: “The sad truth is that the current bunch of us will be the first in the history of the planet to go most or all the way through life failing to grasp our place in the universe. Because we simply have never seen it. You can put anybody—I don’t care who they are—out under the stars for 30 minutes, and they start asking the big questions. Where else does that happen? You don’t ask big questions in a restaurant.”


Love is (still) the Only Way

 “Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Several years ago one of my spiritual teachers, Jennifer Hadley, advised reading Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Loving Your Enemies” as a regular practice. “Recite it. Aloud. As if it is your sermon. Made from the pulpit of your living room,” she recommended. “It will transform you.”

There is an electricity that runs through all of Dr. King’s sermons. Probably the best orator of the 20th century, his speeches perfectly touched the souls of those hearing them. He stirred millions of Americans to nonviolent action, encouraging them to stand up against racial injustice, against racial and economic inequality, and against war.

The electric energy of Dr. King has endured. “Perhaps reading these eloquent proclamations will show us the way into the new millennium, and help us to continue to live truths,” says Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a colleague of Dr. King in A Call to Consciencea collection of Dr. King’s landmark speeches.

The Power of Speech

I wasn’t familiar with this particular sermon. Indeed, “Loving Your Enemies” is not one of Dr. King’s landmark addresses. It doesn’t mark the call to action like the speech he gave in 1955 following the arrest of fellow Montgomery-resident Rosa Parks. The speech in which he describes justice as “love correcting that which revolts against love.”

Nor is it the most poetic—like the speech he gave after a nonviolent march from Selma, calling for the right of African Americans to vote, declaring: “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her throne? … Not long.”

The sermon does not make the lofty aim for a global revolution of values that “will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’” As Dr. King did in his address on Vietnam in New York City.

Nor has it become a speech profoundly symbolic of the transformation of a nation from the mired history of slavery towards a hopeful era of civil rights and equality like Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Rather, the “Loving Your Enemies” sermon given in 1957 was to a relatively small congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. King was a pastor.

But in reading it, “by putting ourselves in his shoes, we have an understanding of what it took personally for him to lead a nation in profound transformation. How he became one of the most inspiring people to have ever walked the Earth, and how we can follow in his footsteps,” says Jennifer.

By reading it, we are transformed ourselves.

Love Redeems

The call to love that Dr. King lays out in “Loving Your Enemies” echoes through all of his speeches. Furthermore, it is the message upon which he built his life—that love is “creative,” and that only love is capable of transforming hate into love. Therefore, to change the world, love has to be extended to everyone—even to our enemies. The message mirrored Gandhi’s, who Dr. King looked to as inspiration in the nonviolent justice movement.

The sermon uses the story of Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Stanton as an example of love driving out hate. When Lincoln was running to be president, Stanton did his utmost to ridicule Lincoln. Yet, when Lincoln was elected—despite criticism from his cabinet—he appointed Stanton as Secretary of War. In doing so, Lincoln not only served his people by selecting the best person for the job, but he transformed the hatred Stanton held in his heart towards Lincoln—so much so that when Lincoln was assassinated, it was Stanton who gave one of the most touching speeches.

Love is a powerful tool, more powerful than hate, as Dr. King said in his speech:

If Abraham Lincoln had hated Stanton … Stanton would have gone to his grave hating Lincoln, and Lincoln would have gone to his grave hating Stanton. … Hate destroys the hater as well as the hated … Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. … And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.

Dr. King’s gift was not just his soul-stirring rhetoric, but also his ability to put forward practical solutions. Love is a practice he realized, and one that requires certain things, as he noted in his speech:

  1. Looking at oneself. “We must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we’ve done deep down in the past … That is why I say, begin with yourself.”
  2. Discerning between like and love. “Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. … [but] love is greater than like. Love is understanding.”
  3. Helping those we hate. “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. … When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love…”
  4. Seeing the good in all. “Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. … Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.”

