Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When Life Gets Real.

Something happens when life slaps you in the face. You wake up from that doldrum dream of your tired routine and start to see what is really going on. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes tragedy to strike before we realize how far we had dozed off into a life of meaninglessness.

The spiritual teacher Pema Chodron says, "Before we can know what natural warmth really is, often we must experience loss. . . .The natural warmth that emerges when we experience pain includes all the heart qualities: love, compassion, gratitude, tenderness in any form. These feelings that we've become so accomplished at avoiding can soften us, transform us." (Shambala Sun Nov. 2009)

Years ago, my wife, Celeste said something similar when faced with the stark reality of a friends death: "When you prepare to die, or get close to death (perhaps someone you know), you might finally get awake enough to realize and experience the part of yourself that doesn't die. You are free in that moment. I am alive in that moment. I am experiencing everything in that moment. And I am grateful and I weep--thank you, Missy Barron for your presence and the reminder. You pass in to that place of the whole. You remind us to experience ourselves as whole and alive more often." (Please read the whole story: Destiny's Willing Student.)

Yoga helps us practice mindfulness so that we can live fully and appreciate life every day, and not only when tragedy knocks you about the head. Yoga is not an escape from life but a way to carve right into the heart of it, with presence, so that every day is beautiful, not only the ones after near misses.

May I suggest this week we practice experiencing this rich and colorful life, and let it open our hearts.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I'll Take "Inner Guru" for 500, Please.

All good teachers or interviewers know that the secret to evoking answers lies in asking the right questions.

As I was training to teach yoga, I would meet regularly with my teachers. We'd practice together. My teachers were available to answer questions I had. After several weeks of working together like this, I found that sometimes entire sessions would pass, their expertise readily available, and I hadn't so much as said hello to them. I really wanted to engage them; I wanted to be taught by them but didn't know what to ask. I came to understand that my teachers were willing to give me what I asked for. Judging by the type and quality of my questions, my teachers understood how much and what type of teaching I was ready to absorb. If I wasn't asking, they weren't teaching. In these sessions, they gave neither unsolicited information nor information I wasn't ready to absorb.

I started to formulate questions, often several days before our sessions. By searching and contemplating, I was amazed at how many of my questions were answered by experience and my own insight before I even proffered them to my teachers. The questions that did make it to my teachers were refined; they were specific, honed. With this specificity, my teachers and I were able to engage on the level I had craved.

After years of study, I approached one of my teachers and with wonder and confusion in my eyes I asked, "All of this knowledge is beautiful and inspiring, but what does it have to do with teaching a yoga class?" Wisely, my teacher smiled and without saying a word, she simply shook her head. Nothing else needed be said. I knew I was to find this out for myself. This question lit a flame inside me to find the answer. Years later, I'm still looking for this answer, pleased with each new discovery that seems to piece together the puzzle. Not long after, I asked my other teacher who was moving, "What else do I need to know? How will I be taught?" To which he looked at me solemnly and said, "You have everything you need. You have the answers."

And somewhere inside we do have the answers, or at very least something inside knows where to look. Yoga is in part understanding our place in this Universe and appreciating the conversation between us and it. It seems to me that our opportunity to participate in this conversation depends largely on the questions that we ask, by how much we search. If we aren't asking, our teachers aren't teaching. Searching for and asking the right questions refines the listening of our everyday lives and prepares us for the type of learning we hope for. Carrying these questions into our yoga practice, our meditations, prayers, work, and daily lives prepares us to receive answers, sometimes in the least likely of ways. It teaches us in the ways we crave for.

Sometimes it is just enough to ask the question. Let the answer come organically, when it's time for you to receive it. In the meantime, enjoy the game of watching the Universe respond. Enjoy the mindfulness of listening. Herein lies many of our answers. And maybe there are no answers. This is the answer.

Every part of you has a secret language.
Your hands and your feet say what you've done.
And every need brings in what's needed.
Pain bears its cure like a child
Having nothing produces provisions.
Ask a difficult question,
And the marvelous answer appears.


I encourage you to contemplate your big questions. Bring them to yoga class and listen, feel, experience the ways your practice, your inner-knowing, responds.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Coming Home

A really good friend of mine today bemoaned the fact she hasn't been to yoga in awhile. She said her body and heart and mind all missed it. She's been neglecting this important and basic way of taking care of herself, and now she's feeling it. At a time when she needs it most (school, kids, relationships, LIFE), she let it go.
Without yoga, her well was running dry. And even though she was hiking and biking, her body missed the consummate depth and body/mind/spirit connection of a yoga practice.
Now she's committed to coming back again and taking care of herself as a first priority, as a way of replenishing the source.

There really is something special about a yoga practice. The way it meets the needs of both body and soul is hard to replace. The way it gives such a focus to all the other aspects of life. The way it energizes you and provides deep relaxation. The way it makes everything make sense.

