Monday, March 31, 2014

Understanding Coltrane

I love jazz. I love Jazz because it is a language. It speaks to a culture, a sophisticated musical discipline, and a style. For the longest time, I wanted to like jazz music but didn't. Not much of it, anyway. I liked Kenny G. The first time I heard John Coltrane, all I heard was chaotic lines of complex notes hurled out the tail end of a tenor saxophone. But now, when I hear John Coltrane, I can't keep up a conversation with anyone else because of the conversation I'm having with the music. So, what's changed?

In part, I believe it was because I started to learn to play the sax. I'd always wanted to play the sax. When I was a kid, my dad asked his uncle Lester, a professional sax player, what it would take to help me appreciate playing the sax. Lester told him to start me on the piano, move to the clarinet, and then to the sax. That way I would have the rudiments of music woodwind instruments to spring me forward as I started to play the sax. I never really met Lester. There exists a sun-bleached photo of me and my entire family posing for the camera on his back porch but this was before dawn of my consciousness-I was about three and don't remember it at all. Well, Lester died. And nobody remembers exactly how, nobody remembers doing it, but somehow his horns showed up on my doorstep with my name on them. I was 13. I'd been playing the clarinet for 2 years and I was itching to start the sax. Problem was, I didn't have one. Not until that day when Lester's horns, (yep, he gave me not one but TWO saxophones, an alto and a tenor AND a clarinet) showed up thanks to a mystery and the US postal service. I scarcely remember a more exciting or more reverent day of my life than when I received those horns. They are the saxes I still play today. That day, I remember feeling like something very important had just happened to my life.

That summer, I started to blow through the horns and figured out how to finger the notes and make a decent sound before any teacher got to me. Lester was right and the clarinet and piano had paid off. As I continued to learn to play the sax, I began to learn to play jazz. And with just a little bit of experience of trying to play jazz, I began to appreciate listening to jazz. Not long after that, I loved it. With a little experience of jazz, the music meant something to me; I could understand the sounds I heard as emotions and experiences. I can hear intervals between notes, feel chord changes come and go and understand and appreciate the inherent tension and release of jazz. More than that heady stuff though, I can sit back and feel the groove and swing of it, I can feel the flavor and texture of it. I can appreciate the personalities behind the music. For me, when you're invited to see the bigger picture, I can savor the individual parts better.

This is often what happens when we begin to understand and appreciate the underlying form of almost anything be it jazz or yoga. A yoga asana is beautiful on the outside but understanding the underlying form-the mechanics of muscles, bones and even subtleties like energy and intention-makes the posture understandable, enjoyable and enlightening. Yoga is about understanding oneself deeper. Any deeper look inward, even just at anatomy, fulfills the ends of yoga.

The underlying form expresses itself clearly in the outerlying form in our yoga postures: slumped shoulders might manifest for the depressed or burdened or shy, broad shoulders for the confident, open-hearted, and gregarious. As a teacher, I can't read your mind, can't feel your soul, but I can see how your consciousness produces the product of a very engaged outer form. So in that sense, I often know whether your mind is present by how your poses look. The outerlying form reflects the under.

Of course the underlying and outer lying forms are inseparable. You can't have the pose without the energy or thought or emotion behind it, you can't have jazz without its history and culture, you can't have the blues, without feeling blue. So really what this means is to learn to see the whole picture is attuning our senses to the specifics and intricacies of a sophistication of seeing all the parts. We engage on a deeper level. It makes the practice of jazz or yoga so rich. By understanding the underlying form, we might acquire a taste for more complex things like deeper poses, meditation, Coltrane or dark chocolate. And soon we might begin to understand a little about the underlying form of all things and learn to see that with increased flavor and appreciation.
So maybe, years later, because I've learned a little about the underlying form of jazz, for my buck I'd choose John Coltrane over Kenny G, though I still understand Kenny G's technical proficiency and his beautifully clear and distinct sound. Come to practice this week and let's focus on understanding ourselves by looking at underlying form both in practical, anatomical ways as well as conscious, meditative ways.

Join me this Friday night at yoga then come and join me at the Bayou where my band, Jazz Brulee, will most surely play at least a few Coltrane tunes. Until then, if you're interested click here to hear John Coltrane play Blue Trane, in my opinion one of the best sax solos in all of jazz.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Ganesh: Guardian of the Temple

Om Gam Ganapataye Namah 

This is the chant to Ganesh, the mythical figure in Hindu iconography who represents the remover of obstacles, the gatekeeper between the earthly world and the spiritual world. Here is one version of his story. 