Radical Love for the Modern Day

It is only with this foundation that as a society we can continue to walk towards the equality that Dr. King talked about in his “I Have a Dream” speech, says Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis. She is a senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York, and Executive Director of The Middle Project, an institute that prepares ethical leaders for a more just society. “It’s a radical love. It is not a love for wimps. It’s saying: ‘I’m going to love you, and engage with you whoever you are,’” she says. “That love drives the dream of a world where black lives matter and therefore all lives matter. Asian lives matter, Latino lives matter, Muslim lives matter, gay lives matter, poor lives matter, and old lives matter. It is a world in which we value the woman in a hijab, and the man in a kippa, and the atheist. Where we realize we are a human family and we cannot function without each other.”

Her favorite speech is “I Have a Dream.”

“I feel its reverberations still as people stand up against racial inequality that continues to be a reality,” says Jacqui. “And I am hopeful. I see signs of people collaborating, of races and religions coming together for equality, for justice. It doesn’t take a million people, it takes just enough good loving people who say: ‘This will not happen on our watch.’ And who continue the nonviolent protests on the streets to insist that everyone is treated fairly.”

Of all of Dr. King’s speeches, “Loving Your Enemies” is the one closest to my heart. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s love spurred actions that transformed a nation and continues to do so today. Among the many things I am grateful to Dr. King for is this reminder that hatred does not serve the world—and that includes my own hatred. In that way I have transformed too. If we want to make a change, be it political, environmental, for social equality and justice, or simply in our own lives: “Love is the only way.”

(This article was originally written for Wanderlust and can be found here)

The Greatest Show is in the Meadow

In Inner Ramana, scribed by one my teachers, Regina Dawn Akers, the comparison is made between the mind and the circus. That, for a time (maybe lifetimes), we are fascinated by the circus. We love the acrobats, the trapeze artists, the sword swallowers and bearded ladies. We love the bright colors, the music, the costumes, the lights, the gasps, the drama, the cheers,… the drama.

But, deep within us “there is a desire […] to settle within the meadow that surrounds the circus tent”, and a vague feeling, much like an old memory, that it is there in the meadow where we will be met with an everlasting tranquility, and a show more beautiful than we could ever imagine. A real show.

The circus is the mind as it springs forth thoughts that grab our attention and draw us into the story of how many clowns will fit into the car, or, in daily life, how important we are, or how terrible we are, and what was said by whom to who, and the ecstasy of getting what we want, and the heart-wrenching disappointments of not getting what we want.

There’s a joke I was told by a tour guide in Ireland: My previous job was a trampolinist in a circus. It had its ups and downs.

Our lives, dictated to by the mind, can be like this — lived in perpetual ups and downs.

But if we don’t follow the minds’ thoughts, if we just open the curtains and watch the show from outside for a while through self inquiry practices and meditation, then the feeling of the sun on the back of our necks, and the grass under our feet becomes more compelling than the show inside the tent. And, with practice we notice a quiet love for the meadow, so that even away from our meditation cushions we stop stepping through the curtains, until eventually we live our daily lives with its ups and downs, but we remain fully outside, laid down among the wild flowers watching the clouds pass in the blue sky above.

I was reminded of this teaching watching The Greatest Show last weekend — the musical movie of P.T. Barnum’s life. I have no idea how accurate the depiction was, but the storyline seemed to show this lesson beautifully. Barnum has a family he is smitten with and seems to live an idyllic, if what humble, life with them in New York City. But he longs for more excitement, and so starts a circus.

After a few years of success, however, Barnum’s thoughts turn away from the circus, and he declares he wants to give people what is real, rather than what is fake.

It is as if this point is his awakening — that he longs for something more meaningful, and senses it exists. But, instead of choosing the meadow, he chooses another show — one more opulent, more grand. He chooses the opera, the very epitome of drama, and its promise of high society and respect — the opposite to his time in the circus where he was loved by the common people.

Not long into his tour with his opera star, he realizes he has mistaken what “real” is, and his journey ends in sorrow for all who know him.

Realizing all he has lost, Barnum returns home long enough to revive his circus, but he has understood that the circus is no longer what he desires — now he chooses the meadow. He retires from his role as ringmaster, and chooses to spend the rest of his days with his family.

A wonderful reminder that the meadow was always there, and is always there if we can let go of the allure of the circus of the mind.