Does this situation sound familiar? We all go through this. And sometimes it can be difficult and overwhelming to come back. But, like my friend, you eventually reach the point of understanding that going to yoga practice is about honoring yourself. Taking care of yourself is taking care of all the other aspects of your life. Besides, it just feels so dad gum good.

Even if you can't make it to a practice, on your own do 5 minutes of something: a few favorite asanas, some deep breathing, some smiling. Try counting your breaths down from 50, focusing on LONG exhales.

So I invite you to come back. You'll be met with a smile. And it'll feel great.
Welcome back home,


Monday, September 14, 2009

A Holy Moment in Hell

It was my Folsom Prison moment. I stood there on stage with my sax around my neck, stunned like a trapped animal while 200 prison inmates wearing light-blue prison scrubs came walking single-file past guards wielding shotguns into the meeting room. The inmates quietly took their seats and looked up at the 4 of us with silent anticipation. We stood on the stage and met their stares in a speechless tremble.

Months previous, a relative asked if I knew anyone who could possibly tune the prison pianos where her uncle was incarcerated at the maximum security Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. The piano player in my band tunes piano as his day job and had agreed to tune the pianos and suggested we bring the whole band down for a concert. Brilliant!

Up to this point, the idea of playing in a prison had seemed pretty nostalgic, but I hadn't realized how proximal I'd be to these guys. . . you know, the criminals. As we were setting up, I kept looking over my shoulder. I couldn't help but be suspicious. I mean these guys were in here for doing really, really bad things, right? You don't arrive at a maximum security penitentiary for shoplifting candy from convenience stores

Once everyone was seated, the crowd turned very quiet and all eyes bored strait into us. The lights dimmed except a spotlight that shone directly into our eyes. I turned and faced the band as much to escape the probing glares of the criminals as to begin the concert. "Alright, everyone," I said to the band with counterfeit confidence, "Blue Skies," and began to snap in time, counting off the first tune. Our singer's voice came in with: "Blue Skies, smiling at me, nothing but blue skies, do I see." After the tune, I expected the audience to be silent, like they way they came in, and feared possibly worse, a snicker or a boo. And for a second or two there was nothing but silence. Then, almost like someone had cued them, suddenly the room erupted with applause and cheers.

With only slightly more confidence, we entered the next tune: It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing. We played the melody, and then I nodded to Brig, the piano player, to take a solo. He bowed his head in an act that seemed like reverence to the piano and began to play--or maybe he, too, was praying. He got right to work and pounded out a great solo, his fingers rippling along the keyboard like a small blur of falling water. After a couple of choruses, he nodded to me.

My turn. I closed my eyes and put my horn in my mouth. Then something magical happened. The feeling in the room turned completely electric. Even with my eyes closed, I became vividly aware of this impossibly perfect moment. Every eye and ear was riveted on me. I held everyone's complete and unflinching attention. We were their prison visitors who were bringing them Blue Skies and a chance to swing a little. Suddenly, I relaxed and my playing opened up. Something incredible was channeled inside me as I began to sing out the bell of my horn. Maybe I was channeling my great uncle, Lester, who had given me his horns when he died, the horns I was playing on then and still play now, the horns that I believe still hold a portion of him.

I played. And I played, and I played, and I played and let whatever grace my soul held at that moment find some sultry voice out the end of my saxophone. A sound came out that I'd never heard before. Notes like I'd never imagined flew off my fingers and out my horn into the ears and minds and hearts of 200 expectant people. I was in conversation with something inside that I didn't know, something that had never been tapped. And though I had never driven this thing before, whatever it was, I stomped the pedal to the floor. I'm convinced that I was not the only one that night to feel this pulse, this magic.

Eventually, I finished my solo, we played once more through the melody, and in unison, we stopped together after riffing on "Do wa, do wa, do wa, do wa, do wa, do wa, do WA!" Then, without even a fraction of a pause, out burst deafening cheers and whistles, an applause twice as loud and long as the previous. I couldn't control myself from laughing: it was a mixture of equal parts self-consciousness and pure amazement at what I'd found in my soul and had somehow translated through my saxophone. It was feeling the excitement and appreciation and somehow even the love of these people in the audience, these prisoners who for a moment were free. Brig leaned over and shouted above the applause, "Scottro! That was the best you have ever played!" It was the single most incredible musical experience I've had in my life. And I realized that for a moment we were all the same: we were all in prison and we were all free, groovin' on jazz and feeling something together.

The band played several more tunes, played a few encores, and then the lights came on. With a rush, I looked happily into the crowd and I saw smiles and happy faces. I didn't see criminals anymore. I saw people. They hadn't changed, of course. I had. I saw past the prison ID sewn on the chest down to the heart of these people that held a fundamental identity of goodness. I put my horn down and stepped off the stage and walked into the crowd and was welcomed with handshakes, slaps on the back, and congratulations and thank you's from these new friends, many of whom had an impressive knowledge of jazz music. "Hey, I used to play the trumpet!" one guy said. "My son plays the saxophone," another one interrupted. These were regular people.

