Shalom! Welcome To Gesher Yoga

Gesher translates to bridge in Hebrew. Yoga offers us exactly that; a bridge that yokes our outer world of skin, muscles and bones to our inner world of breath, soul and intuition. Jewish Spirituality also instructs us on how to live a life that is simultaneously secular and sacred through the ancient teachings found in the Torah, t’fillah, Chassidut, Kabbalah and ultimately by listening for the still small voice of Shekhinah, who dwells within each of us.

On this blog you will find the notes I've used to teach on-going Shabbat morning sessions, mostly at my shule. Sometimes there are Asana (posture) suggestions to be found at the end of an entry. Other times they are not there, mainly because I never know who's going to show up for our yoga minyan...I often like to wait and see who comes so I can structure that aspect of class according to the "bodies" that are present, as there is a wide range of physical abilities within the community...I don't like to be tied to a plan, but to move and teach authentically and appropriately for all in attendance.

My approach is always gentle so that everyone feels comfortable and capable of full participation, so
please don't hesitate to join us if you happen to be in Nashua, NH on a Shabbat morning that I am teaching. To find out when the next Gesher Yoga Session is happening go to:
Temple Beth Abraham.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Simplifying my life

As you have surely noticed, I have not added any new entries to this blog in a very long time!
For those who do not know, I have been pretty sick this year with MS. For now I have begun blogging again but just on one of my blogs. At this time, that is more than enough blogging for me to manage. I am still offering my services as a creativity coach over the phone and via e-mail if you are interested in being coached.

God willing I will start up this blog again in the future, but for now if you want to find out what's new, creative and spiritual in my life feel free to visit me at Shine The Divine: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice. You can follow that blog using the google follow icon.
shana tova...may this be a year of great healing for all the worlds.

Gentle steps always,

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Yoga for Shabbat Vayechi 1/10/09

This is what I learned this week about blessing from parsha Vayechi. The teaching comes first from Reb Simcha Bunim and then is further interpreted by my teacher Rabbi Jonathan Slater. And then expanded once again cy through the Torah of life unfolding.
s.v., o yomar ki haberakha ba-ah
Reb Simcha Bunim’s interpretetion of this text: "And he blessed Joseph" (Gen. 48:15). Blessings emerge from a righteous person when the flow of love, desire and good will fills it beyond the heart's capacity to hold it except by extending desire and love to another person. This is how we should understand our verse: "He blessed Joseph" - he was expanded (nitvaseph) through him.
From Jonathan Slater: Blessing and sanctity exist through God's word and intention. We cannot generate it. But, we can serve as conduits for blessing. When we open our hearts fully to the flow of divine blessing - love, desire and the intention for good - we experience blessing. When we allow that awareness to fill us, it extends throughout our bodies and consciousness. When filled, we no longer have a sense of "I am receiving blessing", only of love and desire, only of blessing. There is no longer any room in us to take in blessing, no longer any part of us that is not blessing, love and desire. It is then that we overflow with this blessing, and it extends to others.

My words:
I understand this to mean that when we practice yoga and meditation with deep attentiveness we cultivate this sense of expansiveness (nitvaseph), opening up our awareness to the abundance of Divine blessing (shefa) that flows through us. As we physically stretch our bodies we become more keenly aware that we are living vessels not only filled with pulsing blood and continuous breath, but as Jonathan said, our bodies are also conduits…blessing is not contained by us but expressed through us…When we pay attention we open the channel of blessing…
Ok…so here I want to interject some real life experience of Divine overflow. As I was keying the sentence above this one into my computer….”when we pay attention we open the channel of blessing”…I heard a strange bubbling sound coming from the bathroom…and then a trickling that increased to the sound of water flowing…OUR septic system was backing up and sludgy water was bubbling up in our bath tub and over the edge of our toilet!...So let me back up a and just say that this overflow came at the tail (we hope) of a stream of other recent crises in our family…I won’t go into too many details here…but suffice it to say that Gordon and I were feeling the fullness of the word dayenu…an left wondering…where’s the blessing in one crazy thing after the other after the other? And this is what I’m realizing. I have to release my desire for some BIG blessing to come our way…because in my lived experience, most blessings are really small and pretty mundane... yet, they are blessings nonetheless. This, I believe is what we must be open to. The continuous flow of small blessings that sustain us and flow through us to the people we love. Even being able to say: “thank God it’s not worse than this” feels like an authentic blessing some days.

