Monday, September 16, 2013

Sabbaticals and Façades

I’m sending love and blessings to you from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Summer Sabbatical

For the first time since I started teaching 25 years ago, I took a six week hiatus, simply resting and enjoying the beautiful summer here in the land of enchantment. Not that it was easy – just like everyone else in our society, I am plagued by the constant drive to be productive and busy. I had to battle doubts and whispers like, “see, now you have retreated you will be cast off and placed on the sidelines and no one will remember you.” I bravely stood up to these voices and rested nevertheless, did some writing for my book, and took care of my garden.

Over Labor Day weekend I taught what will become an annual retreat (for all those of you who want an alternative to Burning Man!) and it was incredibly rewarding and successful on all levels.

During the retreat I got a confirmation of just how important and long overdue this sabbatical was. In a private interview a student gave me the greatest gift when she said, “Katchie, you’ve always delivered the goods as a teacher, I’ve always been enriched and satisfied from all of your programs I’ve taken, but this is the first time I feel that you are not squeezed and actually really enjoyed being with us and you are just positively glowing.”

It struck me how right she was. I love my job, I do, but it has been a process of constant and complete giving in various forms for 25 years. I needed a break, and when I came back I was coming from plenty. I made a vow to take my sabbatical and rest seriously!

Teaching without a Façade

Over the last few years, instead of presenting a perfect façade, I’ve made it my business to be real and vulnerable; not only in class, but also in my newsletters and other formats where I openly admit to the struggles we all face as a human family. I find it much more helpful as a teacher to do that; suggesting strategies on how to overcome those struggles. So I’m truly struck by how many teachers still try to portray their lives as flawless. I wonder – who does it serve in the end?

I see incredible websites filled with pictures of fantastic poses, shot in exotic locations, in bikinis on the beach, with romantic partners – the image of the ultimately unattainable perfect life. Those types of “suggestions” vaguely work on me too, causing me to temporarily question my own life – bringing up the feeling that somehow I missed out, and perhaps I am not talented or beautiful enough.

That plaguing “enough” question is so prevalent in our culture; actually, it’s something of a tactic, too – many of these seemingly perfect teachers will draw you into their circle offering the opportunity for you, too, to have what they have. I say, beware of them! You will probably never have quite those (fucking) backbends, or their beauty, fame or whatever it is, and neither will you ultimately want to.

I happen to know that many of them struggle with just the same things we do, they just choose a policy of non-disclosure on those less-than-glamorous aspects of their lives. They teach from their strength only, not from their vulnerable sides. Ultimately, this is alienating to students; you may gain some helpful tips on how to get into a pose, or hear about some great theory, but for the most part you will continue to pine away at the life they have and actually miss the one that is right in front of you, waiting to be lived fully and authentically.

To transform the heart of the student a teacher needs to have the courage to show themselves naked, so to speak. To me, the role of a good teacher is to meet students at the same human level – showing them that we are all dealing with the same difficulties. With experience and practice, the teacher illuminates the varied paths to overcome these shared obstacles to each unique student.

I hope to see you at one of my many offerings around the world this fall, and look forward to sharing some simple techniques on how to be an authentic and badass human being.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dreaming the World

I just got back from my tour in Europe. It was fun to bring the Dharma to all these different communities; sometimes I feel like a hummingbird, collecting nectar and spreading it around. As I have always loved hummingbirds, this feels like a good use of my inherent potential!

I love being back home in Santa Fe. I don’t know what it is about this enchanted place, but it makes my heart sing and my soul breathe like no other place I’ve ever been to.

Some thoughts for your contemplation:

Just like the tiniest grain of sand has a particular mass, a mass that remains attached to the big mass called Earth, every thought has a mass too. Some science, like quantum physics, verifies this and confirms that even random thoughts may have consequences because of the mass they possess. When many people focus their thoughts on the same thing, the mass increases and so does the outcome.

As we grow up, we often forget our dreams. This is an unfortunate outcome of “growing up”, as it is our very dreams that help us realize our full potential. When we forget to dream, we may get stuck in habits – good or bad. In order to change habits, we need to be fully aware of them to see how best to proceed.

It is said, while the Buddha made every mistake possible on his path to freedom he never lied to himself about it. Making mistakes, consciously, allows us to actually learn from them. I often invite my students to make new mistakes! Making the same mistakes over and over again seems very depressing to me. To go and make a new mistake is one of my missions in life.