Winter – A Love Story

I have fallen in love with a most unexpected candidate. It happened, as love often does, over a period of time. There was a stroll in the park where, among the naked trees, I walked through a gallery of a hundred different-shaped pieces of art — summer homes curated by mocking birds, starlings, cardinals and robins, and now abandoned in the crooks where barren branches meet bare trunks.

There was that morning where I woke up to a blanket of white that turned the concrete yard into Monet’s snow scene, and the smell of ice on rivers 120 miles north engulfed my nostrils snuffing out the odor of exhaust and subways.

There was the night so crisp and clear that it felt possible to just reach my hand up, pluck the moon out of the sky and pop it into my mouth, knowing it would have tasted of mountain tops and honeysuckle. And underneath Capella I wished for better mittens so I could stay out just another hour.

Winter…I had never expected to like it, let alone love it. The final straw, however — the one that led to the fall — was the flash of red of a downy woodpecker’s head against a snowy bough, the scarlet wing of a male cardinal, and the cornflower blue of six blue jays at the feeder. When the Earth lays herself bare, when the curtains of leaves have gone, when the canvas becomes shades of white and grey, another beautiful world can be seen.

I’d missed it all — for years I’ve hibernated the minute the Christmas gifts are unwrapped until the yellow of daffodils trumpet the arrival of spring (which in the North East U.S. can be four long months).

Years ago I had started writing a poem about a summer fairy who sleeps all winter, and therefore misses the season’s treasures. Yesterday, bizarrely, I came across it yellowing in an old box as I was clearing out a closet. Perhaps it wanted to be found. Now that I have begun to see the gifts of winter, I might just be able to finish writing it.

Coming Home to Ourselves

In the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, homesickness was considered a serious illness. Its symptoms were nervousness and melancholy, and unfortunately for patients, doctors argued there really was no cure, other than simply to “go home” and see if it passed.

With the advent of global travel, the idea of homesickness, however, became almost juvenile—something children experience at camp perhaps—and the notion that ‘home’ is more of a feeling than a place lost credibility altogether.

I’m intrigued by homesickness simply because I have never really felt ‘at home.’ It’s a sentiment I know a lot of people share. It’s difficult to describe, but it has a quality of mild unease, of feeling unsettled, off-center perhaps, or a little ungrounded—like there is some place you belong, but you’re not sure it even exists.

This feeling of being homesick is simply an experience along a soul’s journey, and our awareness of it becomes a turning point.
Initially I assumed it was just a side effect of moving around, or not having a partner or family of my own, but as those boxes were ticked and the feeling remained, it became clear that that wasn’t it either. Where was this so-called ‘home’ that I felt but could not find?

The answer came to me on the wings of Shamanic wisdom. There this feeling of being homesick is simply an experience along a soul’s journey, and our awareness of it becomes a turning point. According to the Shaman, we arrive in the world complete, but as we move through life we begin to energetically discard parts of ourselves. Sometimes that is by choice. The things we learn not to like, we disown—a part of our body that we perceive to be ugly; our desires, anger, or emotions that we were once chastised for. And sometimes it is through no choice of our own that parts of us leave. It is said that during traumatic experiences pieces of our soul become so frightened that they scatter.

If we wondered whether a place called home even exists, the Shaman says that yes it does, and our hunch was right—it is not outside of ourselves. It is our soul. The homesick feeling we sense actually belongs to the discarded pieces of our soul calling out to us to be found and welcomed back. Our job is therefore simply to gather those scattered pieces and invite them back in.

How do we do this? In the dictionary, one of the definitions for home is “where we flourish, and where we originate from.” So how do we begin walking back around the outer reaches of the spiral towards the center gathering the pieces of ourselves as we go?

First we can simply breathe a sigh of relief. Just to have the awareness of being unsettled and the desire to feel whole is enough to alert our inner voice to begin teaching us the way. Then it becomes a personal journey of self-reflection—one that should be looked upon with awe, curiosity, and great love. We gather these lost pieces back to us only once, so, as spiritual teacher Matt Kahn says, “Whatever arises… Love that.”

There are many great spiritual practices and tools for uncovering the parts of us we have pushed aside, and there are many Shamanic rituals for soul retrievals, but here is one of my personal favorites.