Our lives as individuals are much smaller than we often imagine when compared to the vastness of the universe...yet sometimes the events that fill our daily lives grow enormously out of proportion and our perception of a situation becomes amplified. A moment drags on to feel like an hour. A day under the microscope of crisis can feel like a week...perhaps there is blessing in this magnified focus is certainly an opportunity to experience what it means to be fully present to the moment…we miss nothing of the immediate situation in our hyper aware state. But of course (and thank God) this is temporary. Once the emergency is over and things calm down we are back to inventing what could go wrong (when everything is actually ok) or imagining what our lives would be like "if only____________was different in some way". That’s when it’s hard to recognize the blessings. So what I am learning is that if I can step away from the microscope and walk over to the telescope…I can really alter my relationship with how I see the blessings in my life.
One blessing I was witness to this past week happened on an eventful day in a hospital ER. It was Belin’s 15th birthday (she had spent it at home alone while the rest of us were at the first ER of the day in NH…We were now sitting in the second ER. We sat in that small little room at Children’s hospital in Boston while waiting for more test results and to find out if Rosie would be admitted. Rosie was feeling uncomfortable…all of us were worried not knowing what was going on and Belin opened her presents. And there we all were together, our little family, celebrating Belin’s birthday despite the unpleasant location. And after she opened her gifts…she took one of the books and started reading it aloud as Rosie rested on the gurney. I could feel the compassion in her voice…this was shefa…Divine blessing overflowing between two sisters who love each other deeply.

Rosie’s fine…it all turned out to be viral, she just needed the flow of IV fluids to help her feel better…the septic system just had a clog and needed to be cleared.

Little blessings.

Lets do some cleansing of our own here and begin with the breath.

I’d like to start with some really big sighs…inhaling deeply…exhaling with an audible sigh. 3xs

Yoga Shabbat Vayetsei and Vayishlach 12/6/08

I returned home a 5 day silent meditation retreat Thursday evening… If I had to sum up what I learned this week it is
1. That everything changes
2. That holiness/God dwells in unexpected places.
3. That the process of naming an experience allows us to see the continuous changing nature of life…
4. Seeing the flow of these change moment to moment can open us to feeling more ease and less anxiety in our lives.

In this morning’s parasha, Jacob is has set out on a journey…he is plagued by anxiety…leaving behind the life he as known…leaving behind his very angry brother…his loving but deceiving mother and his ailing father. On his travels he receives a powerful teaching that comes in the form of a dream…he sees angels/messengers rising up and returning back down a ladder…his awareness of the nature of change is beginning. …Geness 28:16 says “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ This is very early on in a lifetime of learning to pay attention…and it takes him a long, long time to really embody this. But he is beginning his journey. He is recognizing holiness in the very place in which he is standing. He is inhabiting a seemingly ordinary place in the desert. Indeed…sometimes it takes a powerful dream…or experience to wake us up to the holiness of a particular moment in our lives…to recognize that holiness, that God is present even in seemingly ordinary, perhaps unlikely places. So this addresses the first part of what I learned at the retreat.

We won’t be together practicing yoga and meditation next week…but the parasha next week is really powerful and connected to the rest of what I want to teach today and the focus of the Shabbaton that the 3rd –sixth grade students are here to experience today…so I’m going to fast forward us a little bit.

In next week’s parasha Vayishilach we will read that after Jacob’s experience of wrestling with the “man” his name is changed to Yisrael. Finally after 22 years living with his 4 wives and many children…22 years of living with the anxiety of a belief that his own brother wants to kill him he has time alone…time to experience some silence perhaps (away from all those noisy animals and kids and wives-kind of like a silent meditation retreat) in the silence, he gains true clarity by seeing what is present in his mind…indeed by wrestling with the man…metaphor perhaps for wrestling with his mind state, his consciousness becomes more expansive…tradition teaches that at this point he becomes more complete as a human being…when he truly sees what is present in his mind…and feels sensation powerfully in his body (remember how his leg is injured in the wrestling?) he is finally able to understand the fullness of reality…his name changes…he changes…and he is able to finally have peace with his brother and with himself.