Yogic practices, such as chanting, invite certain archetypes and possibilities into being. For example, Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva, is not just the master of obstacles. He also represents an invitation to accept our life just as it is, to get grounded in the here and now. It is said, when Ganesh appears we stop wanting to be somewhere else. When this happens we actually show up, fully, to who and where we are in this moment.

One description of enlightenment is exactly that – the moment we stop wanting to be somewhere or someone else. We realize that we are in the right body at the right time, with the right people, on the right planet. We wake up to things as they are, as well as learn to hold a vision about where we are going. From this vantage point we get to work intelligently with the obstacles in the way. Holding this paradox is exactly what yoga is about.

There is an ancient teaching from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that talks about a link between our mind and our life energy, called Prana (or chi, dao and many other references to describe this life-force in different cultures). The relationship between these two vital forces, although invisible, is one of deep connection. It is often described with the image of two fish swimming in tandem.

The work at hand is to be fully awake to where we are, and to see ourselves and others clearly. We must also cultivate the ability to cast our mind forward, say two years, to get a sense of how we want to feel in a relationship, at our job, or any other place in our life. Our life energy focuses and reorganizes around this possibility, eventually manifesting it into being. At the same time, the honest view of where we are, at the moment, and what might stand in the way, helps us to deal wisely with the obstacles.

On the yoga mat, investigating this link can take a very tangible form. We can focus our mind on the simple reality of sensations in the body while we are moving through the asanas. Instead of practicing to achieve some perfect idea of our body or the pose, we connect with the wholeness of who we are in that moment and simply accept. In that liberating instance of just being with what is, it is possible to perceive everything as sacred. Usually, once we leave the mat after one of those experiences of wholeness we feel supremely, and maybe even sublimely, okay with the way we are, including the fact that there is room for improvement. In essence, our body becomes an ally in the quest for full realization instead of an obstacle to overcome. This is good news!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Dharma, Freedom and Honesty

One of the most straightforward definitions of Dharma is to think thoughts and act in a way that sets you free. I love it! While this definition is, indeed simple, it is obviously not the easiest to do. If it were, you would think more people would actually do it.

In the first place, how do we find out what actually sets us free? For example, I believe in the pleasurable things in life (since life is often hard enough as it is) and I often feel that enjoying them puts me in a good mood and makes me feel grateful and generous towards myself and others. So far, so good. But where is the line between something that has a good effect on me versus something that might actually, in the long term, enslave me, or cause me harm?

For many years I was a pretty “pure” yogi. I rarely drank alcohol, went to bed early each evening, and got up very early each day to practice. I only ate “the right” kinds of food. I only had sex on Friday nights according to the instruction of Pattabhi Jois’ Asthanga bible. (Okay, that’s exaggerated, as I never heeded that particular advice. But, since I didn’t really have a boyfriend at the time, it didn’t matter anyway which is why Sharon Gannon from Jivamukti gave me the nickname “Brahmachari” - celibate). Then, at some point in my 30s, I discovered how much I enjoyed a glass of red wine at night. I loved the ritual of it. It made me feel closer to my family in Switzerland where wine often is a part of long, drawn out evenings at dinner with lively and interesting conversations about God and the world. I firmly believe in the healthy qualities of red wine, that when it is consumed in moderation it actually is a boon to your health in every way. Just as chocolate is – a fact that has been only recently discovered in America but has long since been known in Switzerland.

Recently, a friend made me a good margarita, with organic lime juice, on the rocks, and even taught me how to make one myself. I haven’t had much hard liquor for some time, so I felt the effects pretty quickly and we had a fun evening. I came home and decided I would like to try making my own margaritas.

It didn’t last long. I realized fast that this particular practice did not set me free. On the contrary, being sensitive, I would feel the effects of even one margarita the next day. I don’t think that tequila, the main ingredient used in this particular beverage has any beneficial qualities for my health and, in fact, I worry about my liver since that organ is one of the weak spots in my body. I’m not saying that I will never make a margarita again. I’m sure I will. But, I will not turn this into a practice on a regular basis because I know it won’t set me free.

As I abandon my newly acquired skills of making a bad-ass margarita (I even bought myself a professional shaker and all), I feel a certain regret, I really do.

But my commitment to the Dharma is deeper. I want to be free. It is said that the Buddha made every mistake that one human can make on his journey to being free. But it is often emphasized that he never lied about making those mistakes. The very foundation of the Dharma is this kind of honesty and while it is easy to say that we will do the things that set us free, doing is not as easy and requires an ongoing investigation and a willingness to tell the truth about our experiences at all times.