Making a Nest

Birds have been symbols for pagans, shamans, seers, prophets, and native peoples all over the world. Their ability to be at home soaring in the heavens, and equally at home nesting in a bramble bush close to the earth reminds us that home is within us, not without us.

The practice of “making a nest” was shared with me recently to welcome in a new soul as I was having trouble conceiving, but what I soon realized was that this was a practice calling in the parts of myself that had been discarded and letting them know it was safe to return.

To begin, create an altar area or a small safe place in your home that seems inviting—if you have an altar already that would work.

Then, like a bird, begin to gather things to make a small nest. If you feel a connection to the Earth, you could forage for small sticks, feathers, stones, leaves, and pine cones. But you could also use seashells, crystals, yarn, or paper. It’s entirely your creation, so it can be whatever feels inviting and nurturing to you, and it can look however you choose.

The center of the nest can remain empty allowing room for whatever would like to come back to you, or you can place a symbol like a stone in your nest to as place markers.

Then, this is when our nest becomes an act of great self-care. Every day take time to speak, sing, or read to your nest. Perhaps you will feel called to add new things to your nest such as flowers, photos, trinkets, or gifts, and after a few weeks you may also feel inspired to clean the nest, move it, or re-do it entirely.

As your sense of care and love for this small symbol of your soul grows, notice how parts of yourself you had forgotten arise in your awareness now feeling safe enough to come back in.

Pray Always, and All Ways

(This article was originally written for Wanderlust.com)

A few weeks ago, while poring over another medical study showing that mindfulness improves cardiovascular health, I came across something in the details. According to the data, a lot of us are praying. Yet an extensive survey recently found that the American public is becoming less religious.

Dr. John Younge and the rest of the study’s researchers made the uncommon decision to include ‘prayer’ as a mindfulness practice. Not only that, but they chose “only to include prayer that was not part of a group religion”—so as not to have the positive social aspect of group religion influence the results.

Of the 15,000 respondents who qualified as having a mindfulness practice, almost half said that this non-religious prayer was their activity. It wasn’t many in total—a little more than 1 percent of people surveyed in fact—but extrapolate that across the world’s non-religious population, and it could well end up being tens of millions of people. And if tens of millions of non-religious people are talking to their version of God as a daily practice, why are we not talking more about this? Do we believe that praying is only for the religious? Are we worried that we will be co-opted by a religion if we pray? This occurred to me last year, when my 97-year-old grandma—who has no patience for religion, but who has also never given a jot what people think of her—whispered to me over a cup of tea: “Don’t tell anyone… But I pray.”

“Prayer purifies, elevates, and transforms us. It awakens our souls.” – Michael Berg

Personally, I don’t consider myself part of a religion, but I am a pray-er. Since I was young, much to my atheist parents’ dismay, I just loved speaking to God. I had no idea who God was, or that “God” has religious connotations. Indeed, I had no idea what religion or “connotations” meant—I was only seven. But I felt “God’s” existence, and, given that God was apparently not at my house, or my school, prayer seemed the only means to be in touch.

“Dear God, I’m very thankful for this lovely family you gave me, but please can you come down from the sky and get me now?” was the nightly prayer I recited with my nose pressed against the bedroom window. And before falling asleep I would imagine myself curling up in the arms of one of the many images I had of God in my mind—An owl, the ocean, a faerie mermaid, the Kraken, a star, a giant egg, and three towering men with heads as made of cities.

Who are we praying to?

Over the years, when it became apparent that God was not sending a spaceship to collect me, I had to make the journey to her/him/it/them/us myself. And so the God of my prayers has changed names as I have studied and practiced my way through mystical and spiritual teachings. I’ve prayed to the Divine, the Universe, Oneness, the Great Mystery, the Mother, the I Am That I Am, Shiva, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Mary, Spirit, Allah, Source, and God again… Each one possesses different qualities for me but ultimately are all bridges that lead me to the same place.

Why do we pray?

Author Michael Berg says the reasons aren’t important. “Rather, realize that prayer is an immensely worthwhile end in itself: a spiritual tool for opening channels of Light… Prayer purifies, elevates, and transforms us. It awakens our souls,” he says in his book on Kabbalistic wisdom, The Way

Prayer awakens my soul. While I cherish meditation for the expansion and peace that it brings me, prayer is the only practice I know of that allows me to express the vast love inside me that claws at my chest, yearning to get out. It is like my namaste on rocket fuel—an uncontrollable urge in me to bow down and say to the Universe, and to all who live in it: “Thank you, I love you, I love you, I love you….”