So the process of awareness… of meditation and yoga are just that…a process…it’s something we do in an ongoing way in order to cultivate clarity. God willing as we practice we begin to notice more ease…that’s not to say that the “goal” here is to have a peaceful practice every time…that would be unrealistic and impossible…our minds are busy…out bodies are busy…what we are doing here is learning how to pay attention to what is happening in the moment. Noticing how that moment shifts and now something new has come into our awareness…there is fluidity…we are not stuck with a painful thought or sensation…it comes…it goes…we name an experience….comfortable…pleasant…unpleasant…tense…relaxed…anger…sadness…joy…whatever the experience is we name it…we watch it shift…we rename it…and gradually life becomes a little less scary…even in it’s unpredictability, we can predict that whatever is happening, no matter how painful…it won’t stay that way forever…there will be relief…some kind of relief if we sit through it long enough…if we hold the pose for just a little while longer…we will come to some kind of rest again.

So as we practice together today…notice the changing nature of your experience…pleasant…unpleasant…really unpleasant…not so bad…just stay with the experience and be a witness…as always if stories arise and take you out of the “moment” and backward or forward in time…once you see that that has happened…allow your breath to be an anchor that you can reach out to…that tethers you back again to the present. Be compassionate with yourself…name the experience without judging whether or not you are “doing it right”…trust me…you can’t do this wrong.

Avodat haLev-Service of the Heart (presentation given to Temple Aliya in Needham)

As you probably know, avodah means prayer, but it also can be translated to service and work. These words fit together well in terms of yoga and Jewish spirituality.

If we think of prayer as avodat halev…service of the heart…we understand that to pray we must enter into a space deep within ourselves in order to truly connect with Shekhinnah…God’s indwelling presence. This is no easy task…it takes work…

Work in the context of focused attention and practice… In yoga we use attention to our breath and the physical sensations throughout our bodies as entryways into that heart space. Yoga is akin to Shacharit…the morning prayers that warm us up spiritually so that we can live lives of connection and gratitude toward each other and God throughout the rest of our day. Yoga does the same thing…it opens us to gratitude…an essential part of prayer…We slow down enough to notice the breath flowing in and out…we bring awareness to our shoulders, jaws and bellies and soften them a little bit…leaving the external world behind us briefly so that we can appreciate z’man hazeh…this moment that God has granted us.

Yoga could be described as avodah/prayer in motion…punctuated by stillness. As we begin to move our bodies we become attuned to chiyyut…life force flowing through us…this too cultivates gratitude…when we cease our intentional movement and embrace stillness our awareness of chiyyut grows…we recognize that even when we stop…life, breath, God’s Presence continues to flow…continues to flow right through us…we are part of something much greater than ourselves.

This is exactly the place…HaMakom…the heart-space that traditional prayer can carry us to. HaMakom, the place where we Know we are enveloped in the bosom of the Divine. Sukkat Shlomechah the house of peace and wholeness that our liturgy speaks of.

Maybe some of us have experienced that place many times in our lives…perhaps others have been there but not recognized it…and for others still the search for a pathway into prayer has yet to be discovered…

All I can tell you is that chanting our prayers in the traditional way works for me…sometimes, yoga works, meditation, singing and hikes in the mountains…hugging my daughters when they arrive home safely after time spent away at camp…all of these can be moments of authentic prayer for me.

I want to share a short yoga experience with all of you this evening…just a few steps down this particular pathway.

Before we begin I want to say that just as traditional prayer “looks different” depending on who’s davenen…a Chassidic man decked out in black…versus a woman at an egalitarian shule wrapped in a tallit…or teenagers ardently praying together at a USY convention…

Yoga “looks different” in different bodies...feels different in different bodies…we have varied ranges of motion and flexibility…

Yoga is not about being the strongest, thinnest, most flexible pretzel in the room…What I offer you tonight is a practice of gentle movement….accessible, I hope to everyone…no matter your age or state of health.