From this vantage point, I understand the rather strict and moralistic rules that are often set in yoga and Buddhism. The point can be made that it is easier to avoid all alcohol due to the addictive quality and mind-deluding properties. But, just to avoid things in life is not really the Dharma to me. And the request can, and has, at times, felt like a punishment or denial of life itself.

Yes, to actually inquire what is or isn’t setting me free is a lot of work. It is so much easier to just “believe” something or follow a teacher or a system. I do believe that sooner or later we actually all have to do this work and come to our own conclusions based on our own experience. And to me, this is truly worth it.

Viva red wine!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why I Give A Sh*&%t...

This last weekend, my birthday weekend, we celebrated the conclusion of the teacher training in San Francisco as well as my last public classes until the fall.

After my open class ended, some of the trainees had secretly created a "cheer" and handed out little slips of papers for everyone. The entire class participated, all 70 students cheered loudly:

Give me a:

for Kickass/Kaliesque/Karuna/Kidney Loop/Kindness
for Activist/Ananda/Amazing Grace/Awesome
for Teacher/Transformation/Tenderness/Truth/

for Compassion/Chanting/Comedy/Chocolate
for Harmonium/Hanuman/Heart-Opener/Hip-Opener/
Hot Stuff

for Integrity/Intelligence/Illumination/ 
for Eclectic/Extraordinary/Energy/Equality/
EVOLUTE!!!  (what I said in class one day when I forgot the real word, evolve, and made up "evolute" instead.)

I was literally moved to tears, feeling how deeply my students care, and how deeply I care about them.

I have been thinking a lot about the teacher/student relationship lately.

One of my students put it simply "Katchie, you actually give a shit!"

It's true - even to my detriment sometimes. I would love to live up to the enlightened, detached teacher image but that is just not what's happening. I invest in my students. I care. So if someone studies with me in that intense and personal way for some years, and then they just up and leave, which just happened to me recently, I hurt. I feel confusion and pain.

Having had this scenario happen to me more than once, I finally realized that we don't have any decent guidelines in the yoga world at all! No wonder all the confusion and a reinforcement of what Chogyam Trungpa called "Spiritual Materialism." For many people the spiritual teachings are but an endless buffet from which to sample; without making any deeper commitment. It's all so convenient for the modern, Western practitioner.

As a matter of fact, often when we come up against difficulty with the teachings or the teachers, we simply move onto another system and teacher. In some of the ancient stories, this is called "digging a well to look for water." But instead of digging the same well and going deep until we do find water, we end up making many shallow holes - none of which produce water in the end.

So I searched, thinking there has to be some decent guidelines for the student/teacher relationship somewhere. I found it in the Martial Arts world. It is actually quite simple:

  • The Student is expected to study with one particular teacher/system for a period of time exclusively (whatever period of time has been determined).
  • After that period of time has passed, if the student wants to simultaneously study with another teacher, he/she has to go and ask permission from both teachers. If both say yes, there will be an assumption of more excellence expected by both teachers to their respective systems.
  • If the original teacher says no (because he/she doesn't feel that the new systems/teacher are compatible or right for that student) there will be a closing ritual and the student is free to go study with the new teacher (but no longer will study with the original one). 
  • If the student wants to leave the original teacher, it's expected from the student to go to the teacher and tell him why he wants to move on so there can be proper closure and blessings for both of them.

If we had these simple guidelines in the yoga world, how much confusion and suffering we could avoid!

As the teacher, here is my commitment to my students - to show up with all that I have to offer. If you are interested, come for teachings and stories, packaged with whimsical humor, some tears, and a bit of uncomfortable truth for all of us to contemplate. That is what I do, and I will ruthlessly use whatever is at my disposal, including my own vulnerability and imperfection, to make a difference.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Grey Zones

This year is all about integrity for me. All throughout the last year and continuing into the new year, I keep seeing structures and systems crumble due to a lack of integrity within their very foundations. I think our integrity, how we handle ourselves one moment at a time, will be key to our evolution this year. In my head, I have the words of a senior dharma teacher who says: “karma means you don’t get away with nothing!”

I cannot help but notice a lack of integrity in so many places and relationships, and further, how often we keep quiet about it. We fail to address a problem because we lack the trust in ourselves, or the courage to face it. Or, despite an unhealthy dynamic in a particular relationship, we are afraid to upset the status quo.

The solution cannot be found in stating beautiful spiritual ideals alone – painting over what we do not wish to see with a big brush. We have to tackle our challenges one step at the time, one relationship at a time, one problem at a time.

