Everything is Made of the 5 Great Elements

Image by Kathleen MacGregor (Unsplash) 

My teacher tells me, “everything is made of the 5 great elements.” Earth, water, fire, air and ether. This makes sense to me intellectually, but not in an embodied way. How are my thoughts the elements? How are my emotions the elements? What about that recent interaction or that thing I love? What about that thing I hate?

I generally feel like a separate being. I don’t mistake myself for the pillow behind my back or the person I had a conversation with. Part of the View my teacher shares with me tells me I am not separate. I am the same as the pillow behind my back and that person I talked with. I trust my teacher and therefore trust this wisdom, but this is not something I truly understand. I believe the rishis and sages who came before me and the lineage that says I am non separate. I have faith in it, yet I can’t feel it. 

I was recently doing a meditation with my teacher and she guided me to think of someone I loved. I thought of her. She offered the inquiry that this person is made of the 5 elements. My teacher tells me she is with me all the time. This is, yet again, something I believe because I believe my teacher, but not something I grok. We are far away from each other. She is in Michigan while I am in Seattle. We can talk on the phone or interact on zoom, but even that feels separate. Even when I am lucky enough to be in her presence I do not see myself as her. After the meditation it struck me. If I am earth and she is earth she is with me always as earth. If I am water and she is water she is always with me as water. For a moment I felt her with me and understood she is always with me. Every time I feel something, if I can identify it as the elements, then I can know that I am her and she is me. It was a small window into the non-separation this path teaches.

In that same meditation she then invited me to think of someone challenging. As I brought this person to mind I could feel the contraction (earth), recoiling (fire and water) and tightness (earth) in my throat. When my teacher said this person is also made of the 5 elements the disdain I was experiencing softened. All of a sudden it wasn’t so personal. This person is the 5 elements and so am I. We are the same. It softened the contraction when I let go of the stories of this person doing this or that “wrong” and acknowledged the truth of this person and of myself. We are exactly the same. The elements that create him are the same that create me. Yes they are configured in different ways, but the elements that structure us are no different. I can get lost in the way things are structured that create different features, behaviors, thoughts and beliefs. When I get caught in this it increases my sense of separation. When I feel separate I suffer through judgement, comparison, confusion, longing or despair. When I drill down into the elements things are not personal and I get a glimpse of the web that connects every single thing in the universe.

Since that meditation I have also been applying this to myself. When a thought arises instead of getting lost in it I sometimes observe it as air rising up in my chest or the fact that whatever arises comes and goes back into the ether. Sometimes my thoughts feel heavy like earth or hot like fire. Other times my emotions feel like a tsunami of water or a light breeze. As I begin the lifelong process of integrating my beloved teacher’s words, “everything is made of the 5 great elements,” this opens a doorway to freedom, spaciousness and deep connection. 

Elements Practice

When you have a feeling what is the quality of the feeling? Is it hot or cold (fire)? Is it heavy or light (earth)? How is it flowing? Like a waterfall or a gentle stream (water)? Does it feel subtle like a breeze or gust moving through you (air)? Can you feel the space that holds all of this, the space where the feeling arises from and returns to (ether)? What happens when you observe your feelings through the lens of the elements?

Tapas: Discipline and Freedom

Photo by Andre Fonseca

Hello community,

Tapas is one of the aspects of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, which translates to austerities, heat and self-discipline. Tapas can be any discipline we commit to, whether it is doing art, going to bed at a certain time, journaling or taking a daily walk. I am a fairly disciplined person, but also I rebel against it in the name of being free to do what I want when I want. As I committed to a discipline offered to me by my teacher I am seeing how tapas can be a doorway to freedom. I have more energy and time. I feel less overwhelm and depletion, and I am less scattered. There is paradoxically more ease in my life with the addition of more structure.

As I think about starting a discipline, especially as we go into winter I am struck by the many things I have started and not finished. This can lead me down a path of believing I failed. A meditation teacher once shared with me that every time you meditate you put a little money in a piggybank, and that money accumulates each time you do it. It doesn’t come out the bottom on the days you forget or rebel or oversleep. Discipline is not about perfectionism or gritting your teeth to make sure you get something in. It can be done with sweetness and even surrender and ease. When you miss a day, can there be a discipline of forgiveness and trying again the next day? When you don’t get to your commitment can you not give up? I remember quitting smoking almost 20 years ago. I was a terrible quitter at first! I would quit for a week, then smoke again. I believed I failed so I would smoke regularly again until the fire for wanting to be free from cigarettes returned. Then when I inevitably slipped I would berate myself for not being strong enough. Each time I “quit” though I was showing myself that it was possible and each time my discipline and resolve got a little stronger, and on maybe the 110th attempt I finally quit for good. Can your discipline be strong and soft, focused and relaxed, steady and flexible, firm and kind?

What tapas do you want to commit to? What tapas are you all ready doing that is serving you? 