Lets begin…
If you wish, you may remove your shoes…remember in the Torah when God asks Moshe to remove his shoes because he is about to walk on holy ground? We are creating a holy space here for the next few minutes. For the same reason, I ask that you remain silent, even while taking off your shoes…setting an intention to be present to my voice and the fullness of whatever physical, emotional or spiritual experiences arise for you…
Begin by noticing how you are sitting in your chair…move forward so that your feet are firmly placed on the floor-take a moment to adjust your hips so that they are parallel to the edge of the chair. Place your hands on either side of your chair and grasp around both edges of the chair…pressing down slightly with the fleshy part of your hands…using them as leverage as you lengthen your spine upward…draw your shoulders up toward your ears then bring them toward the back of your body and allow your shoulder blades to slide down along your spine…so you are longer…taller in your chair now, but not stiff. Release your hands and rest them on your lap. Close your eyes.

Sukkot Yoga 10/18/08

In preparing for teaching today I considered several topics related to Sukkot that felt relevant… I was inspired by one of the alternate names for Sukkot- hag haAsif the festival of ingathering –not just the exterior fruits of our harvest but also our spiritual fruits that have been ripening throughout the holy season…and then I thought about the concept of community…moving from a period of t’shuvah, turning toward God…looking at our lives introspectively as individuals and now stepping out from that quiet place to one of noisy, joyful shared Sukkot meals leading us ever forward toward Simchat Torah celebrating our shared stories anew as we rewind the Torah back to the beginning.

But then it struck me during the second day of Rosh Hashannah as I was listening to Rabbi Jon talk about the 100 blessings a day we are meant to recite, and his suggestion of how we might simplify our blessings to Baruch Attah- Blessed are You-a “simplification” that of course expands into a complex web of connection-I saw a way to weave these topics together with one simple word…hodaya…gratitude.

Although Sukkot is the biblical holiday that the American tradition of Thanksgiving is based upon… that’s not why I decided on gratitude for today’s teaching…again, back to simplicity…if I personally had to choose one message in all of the Torah… that points to the essence of what I believe we are meant to understand…it could be distilled back to this one word… Hodayah…gratitude.

It really is simple…thank you. Thank You God …modah ani l’fanecha, melech chai v’kayam shehechezarta bi nishmati v’chemla raba emunatecha…I thank you God, eternal One for lovingly restoring my soul to me, filled with your eternal trust (translated by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin) The first prayer we say in the morning as we wake up.

And…Thank you God Elohai neshama shanatata bi tehora hi
…for the pure soul you placed in me…for this breath filling me with life.

And…Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam shehekiyanu, v’kiyamanu, v’higianu, la z’man hazeh Thank you God, creator of time and space for bringing us to THIS moment!

Our liturgy is filled with words of Thanks… and our lived moments, those rare moments of true awareness remind us on a visceral level that indeed, we have a great deal to be thankful for.

Guided Meditation

I want to spend a few moments of active meditation together…it will be a kind of chesed meditation sometimes called metta or loving kindness meditation in the Vipassana tradtion.

Lets begin with …z’man hazeh…this moment… settle into your physical body…noticing your hands…and any sensations that are present in your hands…(continue with a body scan)

Now that we are all aware of being in our bodies…lets begin to cultivate a feeling of gratitude for this moment of deep awareness…
Can you open to gratitude for being fully present in your miraculous body? In truth, we might not feel well every day. Some of us might be living with ongoing medical conditions…but thank God, our bodies are functioning well enough for us to be here right now. Take a deep breath…and release it…Notice, if you are able, what it feels like to hold an intention of gratitude in your flesh and bones. Are you able to pinpoint a specific sensation somewhere in your physical body that “speaks” gratitude to you? Is there a more global experience filling you? Maybe you don’t feel anything at all, except annoyed that I keep saying the word gratitude. What ever it is you are aware of in this moment…peace, thanksgiving, discomfort, annoyance…be with that. You might become aware that your mind is wandering off into a story…as soon as you notice that that’s happening come back to your breath and allow your breath to direct your awareness to sensation in your body. Dwell in this place for a few more breaths…