What are we praying for?

Brené Brown says she prays for love and light. Mark Nepo says he asks what use and bridge he can be. Gabby Bernstein encourages praying for guidance. Michael says to pray for others. And Meister Eckhart? According to this philosopher: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”

I’ve had my concerns about prayer. Does praying to God somehow mean we are placing this divinity outside of ourselves? Separating ourselves from the “source” in the way that religions do? I wrote to Deepak Chopra once to ask his opinion, and he assured me it was perfectly OK. “If one has a natural disposition for reverence and devotion, then it makes much more sense to be devoted to the Divine as an object rather than devotion to one’s divine self,” he said. Essentially, we should pray the way that suits us best.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, an 18th century scholar and mystic, goes as far as to say that prayer is actually how we discover that the presence of the Divine is inside of us—by endowing us with the power of prayer, God gives us the opportunity to experience His presence in the most intimate way. We discover this presence is not somewhere up in the sky when we look out from our window, but actually within ourselves.

If that is the case, then why wouldn’t we pray? It’s not only healthy for our hearts, it’s good for our souls.

How do we pray?

Over the years the expression of my prayers has evolved. During my time learning yoga, my prayers emerged as a sensual dance for Shiva. In my study of Sufism, my prayers expressed themselves as amateur guitar songs. Immersed in paganism, I planted my prayers in the form of flowers. Throughout Buddhism, the paintbrush was my medium. For Krishna, I have always chanted.

Palms together, kneeling down, in silence, out loud, singing, dancing, painting, chanting—while serving others, writing, gardening, in meditation, or upside down in headstand—it’s all a prayer if we intend it to be. Whatever we do to honor our hearts, and to find connection with whatever it is we believe in, is always—without exception—the perfect way to pray.

Nature as our Yoga Studio

(This article was originally written for Wanderlust.com)

“The birds have dissolved into the sky, and the last remaining clouds have faded away. We sit together the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.” – Li Po

You can feel the grass settling between your toes as the sole of your right foot plants more firmly into the earth, extending like a root deep down into the soil. The coolness of a breeze brushes between your shoulder blades, catching the perspiration that is beginning to form as you focus on maintaining the balance—left foot tucked into right thigh. Your fingertips, reaching skywards, are warmed by the sunlight. It travels down your palms and arms, and onto the crown of your head—the same sunlight that dances upon the trunk of a birch tree which your gaze gently holds.

All around you life comes into your awareness: the two-note whistle of a black-capped chickadee up above, the scent of pine in your nostrils, a rustle of leaves in the treetops as the breeze passes through, the tickle of a caterpillar as it crosses over your toes—but you breathe and hold steady, because this is what you are here for.

And all of a sudden, you’re no longer just “doing” Vrksasana—the tree pose—you are the tree. And a thought arises—ahh, but of course… I had simply forgotten.

Nature’s Embrace

Is there a better classroom for yoga than in the cathedral of a forest? I have never found one. I try for those cold months of the year to practice—and to teach—yoga indoors, but it’s hard to muster the same enthusiasm.

As a result, I have spent a large amount of time wondering why this is. There is no doubt that it in part can be explained by science. That exposure to vitamin D, and breathing lungfuls of clean air is better for the body than being inside. That nature has a soothing effect on the brain.

There is also the perspective that, no matter how inspired, a studio may never be as aesthetically pleasing as the great outdoors. With all love for our classmates, faced with the choice of raising up our cobra to see the sun rise over an ocean, or to greet the soles of the feet of the person on the mat in front, the former wins every time.

But that’s not it.

When we practice yoga outdoors we more easily remember our connection to the whole—which is the very point of yoga itself. It’s as if nature in her wisdom has been patiently waiting for us to come and ask her questions, and once we start our practice she receives the green light to answer us fully. And then we are enveloped in her arms.

