Thursday, January 24, 2008

Real Life: Mount Madonna Center

"There's this place..."

That's how I always start my description of Mount Madonna Center. If it sounds mysterious, it is...and it isn't.

Almost 30 years ago, a small group of hippies wanted to start a commune together so they could "escape" normal American life. They lived in Santa Cruz and had started learning about Yoga. Their teacher was a small Indian man with fire in his eyes and dreadlocks down to his toes. His name was Baba Hari Dass and he came from Northern India. There was one very distinctive thing about this man...he didn't speak...ever! He had taken a vow of silence in 1952 and had not spoken since. He used a small chalkboard hung around his neck to communicate. Babaji also showed them amazing asanas & breathing exercises, shared Yoga philosophy and traditional stories - the Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, etc., and taught them about Karma Yoga - union through action...or selfless service.

So, these hippies had been learning about Yoga from this man and they decided they wanted to hide out in the forest and practice Yoga all the time. The teacher encouraged them to find land to build this commune, and they did. They bought a 355 acre parcel with one tiny building on it and moved in. Now, the teacher had different plans for them...they were not to hide out from the world on the mountaintop. Rather, they would invite people from all walks of life to come to the land and learn Yoga too! Oh hiding? no escape? What had they gotten themselves into?

Nearly 30 years later, those same hippies are still there - inviting people from all walks of life to come to the land and learn about Yoga. Sure, most of them have cut their hair, donned American clothes, and some have TVs prominently displayed in their living room, but they are still the same Yoga-loving hippies at heart. The "land" has become a busy place - with over 100 year-round residents, plus about 50 visitors a day, plus between 20 and 400 retreat guests a day, plus 5 dogs, 10 cats, and 2 sheep...there's a lot going on here! There is also a private school, Mount Madonna School, for K - 12 grade that is renowned for it's unique curriculum, successful students, and beautiful campus nestled in the redwoods. The purpose of the land is to "live Yoga". To take it from theory - words on a page, postures, philosophies, ancient stories - to practice - serving healthy food, sweeping the sidewalks, doing the dishes (again!) for thousands of guests, and genuinely caring for each other and every person who visits...this is Real Life Real Yoga.

Whenever I return, I see faces that are like family to me. Hugs and smiles all around. Though I haven't lived there in 3 years, I feel that I've never's like returning home.

There's this place...

...where people are friendly, caring, honest, and very busy holding a peaceful space in this hectic world. Next time you need a little rejuvenation or a reminder of how Yoga translates into real life, head on up to the land - they'll be glad to see you.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Real Philosophy: The Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are an ancient, foundational text of Yoga. Countless translations are available to study, including one by my teacher Baba Hari Dass.

I've also found an incredibly in-depth website that can really blow your mind if you get into it:

Though brief, the Yoga Sutras are an enormously influential work on yoga philosophy and practice, just as relevant today as when first composed. But how can text from approximately 2200 years ago be relevant to today? How can Yoga students today find applicable teachings in a text written more than two millenia ago? Let's begin at the beginning...

The first Sutra: Atha yoga anushasanam (Sutra 1.1)
This can be simply translated as: Now begins the study of Yoga.
A simple introduction to what we are about to study and practice - Yoga.

The second Sutra: Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. (Sutra 1.2)
Translation: Yoga (union) is the cessation of the thought waves in the field of consciousness.

Translation into Real Life. Real Yoga. verbiage:
Yoga (union) happens when you turn off your iTV, imac, iphone, ipod, and anything else that starts with i and/or has a battery or plug, find a quiet spot, breathe deeply, and attempt to calm those crazy stories running around in your head. Yoga is when you stop moving and stand still - even for just a moment or
two...that quiet second or even millisecond when thoughts cease, plans stop being made, conversations stop being played over again to try to figure out why "she got so mad", and you just relax into silence and stillness - relax into the present moment - relax into relaxation. It was probably easier in Patanjali's time with no technologically advanced products to keep him preoccupied from dawn to dusk to dawn again. But we have an advantage in this day and age: it's so easy to see the busyness and noisiness and constant movement in today's world, that we don't have to try too hard to find the opposite - turn it all off and listen to your own breath - you may be amazed!