According the Hindu mythos, Siva and Shakti represent the primordial male and female entities of the universe, the creator and mother of the universe. They are represented by the familiar eastern symbol, the yin and yang. In this symbol, the dark side represents the female aspect of the universe (not necessarily gender), embodiment, cool, dark, and movement. The light side represents the male aspect, energy, spirit, warmth, and awareness.   

Early in the history of this myth, Siva was often away from Shakti as he attended to the responsibilities of ruling the universe. As happens with all newlyweds, eventually the honeymoon period seemed to be over between the two of them. Often, Siva would return home from his responsibilities of creating the universe and without much sensitivity, he felt entitled to Shakti's bed chamber. Shiva only craved the physical and Shakti craved the spirit. 

Once again when Siva left, Shakti mourned the lack of intimacy that they once shared. So, from her laughter, Shakti created a son and named him Ganesh. As the son of embodied movement, Ganesh was an amazing physical creature. In addition to giving Shakti companionship and love, Shakti gave Ganesh the charge of guarding the gates to her bedroom; under no circumstances was he to allow anyone to pass.  

As you may imagine, when Siva returned home, as per his habit, he marched straight toward Shakti's bed chamber and was met abruptly by this new creature, Ganesh. "None shall pass," said Ganesh (I'm thinking of Monty Python, here). Annoyed, Siva sent some of the members of his posse to go and take care of this little boy blocking the way. As the son of Shakti, Ganesh proved to be a powerful creature and probably looked like the young Vin Diesel of Hindu Gods as he cleaned house with Siva's brute force. As Ganesh was more than holding his own against his attackers, Siva started to get a little nervous.  He thought, "This won't look good if this little kid takes care of my posse. Even worse if he then schools me," Siva thought. So while Ganesh wasn't looking Siva threw his trident and beheaded Ganesh.  

Hearing all the commotion, Shakti came out of her room and saw her now dead son on the floor. She threw the stink-eye at Siva as if to say, "Fix this. NOW."  Siva, seeing that he was in hot water, told his right hand man to go and find him a head. Any head. He returned with a head-an elephant head. Siva said, "This will have to do." And with that, brought Ganesh back to life. This story taught Siva that even he needs to earn entrance into the gates of the sacred chamber, into the temple.  

The symbol of Ganesh helps to remind us of several aspects of our yoga practice as well as our practice of daily living. Many of the depictions of Ganesh show him sitting with one of his legs in the enlightened pose of lotus while his other foot rests comfortably on the ground. This teaches that while we are seeking spiritual progression, we must also keep our contact with the physical world. Even more than that, it shows that the path to spiritual expression is often through the magic and joy of the physical form. Our yoga practice is the perfect example: we move our bodies as a tool which points to the spirit. Every time I see someone roll down the road on their skateboard, I think of that soul experiencing a touch of enlightenment through the bliss of motion through time and space. Whether skating or performing asana, we allow ourselves the indulgence of the underlying form of mind and heart through the physical machinations of the body. Through the body, we give ourselves a tangible connection to spirit. 

The gateway to the body is the connection between ground and body: the pelvis and hips. This week, let's entice the sentinel, Ganesh, as we break off the rust of the gates to the temple of heart and mind and open our hips, stretch the legs, external rotators (outside of the buttocks) and the hip flexors (groins). We'll not only learn the steps to enter the gates toward the sacred chamber of heart and mind through the body, but also make the practice sweet and allow the entire journey to be a joy. My intention is to learn a little about the ancient myths of yoga while giving freedom and joy in our hips. We'll float out of class.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Freak Out First Aid

How do you respond when you get hit with something really heavy in life, and I’m not talking like a refrigerator or a Plymouth? When life really does a number on you, you get laid off, someone close to you dies or sick, you are breaking up with your love, what do you do? I usually freak out a little, sometimes a lot. And if we could somehow figure out how to harness all the energy caused by worrying, I’m sure I could power a good part of this city with my worry alone. “But Scott,” I hear you say, “surely YOU don’t get stressed or worry. After all you’re teaching other’s how to deal with those things.” To that I say, thank you very much for your confidence but that’s absurd. I can worry the best of them under the table.
And while I don’t have an immunity to worry, I do have a few tools through movement, yoga, and meditation that have really, really helped. Maybe they can help you, too.