The Essence of a Practice

We often forget that the postures are here to invoke in us certain qualities or energies. Particularly when we’re in a room surrounded by the distractions of other humans, upon who we are, by our nature, often judging (or receiving judgement from). In this environment it often becomes too easy to solely focus on alignment, and to only notice the physical aspects of an asana. We simply “do” it, rather than “become” it.

But outside in Vrksasana, with one bare foot rooted into the earth—our classmates the trees themselves, and nature holding space for us—we can begin to feel the essence of the posture. We understand how the four elements of earth, water, fire (through sunlight), and air were needed for us to be here. We understand the fragility of life in spite of our strength. A strong gust of wind could bring us down, too much sunlight could cause us to wither—we could be ridden with disease, or we may be chopped down at the hands of man—the line between the tree and our self blurs. Much like the line between the mountain and Chinese poet, Li Po, quoted above.

In this moment we begin to fully appreciate the lesson that trees (and tree pose) can teach us as we travel along our yogic path. As we stay still in our balance, butterflies may land on us or ants may travel across our rooted foot, and yet we must stay still and welcome it all, lest we ourselves fall. We are all in it together. As trees we provide shade and shelter for all those who visit us, regardless of if it is an owl, a creeping vine, or the woodcutter here to destroy us. As trees we have the deep understanding that in the circle of life, our death will bring much-needed nutrients back to the forest floor. Perseverance, allowance, unconditional love, and wisdom of the inherent oneness of us all—these are all qualities that we invoke when we practice Vrksasana.

The Sacred Studio

Take any posture out into nature, and the fullness of its expression and essence will come alive. Tadasana, the mountain pose: serenity and strength. Bhujangasana, cobra pose: wisdom, infinity, and love. Virabhadrasana, warrior pose: kindness with courage. And once we experience those qualities it is easier to assimilate them—to take them with us when we leave the forest behind.

Above all, there is a deep sacredness that I believe happens when we step out to practice under a canopy of stars, on a rocky cliff face, or in a meadow of wildflowers. That when we place our bare feet on the earth we take up our position alongside our ancestors who walked before us. Early cave painting, thousands of years B.C., depict stick figures standing, arms aloft to the sky, feet rooted in the ground. How many times have we ourselves done this very pose? Deep in our bones, or our consciousness, this practice has always been there—of being still, of listening, of learning, and of connecting to the infinite web of life. Nature is our greatest reminder, and in my humble opinion, the greatest yoga studio of all.

Yoga by the Ocean

This article was written for Wanderlust.com

There is something about the ocean that draws us in. Whether it is gazing out at the sun dancing on its surface; diving into its cool depths to become part of an underwater world of aquatic life; listening to the rhythm of its waves crashing on the shoreline; or gently bobbing up and down on top of it—the ocean soothes our souls, clears our heads, and leaves us replenished and at peace. It is a perfect complement to our yoga practice.

There is still little science to back up why the ocean has this impact, although the healing power of water was identified by our ancestors. Various forms of hydrotherapy have been recorded in ancient Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman civilizations. And in both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, the water element is integral to providing balance and harmony.

Our Original Home

It is perhaps unsurprising—given our evolution—that we experience water as a healing element. Water is as close to “home” as we can get: Our blue planet is about 70 percent water, and our distant ancestors emerged from this water to crawl, and eventually to walk, on the small amount of land there was. Indeed, we still emerge from water into existence. “We spend the first nine months of our lives immersed in the watery environment of our mother’s womb, and human fetuses still have gill-slit structures in their early stages of development,” Wallace Nichols, marine biologist, reminds us in his bestselling book Blue Mind.

There is an innate connection between the ocean and the depths of our consciousness.

Water is pivotal. Indeed, it makes up who we are. When we do emerge into the world from our mother’s wombs we are comprised of some 78 percent water. And even when that drops to 60 percent later in life, our brains are still made up of about 80 percent water. It is also, of course, our life source. We cannot live without clean water or clean air, and the ocean even plays a role in the latter—ocean plankton alone provide more than half of our planet’s oxygen. When we can see the ocean we know we are supported; on a subconscious level we can relax.

Exploring the Depths

There is also an innate connection between the ocean and the depths of our consciousness. It has an impact on the mind that Nichols has sought to explore. He calls the state invoked by time spent contemplating water or being around water the Blue Mind—“a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and the general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment”—a state not dissimilar to that induced by yoga.

