by Prema Meditation Teacher Miriam Bekkouche
There's a calm, clear, and peaceful quality to simplicity. It is an formidable antidote to the dizzying frenzy that comes from a feeling that I need to be more, have more, or think more (and have something to show for it). Choosing simplicity immediately offers my mind and body a feeling of ease from which I can find the space to breathe. And, then, it is only a matter of moments before fight softens into flow and angst melts into observation.
When I find myself resisting simplicity, I know I've stumbled upon some fertile grounds for growth. One of my favorite thoughts to catch myself with is "simple is boring". Maneuvering through this one with compassion, I ask myself "what if simple were enough?" and set out to explore what lies beyond the boredom.
What I've learned so far is that simplicity contains great depth. It is not the opposite of complexity, but rather a marvelous distiller of essence. Simplicity - when abided to with purpose - allows me to cultivate a harmonious relationship with myself and others.
March: Transitions & Surya Namaskar
by Prema owner Amanda Harding
for many reasons i begin with this version of a sun salutation, or surya namaskar, each day – 5 times in a quiet, pretty and clean space in my home – even if it is the only physical practice i get to receive that day. with kids, it often is and it has become enough.
the breath: it connects me very clearly with the rhythm of my breath and enables me to be accountable for moving consciously into that rhythm. each movement of the body is on an in or out breath. i can feel how my breath supports the execution of the postures and allows for space to unfold. my mind can be drawn inwards to the quality of the breath and softness, tenderness and attention is cultivated. in the morning, this is so helpful before all the external stimulants begin to fight to take over.
the body: the body moves into backbends and forward bends, the spine develops suppleness, the side, front and back of the body lengthens, body inverts. it is balancing and grounding, energizing and soothing all at the same time.
the heart: i awake with an intention to be drawn into the qualities i find important and these physical movements are a morning prayer of gratitude for me. a teaching i always remember from jack kornfield is that when we begin each day grateful – even if we are going through heartache and suffering – it enables us to connect with feelings of innate joy and contentedness no matter what. through the power of repetition, we begin to abide in these qualities over time.
we can find these ways each day to retreat inward and practice being connected to the source – symbolic of the sun – that will deliver us answers by peeling away the complexity. 5 minutes, 10 minutes, give permission to stop and have a look and congratulate ourselves on having a go at this thing called life. allowing the hard work of gripping to do something or be somebody else settle into the comfiness of being led by our own inner guide. this is the beauty of the yoga practice for me.
November: Gratitude & Seated Twists
(by Prema Teacher Maria Cutrona)
continued from home page
...Years later I met a woman who said to me. “Oh you’re so fortunate. You have someone on the other side watching over you”. Her comment was an awakening for me. Lifting me out of the stupor of my pain, this woman brought back the precious gift my mother had imparted to us.
My mother was no doubt an angel disguised as an ordinary being. She constantly put the needs of others before her own. She reminded us to reflect on gratitude for what we have and inspired in each of us the idea of service to others. “Think of other’s more distressed and breathe to them a prayer” were her words of consolation when life met us with a challenge. My mother believed in the power of prayer and was constantly uplifting others in her heart . Every day. A chalkboard in our kitchen bore the names of everyone she prayed for ; extending her circle of love past our immediate family ,this chalkboard was always full.
I had forgotten her gift to me and was raging my way through life. This reconnection to my mother’s central teaching freed me from the enslavement of my own self pity. I was reminded how precious life is and how blessed I am. Through gratitude we can connect to the miracles all around us, all the time. Each day, every moment, every challenge and every triumph, an opportunity to celebrate life’s blessings. It is gratitude that always brings me back to love. It is gratitude that is my daily practice each morning when I wake. Thank you Mary Grace.