Take a deep breath. Before the curse words come (or at least after the first really hearty one) give yourself a big breath. Sounds overly simplistic but it’s not. Yes it’s simple but it’s also very effective. If you can, breathe a few times deeply and if possible, give yourself a couple of sighs out your mouth. This technique will help relieve the surface tension off your cup which is almost ready to overflow into full melt-down mode. It will also help put blood to your brain to help you think clearly.
T   Talk to someone. I’ve been blessed with some wonderful friends in my life who have earned their calling on high after hours—days-- of listening to my plaintive worries about this and that. Sometimes, if only to hear yourself talk through your own thoughts and process, by talking it through you might come to some greater clarity about your worry. Good friends worth their salt might also remind you of your deeper nature, your capacity to overcome adversity, and give you a clear perspective because they know you. They can also call you on your own bullshit.

3.       Move your bod. Wallace Stevens wrote, “Sometimes the truth depends upon a walk around the lake.” Damn! That’s right on. Sometimes, I gotta just move my body, maybe run or get to a yoga class, breath in and out, stretch out tension from my muscles, put some blood flow into my brain and wow it’s incredible how much clarity I can get. Even if my problems don’t go away after a yoga class, I might be more clear-minded about them afterword. At very least, I don’t compound worry with feeling crappy in my body. Also, movement produces endorphins, the feel good that often will stop a downward spiral of negativity. When you know you’re in a bad space, go and buy the monthly unlimited pass and go every day. I’m serious. It will change your life.

4.       Meditate. Face the lion square in the face and take a minute to look at your worry objectively. As objectively as possible, and without judgment, notice everything about it, how it feels in your body, what it’s doing to your thoughts, where in your body you feel it. As you meditate regularly, especially when you’re not in the middle of a freak out but that works too, you become familiar with the part of you that doesn’t change when life’s events come and go. You can realize that events will come and go but your True fundamental self, your soul or spirit or consciousness, whatever, doesn’t change even when something crappy happens. Eventually you’ll start to see problems, even big and important ones, as transient against a backdrop of constant equanimity. Don’t get me wrong, this takes practice but it is real and very effective. At very least with a bit of objectivity, you’ll separate yourself from a myopic view of your problems and will hopefully be able to put them in to perspective.

5.       Action. Do something about it now, even if that is only to write down your worries or talk to a friend. Even if there is something small you can do, put something into action to feel empowered.

We all get hit with something in life. Hopefully we cultivate the tools to respond to those heavy parts when they hit. Maybe I’ll see you in class or on the trail, or be stopped at a light next to someone doing some therapeutic sighing. For those interested in meditation, even if your brand new to the idea, I’m hosting a Yoga Nidra course on Wednesday nights from 6:30-7:45 pm where I’ll lead you through a great meditation process. Talk to Prana Yoga for deets by calling 801-596-3325801-596-3325 or click here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Is Mindfulness?

What does it mean to be mindful? I'm sure we could all describe it in a different way. Some might say focused, conscious, alert, aware. How would you describe mindful? I believe that being mindful is the goal of yoga, it's what we practice, and all the other stuff like peacefulness, health, clarity, wellness, those are all byproducts of mindfulness.

Once we become practiced at mindfulness, we'll find ourselves applying it to all the other things we do in life: work, our relationships, how we spend our free time, even how we do those things we don't love doing like taking out the trash. And let's not mistake being mindful for perfect or blissed-out or even happy. It's just mindful. To have an emotion, for example, and to be perfectly mindful, is to allow yourself the capacity to be completely aware of it, completely involved. And that goes for anything. To really appreciate time with our kids, practicing yoga, the enjoyment of a meal, or enjoying whatever we like to do, we need to be mindful, lest that fun or those flavors pass by unnoticed.

But maybe because of this mindfulness, we'll have experiences and see that what we are isn't defined by them, that what we truly are is bigger than that emotion, that time with our kids, or that yoga posture. And it's by being mindful we can actually use the experience of an emotion or yoga pose or whatever to witness our true identity, which is mindfulness itself. The emotion or whatever is simply the brushstroke on the canvas of mindfulness. Don't mistake the brushstroke as the painting. If it weren't for the canvas, there could be no brushstroke.

So as we are in yoga practice this week, let's practice understanding our True Nature by practicing mindfulness. I also invite you to practice being mindful as you leave your house to go about your day or drive to work. Notice everything: the feeling of the steering wheel (or handlebars), the feeling of the road beneath you, the flow of traffic, the song on the radio.

See you in class.