As we were driving home, completely elated, I realized that if given the chance, I was capable of accessing something beautiful and amazing and unknown inside me. And if that magical part could be somehow liberated and expressed in me, then such was true for each person, even those doing time in prison, despite whatever sour notes they may have played in the past.

This is the essence of yoga. This is oneness.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Running in the Light of Darkness

A few years ago, I was with my wife, Celeste, and our friend Ben spending an afternoon in the paradoxical desert of the Great Salt lake. The texture of the sand, crusted with salt, weather, and time is a sensational feast for bare feat. We played a game: in this extremely barren , extremely flat land, we decided to close our eyes and run blindly at full speed in any direction for 100 paces. Eager for the adventure, we closed our eyes and shouted, "GO!" I bolted into the darkness of the afternoon sun. My other senses came alive. I could smell the mud, the salt, the sulfur, the decaying brine. I felt the texture of crusty-soft sand beneath my feet as they beat across the surface of the desert. I could hear my companions several paces from me, their feet slapping the sand, laughing and panting.

Then a thought entered into my head, "Hadn't I seen some ominous-looking spikes sticking out of the sand? I would reallyprefer not to impale my foot on one of those." Regardless, I tightened my closed eyes, quikcened my pace, and began to laugh, wild with wonder and worry. " . . .53, 54, 55 . . . " My paces were whizzing by but the thought of stepping blindly onto something sharp had almost put me into a panic. " . . .71, 72, 73 . . . " I could no longer hear my fellow runners and wondered if I'd veered wildly off-course. " . . .83,84,85 . . ." Still running with only fifteen paces to go, I desperately wanted to stop and open my eyes. Instead, I let out all the stops, opened my running to as fast as I could, and sprinted madly in any direction, no direction, the only direction--forward. From deep in my gut came a raw and uncontrolled cream of anticipation and fear and fun. ". . .98,99,100!" at which point I dug my feet into the sand and did and immediate halt. I stood there panting then slowly opened up my eyes and looked down at my feet, muddy, unspoiled, unharmed, these feet who willingly had leapt me through space as I ran through the darkeness toward fear, away from fear. After a moment, I looked up and around for any spikes. None. Nothing for miles. What a rush!

An important concept as explained in the Yoga Sutras explores the relationship between perceptions and actions. If our perceptions are incorrect, we'll often find ourselves in difficulty or fear. if we know what creates such problems, it is easier to avoid them. If I knew for sure that there were no obstacles in my path, I'd have had an easy run. These misperceptions are called Avidya. One of the most common misperceptions is called Dvesa, the action of rejecting things because of fear. We have a difficult experience and are afraid of repeating it so we project the effects of the past to try to illuminate the future and end up making our present moment unpleasant. Unfortunately the effects of Dvesa tend to make us reject things that are unfamiliar, even if we have no history with them. Along human history, we've often been afraid of and rejected that which we haven't understood.

Until we are enlightened, it is impossible to avoid all fears, and therefore we have a model to face those that remain with a sense of adventure. I've referenced a few times one of my favorite movies, Wings of Desire (if you haven't seen it, go out and rent it tonight but bring a glass of milk to wash it down--it's rich). In this film, an angel, Damiel, decides he'd prefer to live one life, fully human, sentient, and alive, than an eternity of the colorless, only observational life of an angel. Once mortal, Damiel happens upon another angel-turned-mortal (who, interestingly, is Peter Falk playing himself). Damiel pleas for Falk to tell him everything there is to know about being human, he want's Falk to solve this mystery for him. Peter Falk turns to Damiel and playfully shouts, "No you have to figure it out for yourself. That's the fun of it!" You've got to shut your eyes and run full-out and experience what you are going to experience. Since we can't avoid all fears, to the extent that it is possible, we must somehow learn to see the beauty and adventure in them.

Even in our fears and failings there is amazement and beauty. Poet David Ignetow says, I wish I knew the beauty of leaves falling. To Whom are we beautiful as we go?" He says that even in our failing, there is a part of the Universte that finds us astonishing in that going. In yoga, we explore the relationship between what is personal and what is universal--the Universal inside. Therefore, there is a conrner of your heart that can grant a magnificence to the most difficult of circumstances.

Through yoga and mindfulness, we learn and experience more about our Ture Self, Home, who's opposite is fear and worry. With the remembrance of our True Self, we are less and less persuaded by Dvesa's misperception of fear. Against the backdrop of the magnificence of our True Self, even the smallest understanding of it, many of our fears simply dissolve. And from this courageous plce, we face what fears remain with presence and boldness. We run into the darkenss screaming, laughing, and fully alive.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Wendell Berry