July: Intention & Pincha Mayurasana
(By Prema owner Amanda Harding)
retreat inward. it is hard. we are pulled. constantly comparing ourselves, everywhere we look someone having, doing, living better lives than we can or ever will.
we tell ourselves that. and by doing that we move further away from the most divine version of ourselves. we disconnect, we condemn, out come the words seemingly innocuous, outwardly judging but inside secretly coveting. we then perhaps get angry, sad, frustrated with ourselves for the narrative. we are exhausted. we are stuck.
we can’t breath. where to now? what might we be missing about our own beautiful uniqueness when we spend time wishing we had what someone else does, typically not even knowing what it is they really have? what could we be doing instead?
sitting with ourselves, delighting in all the successes our kindred spirits are having, and focusing on realizing, seeing, digging for the great gifts we have been given - big, small and everywhere in between. we could relax into that place with confidence, without struggle and truly understand our only duty is to bring forth what is within us. when our intention becomes focused on that inward connection, we may actually locate what our gifts are, if they have alluded us for so long. there is no expiration date on finding our passions. no matter how insignificant we think they might be.that’s not for us to judge. as the bhagavad gita says, we cannot be anyone we want to be. transformation, freedom, contentment, joy for us happens when we settle into who we actually are.
so…keep finding ways each day to retreat inward and practice being connected to the source that will deliver us answers by peeling away the complexity. 5 minutes, 15 minutes, give permission to stop and have a look and congratulate ourselves on having a go at this thing called life. allowing the hard work of gripping to be or do something else settle into the comfiness of being led by our own inner guide. this isn’t passive, it’s highly charged and active in the world and transformative not just for ourselves but for others. because when we are led, all the moving entities in our lives are touched for the better.
June: Kirtan & Sukhasana
...continued (by Prema owner Amanda Harding)
...To see myself as joined to others and to a source unknown but surely greater than myself
To practice bringing true intention to the words I choose to speak
To know there is a place of refuge that can hold all the many parts of me no matter which part shows up
To allow myself to simply show up and receive
To channel the beautiful energy of my children who sing and dance because...it just makes them happy
This is why kirtan (chanting) is a meditative practice for me. I hope you will join us this month as we explore Kirtan at Prema.
May: Satya & Urdhva Dhanuarasana
by Prema Teacher Aaron Dias continued...
Putting my own behavior under the microscope I find that I am tempted to tell "little white lies" when I fear that the real truth is embarrassing or guilt-inducing or just not good enough in some way. Either I feel flawed and I want to cover it up or make excuses for it. (It wasn't me! The trains took forever. Mercury is in retrograde! My mother wasn't loving. I can't help it!) Or maybe I think that someone else is flawed but I don't want to hurt their feelings so I offer something that I think they will prefer to the truth. (It looks amazing! I would love to but I have other plans. Oh, I'm not bothered by that thing you did at all! Aw, you can't help it.)
To practice satya means to resist the urge to give reality a make-over. When I strive for this something interesting happens. Instead of feeling more shame, I feel much less. I start learning to accept reality as it is which initiates a sense of ease. It's ok to be late or confused or irritable or wrong sometimes? I don't have to hide it? What a relief! This also frees us up for organic self-evolution. If I accept my negative qualities and find that I still want to change them, it is much easier to do so with them up on the table than shoved under a rug. The lying habit promotes some idea of perfection (whatever that is), while the truthful self says, "Humans are whole beings with flaws and all!," and works from there. The honest self teaches us how to embrace other people's wholeness too. Satya motivates us to really look at another person instead of instantly judging what's wrong with them. This inspires us to be more perceptive, thoughtful and creative when we size up another person or situation. Where once we saw negativity and felt the need to paint it gold, now we see a glint of goodness wherever we look. Then there is no need to defile the truth, to bend it, mask it, or sugar-coat it to suit some made-up idea of how things ought to be. For the yogi, the truth is good enough just as it is.
april: Stillness & Savasana
this month's contributions by Leah Fox, Marcus Berardino and Colleen Carey
by Leah Fox (Participant of the Prema Mentorship Program)
"Magic happens within the moments of stillness and the surrender of savasana. Something deceivingly simple as doing nothing, is tremendously rewarding - but can be difficult to practice. It's when I'm the busiest that I need to pause the most, yet it is in those times where it feels highly impossible. I become tricked into believing that I have no time for any space in my day to be quiet - to connect to my breath, drop into a down dog, journal, or meditate..."
"So I fill whatever space I have with as much as I can cram in - even though it feels so good to empty. I remind myself over and over, there is tremendous power in stillness - in lying down with palms facing upward absorbing and receiving. In asking. In doing less. In playing more. And when I forget, which I almost always do - I close my eyes and return to the breath so I can let the mind settle - and get quiet until I feel good again."