We have to excavate into the grey zones, with the full knowledge that there is no quick fix. We have to sit with our situations, intimately, and sometimes painfully, until we can finally see the right path through to the other side of where we are going. My personal tactic is to approach any and all situations with a win/win strategy; fully aware that what needs to be done may be hard at times, for me and/or the other person. But, ultimately, the outcome will benefit all sides.

What else is there to do? We are not going to heal the world with our good intentions alone, they provide us with a moral compass, but the work still has to be done in the grey zones of our lives, one moment at a time.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The New Dawn of Humanity

Here we are, in 2013. I have been reflecting on why it is that there is so much anxiety and fear present in all of us at this time. While there are certainly many reasons for anxiety and fear in our modern hectic world, one reason stands out to me — we have become a throwaway society; everything is and can be replaced.

Only 50 years ago in Switzerland, any object was built to last for a very long time. Today, things are built, purposefully, NOT to last, so they will need to be replaced in a few years. More profit to be made that way. Unfortunately, this same attitude has spread to how we treat people and other beings as well.

Doesn’t work out with your partner? No problem, there are many more lovers out there in the metaphoric green pasture. How about when you encounter difficulty in your chosen spiritual practice or with your teacher? Easy, there are many paths and other teachers right around the corner. And on it goes. Animals are, of course, ever expendable, as seen in the way we treat them before they end up on our dinner plate.

The thought of being replaced so easily is what gnaws on our insides and creates all this anxiety. Fear that we might be replaced, cast out, or exposed as insignificant causes us to overwork, become overly greedy, lash out, get stressed out, and experience a host of other stressful symptoms.

Maybe one of the reasons the tragedy in Connecticut hit us so hard is the reminder that our children are not replaceable. It was a reminder of a deep truth — none of us is replaceable. We are all like snowflakes, unique and one-time expressions of life’s beauty and mystery. We are, in fact, irreplaceable. Some place we know this is true, even though we do not have access to that truth anymore.

By placing detachment so highly on the list of spiritual values, spirituality has not offered much on this conundrum either.

I say — be more attached! You are lucky if you love your partner or a teacher so much that when things get difficult you do not simply replace them. If you love them so deeply then replacement shouldn’t present itself as an option. Of course, it is necessary to be aware of abusive relationships. These are absolutely necessary to sever, and the ability to do so will foster another facet of spiritual growth. But that’s another story for another time.

Otherwise, only because of this love and, yes, attachment, will we get through the discomfort of confronting our own deepest issues and, maybe, finally move through and heal them.

Sometimes that deep love and attachment to a teacher, lover or mentor helps us to realize that I, too, am an absolute unique expression of the divine and that I can learn to love myself for the precious One that I am.

From there we expand and recognize all the incredibly precious and irreplaceable beings and even inanimate objects around us. We realize that every bit of life around us is sacred, and we do everything in our power to protect it.

In acknowledging the preciousness around me, I have taken on a stewardship of a section of the Santa Fe River, just below my house. Every time I go for a walk in the riverbed, I pick up trash and make the immediate environment to my house a more beautiful place. It gives me so much pleasure to restore the riverbed to its natural beauty. Why? Because it is precious and unique, and it is mine to do since I live here now. I love finding projects that remind me to be attached to where I live and work.

The best part of healthy attachments is the beautiful reward. At some point there is a natural letting go. Healthy attachment and love, in my opinion, will lead to unconditional love, which is another manifestation of letting go. The release is akin to the mature fruit that simply lets go of its connection to the stem when it is ready. It’s not prematurely ripped away, causing wounds and scars. Similarly, we can trust that when our attachment and love has fully matured, there will be spacious, luminous, unconditional love and equanimity.

Some fun things to do to decrease anxiety and foster healthy attachments:

  • If you get a present that is not the right one for you, instead of going back to the store and replacing it, think of who would be the perfect recipient for this gift and then have fun giving it to the right person.
  • Tell your lovers, teachers, children and other loved ones that you are attached to them and that they matter to you. My relationship with my husband took a big turn when I stopped saying things during fights like: I don’t think this will work out, maybe I should leave (incidentally my worst fear is to be abandoned myself).
  • Be particular about details, even objects like to be treated with respect.
  • Making a gift, something that has your sweat (and maybe tears) in it. Give it away, knowing how unique it is because you put yourself into it.
  • Think about other ways to express and celebrate healthy attachments.

By Poet Deena Metzger:

"Give me everything mangled and bruised and I will make a light of it to make you weep. And we will have rain, and we will begin again."