Here are some ideas to stoke your discipline fire I have heard from friends, family and clients who are using these tools to move through the next few months and beyond.

Physical Discipline:

Get outside daily.

Massage your skin with scented oils or lotions. My current favorite blend is lavender and sandalwood.

Do intentional transitions, in particular if you are working from home:

  1. Commute (i.e. walk around the block before and after work).
  2. Change clothes after work.
  3. Burn candles to make transitions from work to personal or vice versa.
  4. Burn sage or other herbs at the beginning or end of your day.
  5. Place a cloth over your computer at the end of the day.
  6. Have designated work hours.
  7. If you have a room you work from close the door at the end of your day.

Learn a dance routine. This summer I learned how to floss!

Take a bath.

Have an orgasm.

Pet an animal.

Hug yourself.

Do one yoga pose each hour. I like to do handstands or child’s pose between sessions depending on my energy.

Get dressed every day.

Eat at the same time.

Go to bed before 10 and wake up at 6.

Take your meds on time.

Energetic Discipline: 

Watch the rhythm of your breath

Watch the leaves as they fall from the trees

Do a breathing practice. Here is one to try.

Sing.

Chant. Listen or try learning one yourself. Here is one I’m learning right now.

Mental/Emotional Discipline:

Journal.

Learn a new skill (i.e. a dance routine, photography, meditation, baking, etc.)

Draw or paint your emotions.

Write yourself a love letter. 

Sit in front of a light therapy lamp.

Take a screen fast (I try not to get on screens before 8am and not after 8pm)

Take a media fast.

Spiritual Discipline:

Pray each morning.

Meditate. Start easy with 5 minutes/day if meditation is new.

Go to sleep doing lovingkindness. Here is a guided practice

Write a gratitude list at the end of each day.

Write 3 ways you showed up for yourself, someone else and the world each day.

Read spiritually nourishing books. Some I love are the Shakti Rising, Glorious Alchemy, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, Love and Rage and Radical Dharma.

My dear friend and colleague, Christina Malecka of Screen Time Lifeline, created this incredible Fall/Winter Survival Plan, which can support you to think about the fire of tapas you want to bring with you into winter and beyond.

If you are curious about an Ayurvedic discipline I can’t recommend Kavitha Chinnaiyan’s book, The Heart of Wellness, enough.

Something that has been invaluable to me in maintaining a discipline is community. If you are committing to a practice this fall and winter who can you share it with? Who can you be accountable to? Who might be interested in doing it with you? Also, never underestimate the power of a sticker chart! If you have a discipline you want to share with me let me know. I would love to hear.

Love,

Laura

Holding onto Practice and Teachers

It feels strange to say this, but when people ask me how I’m doing my honest answer is great. I feel I should whisper it, or downplay it, or even lie. I have thriver’s guilt at times! When Lama Rod Owens came to many of us in our homes at the beginning of quarantine I remember him saying now, in the apocalypse, is the time to hold your practice dearly, and that is exactly what I am doing.  

2 years ago during this auspicious time, Navaratri (or Nine Nights of the Goddess), I met my teacher, Kavitha Chinnaiyan, for the first time. I have been incredibly fortunate to have wonderful teachers throughout my life, but for 6 years I was searching for a teacher I could have a 1:1 relationship with, where she could know me intimately and guide me in my unique (and not so unique!) life circumstances. In that first year I reached out to her in times of despair and turbulence. In her incredibly busy life (she is a fulltime cardiologist, a mother of 2 and a Tantric teacher on top of her own spiritual practice) she responded with guidance and patience. Last year at this time I was in India with her while also beginning a 6-month immersion for women.

The 3 days in the middle of Navaratri (which starts today) are dedicated to Lakshmi, the Goddess of abundance, sustenance, prosperity, and beauty. Gratitude is one of the practices that can be a form of devotion to Lakshmi.

As I reflect on the last 2 years I have studied with Kavithaji I offer my gratitude. You have challenged me like no one ever has and through those challenges I have grown in ways I did not think possible. You have patiently held my hand when I was scared, tantruming, angry, confused, intellectualizing, and overall just not getting it. You have repeated yourself hundreds of times until I got it. You have taught me how to be a student, and I did not even know I needed to learn that! You have taught me to be more present and embodied. You have shown me the areas of my life that are leading me to more ignorance and challenged me to change course. My life has transformed in 2 years, and I lay that all at your feet with humility and love. I can only imagine what the next two years will bring, and I am grateful for every moment I have in your presence.

Here is an offering from my teacher for Navaratri:
May Her rasa drip down to our cells and bones.
May Her beauty become our lens of perception.
May her Siva bhakti become our way of being.
May Her countenance haunt our dreams forever.
Sri Matre Namah!

What practices are you holding dear right now? Who are the teachers you can turn to when you feel lost, angry, confused or despairing? 