Six Days in Silence
by Prema Yoga Teacher Marcus Berardino
“That sounds abominable” was my friend Alberto’s reaction when I told him I’d be spending six days at a silent meditation retreat on an isolated mountaintop. You see, Alberto had invited me to he and his husband’s farmhouse in Pennsylvania to spend that week eating delicious homemade dinners, drinking exquisite wines, lounging on their giant-sized sofa by the fireplace and occasional naps with their two pugs, Herman and Betty. I kindly declined and instead, explained I’d be attending a meditation retreat with a hundred strangers and no access to the outside world – no phone, computer, internet or music. I would be served three sparse meals a day, wake at 5 to sit and breath, sit and breath, sit and breath, over and over again, until nightfall and bedtime at 9. Every day the same. The definition of “abominable” is causing moral revulsion or something very bad or unpleasant. Indeed, after Alberto’s take on my plans, I too felt like I was heading for an unpleasant experience, one that I’d freely chosen.
After much thought on my decision to self-surrender my brain and forgo a trip to gay Mayberry with my boys and pugs, I started to realize that I genuinely needed to do this. In fact, I salivated at the idea of unplugging from my professional, social, familial, financial and personal endeavors. Unplugging from being an almost-becoming-neurotic New Yorker. Unplugging from that person who struggles with, ‘What’s next?’ or ‘What am I doing here?’ or ‘Why this, not that?’ or ‘Why me, why not me?’ Unplugging from the world of FacebookInstagramGmailHuffpost NPRSpotifyPandoraiTunesetcetc. The ‘world’ of i: Phones, Pads, Pods, tablets, computers. This looked more and more attractive to me as I thought about it, since social media and the way the world turns can sometimes be the real cause for moral revulsion or unpleasant experience. Then there’s unplugging from the constant mind chatter (I’ll get to that). With great clarity, I beamed, a week of silence is exactly what I needed.
According to the book “In Pursuit of Silence” by George Prochnik, researchers studying the brain through fMRI’s have discovered that “the peak of positive brain activity actually occurs in the silent pauses between sounds, when the brain is striving to anticipate what the next note will be.” He goes on, “The burst of neural firing that takes place in the absence of sound stimulus enables the mind to perform some of its most vital work.” Prochnik says “even brief silence, can inject us with a fertile unknown: a space in which to focus and absorb experience — a reflection that some things we cannot put into words are yet resoundingly real; a reawakening to our dependency on something greater than ourselves.”
With that in mind, I entered the vast snow-and-ice-covered Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, ready to reawaken my vital spaces and discover a fertile unknown. An unknown that’s far away from my chattering mind-life in NYC.
Insight Meditation Society (IMS) was founded in 1976 by Vipassana meditation teachers Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein. It is situated on the idyllic and, fittingly named (depending on how you look at what goes on there), Pleasant Street. It is a large complex of buildings, some newer, some older, all cobbled together and connected by what they’ve aptly named “The Connector” – a hallway attached to the three main houses for student residences. The main structure is quite simple and cozy, with a large kitchen, several areas for walking meditation and a very spacious and beautiful Meditation Hall (which is our real home for the next six days).The title of the retreat was ‘Mindful of the Body.’ The focus was to use the Buddhist principles of ‘awakening the heart’ in order to surrender to the wisdom of the dying body. Through this loving practice of mindful awareness of breath, we can recognize greater joy in our sometimes mundane day-to-day lives. It’s a teaching I connect with, and probably the main reason why I’m so drawn to the mindful, heart-based practices of yoga and meditation.