Sure, there are many types of Yoga practice...Hatha Yoga (physical postures), Kirtan (devotional singing), Karma Yoga (selfless service), Jnana Yoga (Yoga through knowledge), and on and on...however, the type of Yoga referred to above (stillness, silence, etc) is the tip of the iceberg. A great place to start - or return to if you've lost your center. Anyone can be quiet for a moment, right? Anyone can find stillness for a moment, right? Anyone can let their thoughts dissolve into the silence around them, right? If you're not so sure, you could always find out for yourself, right?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Yoga and Nature

As I sit in my living room today, I gaze out at over 3 feet of powdery snow that has fallen in the last 24 hours. Lake Tahoe is an amazing example of all the beauty the universe can create. I feel blessed to call North Lake Tahoe home.

Did you know that Lake Tahoe is the 3rd deepest lake in North America and the 10th deepest in the world? At 22 miles long, and 12 miles wide, the surface area covers 191 square miles. That's enough water to cover all of California in 14 inches of water! This incredible example of Nature's gift is cherished by local residents and visitors alike and is known as the "jewel of the Sierra Nevada"... if you have ever visited or appreciated it's beauty from afar, please check out how you can help "Keep Tahoe Blue" by supporting the League to Save Lake Tahoe.

Not only do we have the majesty of the Lake to cause our collective jaws to drop each day, but also the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. This "backbone" of the state of California, this "range of light" as dubbed by naturalist John Muir. These mountains leave me speechless and awe-inspired - whether admiring them from the shores of Lake Tahoe or spending 2 weeks nestled up close to them on a backpacking trip, they are my touchstone, my inspiration, my reminder of Good-ness.

But I digress...being that this blog is about Real Life and Real Yoga, and being that we've just received the biggest snow storm in several years, I am inspired today to write about Nature and Yoga. Here in Truckee, we have a lot of Nature and a little Yoga. To be more precise, we have a little Yoga that happens indoors. I have found many Yogis here in Lake Tahoe - they may not be practicing Asana much, but, in my opinion, they are practicing Bhakti (union through devotion) and their chosen God or Goddess is Nature. And I have most often found my inner Yogini while spending time in the bosom of Nature. Yoga means Union - union of the entire universe with itself. Not to get too deep or mind-bending here, we'll dive into that later, but put simply, Yoga is Nature and Nature is Yoga.
Countless terms in Yoga are derived from Nature. For example, Hatha Yoga is what many of us in America know as "Yoga" - it is the physical Asana practice that you experience when you go to most Yoga classes. "Hatha" is a nature-derived word meaning Sun (Ha) Moon (Tha). It represents the balancing of the male (Sun) and female (Moon) energies in the body. This system of Yoga was introduced by introduced by Yogi Swatmarama, a sage of 15th century India, and compiler of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as a preparatory stage of physical purification that renders the body fit for the practice of higher meditation. Many of the names of Asanas (poses) are nature-based: Tree (Vrksasana), Mountain (Tadasana), Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana), Thunderbolt (Vajrasana), and the deepest of nature connections for me, Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) ...thus leading to a connection with nature while Asana is practiced. Standing in Mountain pose, I imagine I have the strength and solidity of the mountains. When I take Tree pose, it's easy to connect with the strong but supple redwoods, rooted firmly into Earth, reaching high to Sun, yet swaying with Wind to preserve their stance in the world.
Can I find the strength of the Redwood? Can I find the suppleness? Can I manage to be rooted in my center yet bend with the winds of life? This image has always had a great impact on my be strong yet walk a determined path yet go with the may be simple, but not always easy!

Nature is Yoga and for so many of us, Yoga (union) is most accessible through Nature. So if you're kicking yourself for skipping your morning practice on your mat, get outside and make today's practice a devotional session with Nature - look closely at a flower or pine cone, feel the roughness of a rock or tree branch with your soft fingertips, watch a tiny snowflake fall on your nose and know that no two are alike...take a deep breath of Nature's beauty and, who knows, you just might find that Enlightenment you've been chasing after!