He further contends that the influence of water upon meditation doesn’t detract from the practice, but rather “enhances, adds to, and expands” meditation’s benefits. The ocean, or indeed any body of water, therefore is a perfect place for a yoga practice—it supports our path of self-discovery.

By contemplating the ocean, or simply by being in its presence, something stirs within us. We are reminded of this infinite unknown state, and we are propelled to surrender to it.

It’s not a new notion. Throughout history, spiritual, philosophical, and religious texts have contemplated the ocean as a symbol of the vast infinite being that we are. In yoga’s beloved text, the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna compares our True Nature with that of an ocean that is never affected by the rivers streaming into it. The Quran refers to two seas—a surface sea that represents the manifest, and the depths below that represent the unmanifest. In the Old and New Testaments, the ocean is seen as a source of miracles—be that flooding the physical world in order to purify it, or walking upon the ocean’s surface, representing the strength of our underlying being to uphold us.

Calming the Mind

The ocean is used as a symbol of encouragement for us to dig deeper into our spiritual path. Just as 95 percent of our oceans remain unexplored, so too do the depths of our minds. Somehow, by contemplating the ocean, or simply by being in its presence, something stirs within us. We are reminded of this infinite unknown state, and we are propelled to surrender to it.

Nichols points out the ability of the ocean to allow us to enter that state of surrender. In an interview with The Huffington Post he points out that in a world of sensory overload, the simplicity of a view of the sea, or the sweet sound of the ocean can help to quell the endless thoughts. Gazing at the ocean becomes a practice of yoga’s fifth limb, pratyahara.

What better than to allow the ocean to support and encourage our spiritual path than by practicing yoga in its presence this summer. Here as a guide is a yoga sequence to help merge with the ocean outside of us and within us. In particular this sequence focuses on the second chakra (svadhisthana, or the sacral chakra) that is governed by the element water. As always, please take care when practicing in a hot or sun-filled environment, and note the contraindications of these postures.

Ocean Yoga Practice

1. Centering
In Sukhasana (Easy Pose) we begin to settle into our practice with an ujjayi breath—the ocean breath—seeing if we can let go of controlling, and instead allow the breath to merge with the ebb and flow of the tide.

2. Warming Up
Classical Surya Namaskar is a beautiful practice near the ocean. It is a prayer to the sun—the other powerful source of life. It is thanks to the sun that we have water, and so our Salutations become a practice also of gratitude for the ocean. Here we move slowly, breathing deeply, connecting in each of the 12 postures to the heart center, while allowing the warmth of the sun and the humidity of the ocean air to soften the body in this warm up.

3. Standing Slow Flow Sequence
Spending one or two minutes in each asana, we breathe an ujjayi breath, and see if we can create a smooth transition between the following postures that connect us to the Earth, open our hearts, and allow energy to flow more freely through the sacral region: Tadasana; Virabhadrasana 1 (left leg back); Virabhadrasana 2 (left side); Trikonasana (left arm extended upwards), Virabhadrasana 2 (left side), Virabhadrasana 1 (left foot still back); Tadasana; and repeating on the opposite side. We end our standing flow with Dandayamana Yoga Mudrasana (the yogic standing seal), allowing our arms to rise up to the sky at the end, drawing the ocean in front of us into our hearts.

4. Ground Sequence
There are several floor postures that seek to balance the sacral chakra. Here is a suggested sequence starting with Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) to make the transition from our standing postures to the ground, followed by 10 rounds of Cat/Cow to warm up the middle back. Deep breathing and opening our hearts to the ocean is our intention while holding these postures for one to two minutes: Salabhasana; Balasana; Bhujangasana; Balasana; Adho Mukha Svanasana; Kapotasana (right leg); Adho Mukha Svanasana; Kapotasana (left leg); Adho Mukha Svanasana; Balasana; Dandasana; Ardha Matsyendrasana (both sides); Paschimottanasana.

5. Meditation
In either Sukhasana or Vajrasana we bring our hands together into dhyana mudra representing our intention to set aside our manifest life as we dive deep into our True Nature (ourselves as an ocean) with a five-minute meditation.