If you don’t have a current practice what intrigues you? Is it lovingkindness? Mindfulness? Yoga? Prayer? Singing? As we go into the darker months what is a practice you can commit to? Who can you go to when you get stuck? Teachers can be those people who are formally in a teacher role, but can also be friends, family, therapists, loved ones or pets. 

In practice, connection and gratitude,
Laura

Feeling the Feels and Supporting the System

My heart is with you. I am taking time to tend to my body and heart (2 weekends back to back of online retreats with my teachers) as well support the collective (dropping off gloves at Virginia Mason, keeping my social distance and checking in with loved ones). My hope is that this newsletter can bring you some peace and ease in this uncertain time, which is every moment, even though it has been particularly magnified for many right now.

Here are some very common and normal experiences you may be having:
1. Sadness and mourning
2. A sense of free falling
3. Happiness about the opportunity to slow down
4. Guilt
5. Despair
6. Anger
7. More easily frustrated
8. Overwhelm
9. Easily distracted
10. Not able to focus or retain information
11. Tight muscles
12. Gratitude
13. Difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual
14. Numbing out
15. Irritability
16. Awe
17. Trouble balancing (physically as well as mentally)
18. Lethargy
19. Rumination
20. Fear

All of these are normal and OK. And, of course, these may not be the only experiences you are having.  Maybe you are experiencing something not on this list. That is OK too. We all have unique nervous systems that process uncertainty and crisis in different ways. The more we can allow our bodies and hearts to go through whatever we are experiencing without “shoulding” on ourselves (i.e. I should feel more clearheaded or I shouldn’t feel happy right now,) the more we can be fully present to ourselves and others. 

Here is a guided practice for you around allowing the arisings of your experience:

Here are some other meditations I have recorded throughout the years that you can use if they are helpful.

Here are some other things I have been doing to support my nervous system as it moves through the waves of emotions, thoughts, feelings and sensations. If they sound like they may be useful to you, try them out:
1. Rocking back and forth. Find a rhythm that feels soothing to your system.
2. Orientation. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Taste? Feel?
3. Hugging trees. 
4. Taking social media and news fasts. I try to take a minimum of 24 hours off social media and news/week. 
5. Put a hand on your heart and breathe into that hand.
6. Put a hand on your belly and breathe into that hand.
7. Lay with your legs up the wall.
8. Put on a favorite song and dance. Yesterday I danced to Whitney Houston and Janelle Monae.
9. Gratitude practice. What are 10 things you are grateful for?
10. Be of service. If you are able, can you support your community through grocery shopping or picking up meds or dog walking?
11. Receive service. Can you ask for the support you need? Who can you reach out to for grocery shopping, med pick ups, dog walking or to simply connect?
12. Feel your feet on the ground. If you struggle to feel your feet, wiggle your toes. If you have tennis balls around the house roll your feet on them.
13. Lovingkindness practice: When inhaling, say: May I be well. When exhaling, say: May you be well.
14. Inhale to a count of 4 and exhale to a count of 4. Make this easy. If it is too long or too short for your breath change the number.
15. Do handstands. 
16. Take a nap. 
17. Watch the clouds and remember the impermanence of every moment.
18. Touch the earth. Put your hands in the grass or on the ground to feel the support beneath you.
19. Connect with your ancestors. Ask them for guidance and support.
20. Journal or draw your feelings.

What are you doing to resource yourself right now? We are all figuring this out as we go, and if you have practices that support you that is wonderful. Keep it up!

With love and community,
Laura

Disintegration as a step toward Integration

It feels impossible to put words to the experience I had when I traveled to India last month, but one word keep ringing in my ears: disintegration.

Before I left for this trip, I had questions about where and how I want to focus my energy – personally, professionally, in my relationships and spiritually. I felt a bit lost. Going to India, being in the jungle and studying with an amazing teacher, did not clarify or provide answers. In many ways, the experience brought more questions.

One of the translations for the word “yoga” is “integration.” I believe that one way we can find integration is to disintegrate. Disintegration means “the process of losing cohesion or strength” and “the process of coming to pieces,” according to Oxford Dictionary. Disintegration can feel like falling apart, losing a sense of wholeness or feeling like everything that did make sense doesn’t anymore. Wholeness is yet another translation of yoga. Although disintegration can be incredibly uncomfortable, unstable and confusing (at least for me) I trust it. It many ways it can catapult me into a sense of not knowing and drop me into beginner’s mind. I trust that it will lead to deeper layers and levels of knowing and integration.

I used to be afraid of disintegrating, and even now I am a bit impatient with it at times. I used to think I should have all the answers for myself, for clients, for folks who attend classes. Being with a teacher whose depth of knowledge and practice far exceeds anything I may even come close to in this lifetime, I am awed and inspired by how much I don’t know. I am excited after 17 years of practice (which frankly is still a baby practitioner in yoga) to find a teacher whose well is so deep that I get the opportunity to be a beginner and to disintegrate, integrate and disintegrate again and again with.