On our first evening, we assembled to begin our journey together into the silence. We were encouraged to hand in our phones the first morning of the retreat – this was easy for me, since the phone seems to be the gateway drug to my insane modern day life. They also asked us to refrain from writing or journaling of any sorts, and no reading books – this, not so easy, since I had been looking forward to catching up on a book I’d been reading about the “History of Punk Rock” - hardly a subject matter to tackle while away on a meditation retreat - but that was the condition of my mind going in. We were expected to be completely silent even while meandering about the facility. Also, silence during our yogi work time and while eating meals together. If someone does a kind deed, such as holding the door for you, we were told to avoid eye contact, but instead send them ‘loving kindness.’ This was especially hard for me, since I’m one of those rare breeds of New Yorker who walks around the city trying to make eye contact with others. We were encouraged to wear simple clothes without bright colors and to wear no perfumes or scented oils. This was a solo journey we would take together but apart, and stripping away the senses and putting up boundaries would channel our journey inward, with nothing to get in the way. IMS is dedicated “to providing a spiritual refuge for all who seek freedom of mind and heart.” Therefore, looking at someone, even if with a nod or ‘thank you,’ can momentarily take the object of your kindness out of their experience of themselves. I planned to do my best and was almost secretly excited about all of these rules. My doubts began to re-surface during the end of the first day. I was told by veterans of these retreats that if you can get through the first 2-3 days, the rest of the retreat becomes easier. The early part is a detox phase. “How can I do this?” I bemoaned. Meditating 8-10 sittings a day, then, when not sitting, ’walking’ in meditation?! The 45-minute sit was especially grueling, and so I began to feel like I was losing my mind - perhaps this was the intension? Losing my mind was putting it mildly; I actually was frightened of my mind like it was an unruly stranger I had never met. The simple instructions were to follow the breath and “note” the thought when one arose, as it surely would again and again, and then return to the breath with a kind heart toward yourself and the process. Catch yourself and arrive back at the present moment, they told us, over and over and over. I soon realized how much my mind isn’t always fond of this present moment thing, especially stripped bare and sitting cross-legged for hours on end in a room full of strangers. Yes, I felt like I was going crazy.
Yellow people walking through my head
One of them’s got a gun, to shoot the other one
And yet they were friends at school….
But we’re never gonna survive, unless
We get a little crazy
- Seal, “Crazy"
Perhaps we have to be comfortable with a little crazy in our heads? I began to notice how the quieting of the external world turns on the internal chatter. Perhaps we’re meant to be with our ‘crazy’ instead of living our crazy, I thought. In the absence of distractions, I saw my mind like a monkey; thoughts bounced from tree to tree, thoughts about my friends and family. My brother Perry, who died in 2009, was the first to say ‘hello.’ Then came a deluge. Memories poured over the dam, from as far back as 30 years, and a rush of joyful and painful times roared in. When I wasn’t avoiding nodding off to sleep, a weird daydreaming ensued. If I had been able to write those stories at the time, I’m sure I could have had the makings of the next best sci-fi thriller. Inevitably, the more emotional issues arrived as anger, jealousy, joy, contentment. In Buddhism, they teach the various “realms of existence” – I found that my mind journeyed from a realm resembling hell to one closer to heaven, and then back again. There were moments when I felt blissfully free of the monkey, but those moments then crashed away and were replaced with an insane or weird thought, an emotion, an aching lower back, hip or shoulder, a daydream, or a strong urge to fall asleep again. Then, as in life, I tried my best to find my breath, in and out, noting with self-compassion the thoughts that entered. It wasn’t easy, but at some point three days in, it began to feel liberating.
“We may be in the habit of manifesting seeds of anger, sorrow, and fear in our mind consciousness; seeds of joy, happiness, and peace may not sprout up much. To practice mindfulness means to recognize each seed as it comes up and to practice watering the most wholesome seeds whenever possible, to help them grow stronger.” - Thich Nhat Hanh, “Touching Peace”
When the silence of the retreat broke on the final day, we were able to speak and hear each other’s voices for the first time. A Vipassana Crush - which is the phenomena that happens (along with your Vipassana Enemy) at some point during the retreat, whereupon your mind creates grandiose stories, either good or bad, about another person on retreat, and of course these stories only take place in your own mind. When I heard my V crush speak finally, he turned out to have a British accent (why didn’t I think of that?) and we were not only planning our wild wedding and lives together, but now, moving to the English countryside to live happily ever after - my own Mayberry with our own pugs, of course. Ah, the mind…
Upon my “re-entry” into New York, friends asked me, “Did you enjoy your time?” I’m not sure a silent meditation retreat is meant to be enjoyed, but experienced. I did enjoy ‘unplugging’ and, when I returned, I wasn’t ready or even willing to turn my phone on when I did. I enjoyed the opportunity to go on a journey with my mind, no matter the labyrinth it careened into. So I ask myself now, what was my epiphany? What did I learn? Would I do it again? I’m sure as the weeks turn, more reflections will stir. Even writing this feels like the tip of the iceberg, but I’ll leave you with these blaring lessons. In the silence, I discovered….