6. Savasana
We complete our practice by lying on our mats, listening to the sound of the waves as we dissolve with the ocean within.

7. Gratitude
Finally we take time to offer a message of gratitude to the ocean for supporting us, and a prayer that all beings may share in our healing, and that the ocean itself may benefit.

Moon Rituals

Author’s note: This article was written for Wanderlust.com

The moon is such a powerful presence in our lives — pulling on the ocean’s tides, and creating a rhythm for all life on our planet. Whereas the phases of the moon used to be honored by people across the globe, defining our farming calendars and our own fertility, and determining celebrations and events, today much of our modern culture ignores our deep and ancient relationship with this celestial object.

A moon ritual therefore can be a great way to reconnect to the rhythms that we share with all life on Earth. It can also be a powerful tool to align with the ebb and flow of energy as we seek to foster a life of our dreams, and release the things holding us back.

The two most popular moon rituals are carried out on new moons and full moons — although three days on either side also works.

The New Moon

The new moon brings with her the opportunity for creativity — appearing dark, or empty, like fertile ground. Over the following 14 to 15 nights the moon appears to gather more light from the sun, becoming a crescent and eventually a full moon, and so brings with her the power of growth and potential. It’s a time to plant intentions for the things we want in life, and to align with the moon’s energy to help us grow those seeds. Quite literally, gardeners that work with moon phases will sow seeds of leafy and short-root plants during a new moon. As the moon waxes, its tidal pull draws water up to the top of the soil nurturing the seed.

The Full Moon

While the new moon is a time to sow seeds, the full moon is a time to pull weeds—a time to release the things that no longer serve us. As the moon brims with the sun’s energy, we offer her the things we would like her to take with her as she starts to wane over the next 14 to 15 days, emptying out back toward a new moon.

A ritual created using our own intuition is always the most powerful, and once we become more in tune with the rhythm of waxing and waning energy, that intuition will grow. Here, however, are some ideas to include in any moon ritual.

Opening Sacred Space

Ideally for a moon ritual, you would be outside under the moon, but if that’s not possible then being near a window, or even setting an intention in an indoor space will work. Whether alone or with friends, smudge yourself and the area you are going to be working in with palo santo or sage, call in the Four Directions, the Four Elements, or any angels and guides you feel would positively support your ritual, intending to share the benefits of your ritual with all beings.

Making an Offering

I like to collect fallen leaves, feathers, branches, or stones leading up to a ritual and create a mandala on the ground or on a table for the moon. Similarly, you could lay out petals or crystals (under a full moon, crystals will also have the added benefit of being charged). To represent the elements of water and fire, a glass of water and a safely-lit candle can be added to an altar — although try to let the candle burn out by itself or gently snuff it rather than blowing it out. We can also offer our thanks during our preparation, pondering the many ways the moon brings joy into our lives.

Sharing our Intentions

Take a moment if you haven’t already to write a short letter to the moon asking clearly for what you want help with. At the time of a new moon you will be asking for things to come into, or to grow in, your life. This could be a job, a baby, a new friend or partner. It could also be greater clarity around an issue, or creative energy or stamina for a specific project. You could also ask for more playfulness, joy, or laughter to blossom in your world.

During a full moon, the same letter would ask for help releasing something from your life. That could be a relationship, a thought pattern, a grudge, a physical ailment, or feelings of anger or envy. I like to release blocks that are holding me back from my dreams—so that the full moon and new moon become part of a month-long ritual. Then place your letter somewhere on your altar, where you will leave it to be received by the moon overnight, before clearing away the next day when the sun has risen.

Celebration and Closing

A ritual, while serious, is something to be celebrated. Together, or alone, you could sing, chant, read a poem, dance, or even roll through some moon salutations in honor of yourself and the moon. When you feel like your ritual is ending, close the space and give thanks to the Moon and all those that joined you in the circle.

Finally, observe how you feel for the next few days. Rituals are very powerful. After a new moon you may have insights as to how to take action toward your dreams that you won’t want to miss, and after a full moon you may be guided to rest or drink lots of water. As the moon rules the water element, a bath can also be a great post-ritual addition — and a moon phases calendar so you can plan for your next ritual.