Beginning with myself and branching out to others. The reaction I had toward the 'anger' visitor was frustration and sorrow, especially for my sometimes confusion about not knowing what I want, or how to ask for what I need, or how to ask for what I need if I don't know what I want. Others surely feel this too, I thought? Then, there’s the anger I have for the wrongs I see in the world, the corruption and evil. At the retreat we were told to “listen with our hearts.” When I got back, I was reminded of a personal ritual I used to do before getting out of bed in the morning. I would recite the “The Serenity Prayer” - recite and listen to it with all my heart. I’m going to reincorporate that into my routine as a way to surrender and also as a way to inspire. Being back now, I’ve already found myself following my breath at random times during a hectic day, in order to watch my reactions and to see where my mind wants to take me. Is it a good place to go, I check in, or not? I’m also looking to volunteer for a social justice organization to help me deal with the frustrations I feel when recognizing the injustices I see in the world. Even in small ways, I can help.
Slowing down practice
I realized only by quieting the outside world could I see the fast motion of my life passing me by. Watching folks at the retreat walking around looking like zombies (walking mindfully) initially freaked me out. Then I got to thinking how I move about in NYC as the real freak. Sadly, I admit, I too often curse at pedestrians or drivers while biking through the city. Running to get to a yoga class or give a massage. Sprinting to catch a train, or annoyed with tourists in my way. These types of behaviors are abnormal. The Sanskrit word “maya,” or illusion, would have me believe they are the norm. Maya has me believing that New York City is the city that never sleeps. Well, I realized, it doesn't have to operate that way. Perhaps walking slowly with deliberation is how we should walk? Therefore, I'd like to slow down and enjoy my life more. They say the days of our lives are long, but the years are short. As I enter into the mid-life of this body, I recognize this truth and intend to enjoy my breath with as much joy and clarity as possible. Sit, walk, talk, move and live, following the breath in and out with compassion.
Self Care = Better Care For Others
I also plan to take better care of myself. As someone who works in the healing profession, we are often the worst at taking care of ourselves. As a teacher of yoga, how do I educate and inspire others, if I’m not taking care of myself? As a massage practitioner, how do I heal and sooth others, if I’m not taking care of myself? Talk about crazy…
And…will I do it all again? Absolutely.
permission to rest
by Colleen Carey (Prema Mentorship Student)
Many of us come to yoga to reconnect with ourselves and the present moment. We twist and turn and push ourselves to go further, to improve ourselves and our practice. Once all the work is done, we finally give permission to the self to rest and lie down for a few minutes in Savasana. Savasana (or corpse pose) can be one of the most advanced poses - it is not easy to surrender. But with practice, it gets easier. Gradually, we can let go and find the stillness in the body and the mind. By thoughtfully placing the body in rest, we can regulate the flow of energy in the body and thus allow space for recuperation and relaxation.
But what if we didn't wait until the work was finished to give ourselves permission to rest? Imagine if we allowed ourselves these moments of stillness before we finished all the work, or checked all the items off our to-do list. It is in the stillness that we can embrace the present moment and connect with our true selves. This month we invite you to join us as we surrender in Savasana and explore the possibilities that await us in the stillness.
march: repetition & play
by Frances Dirks (Participant of the Prema Mentorship Program)
Repetition is an opportunity to hone my skills- on my yoga mat, in my work, in all that I do each day. Repetition by nature is a practice. For me it is the foundation of my daily life. It is where my day begins and ends, and with mindfulness I choose to build my days this way. With this choice I honor the minute, the mundane, the sacred and the beautiful that is present in my every day life.
Play is letting go of repetition or allowing for the unexpected to enter into our experience with grace. It is a time to be free, open, curious, spontaneous, and creative. When I allow myself to play I release all the work and with laughter I find a lightness and joy that fills me like the sun. Once energized like this, a lasting radiance and expansion comes with it. I take that expansion and radiance with me, feeling lighter, free and refreshed as I begin anew.