Now bring into your awareness someone you love…someone you feel deeply grateful toward. Keep it simple, as simple as being grateful toward this person for being in your life. You don’t even have to have a specific event or deed in mind. Dwell here in this heart this Sukkah of hodaya…a fragile hut of gratitude…Allow this feeling to expand. Let it spread out to someone else in your life. Someone you don’t know quite as well… another person you feel gratitude toward. Allow yourself to experience feelings of thankfulness in this sukkah…in this heart-space of hodaya. With your next full breath watch this sukkah of gratitude expand yet again to include someone you really don’t know, but who you have had some interaction with at one time…Maybe a clerk in a grocery store who smiled at just the right moment…a nurse at the hospital who was kind enough to offer you a cup of coffee while you waited for a loved one to be wheeled out of the OR…a child whose laughter struck a joyful chord in your heart unexpectedly…someone who elicited a feeling of gratitude from you at one precise moment in your life…bring that memory to the surface…allow a visceral feeling of gratitude to permeate every cell of your being toward this person whose name you might not even know…Invite the memory of this person crossing your path into your sukkah of hodaya. Now permit this experience of gratitude to grow beyond the boundary of people you have had personal contact with…in your next breath expand your sukkah yet again …include grateful feelings toward the person who stocked the shelves at your local grocery store with the food you have eaten this morning…allow thanks to arise in your heart and spread toward the people who packaged your food….now include the many people who were involved in processing your food…picking…growing…planting the ingredients that were a part of your breakfast this morning…allow your gratitude to flow out…and in…direct your feelings toward the Creator…for without the Source of all Creation we could not be here and none of this goodness would be possible…be present to your entire physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual being allowing the fullness of who you are to be saturated with gratitude for z’man hazeh…for this moment of grace…of awareness…, round and whole like the harvest moon that ushered in this festival of Sukkot.

Notice any sensations that might be arising in your physical body right now. Come back to the boundaries of your flesh…of your skin…noticing the rising and falling of your chest and belly with your next breath. Gently returning to the shared space of this room…slowly opening your eyes…
Part of yoga, the part most Americans are familiar with is the series of movements, asanas (in Sanskrit). Each movement is essentially a gesture that embodies a certain quality that we desire to bring into the world…kind of like middot (soul-qualities) in motion.

Since our theme today is Hodaya – gratitude, I’ve combined some movements that I hope you will experience as physical gestures or expressions of gratitude.

Gratitude implies relationship…whether it is a relationship between each of us and God…or between each of us and our loved ones, or other community members…there is an element of connectedness…so some of our movements might appear to be solo, from the outside…but I would like us to approach each asana with an awareness that we are indeed connected. So when practicing a solo movement…do it with God consciousness…”…an awareness of Shekhinah, God’s indwelling Presence. We will also be attempting a couple of asanas, as partners in the spirit of creating community… and as we do this I ask that we all hold an intention of thankfulness, curiosity and friendliness, bringing the spiritual fruits, the insights we have gained these past few weeks to our practice.

Asana Practice
• Warm ups-Neck-shoulders-ribs-
seated twist (look over your shoulder at the other people in this room…and then refocus on your breath…on feeling chiyyut. Life force…the same life force that flows through you flows through me and everyone else in this space…everyone else on the planet…it is the same neshima, breath that the Holy Blessed One breathed into ADAM the first being and it continues to flow through all living things.)
6 movements of the spine-Marvel with gratitude at the miracle of your body…at the flexibility of your spine to move so gracefully in 6 basic directions and all of the micro movements in between.
Child-pausing for a moment of stillness…bringing awareness to your breath. Cultivating gratitude for the ability to just stop, rest and enjoy this moment of stillness.
• Standing in mountain…Allow a feeling of gratitude to rise up from the souls of your feet…aware that you have a place to stand…here in this community…here on this earth…Your presence is valuable and there are people in this room who feel grateful that you are here.
Barchu pose- Bending your knees –straighten them and bow forward-leading with your heart. As you bend and bow in this traditional “Jewish Asana” think about humility and how a gesture of humility might be intertwined with gratitude.
Partnered tree pose- Hold an intention of gratitude toward your partner for “being there” to support you (each partner stands so that straight leg is on the inside-reaching out palms flat against each other, creating support through our outstretched arms)
• Mountain step feet apart-go into “full moon” – half moon with straddled feet-reaching with outside arm up and over reaching palm to palm creating a “full moon” arc with arms and side bend (in honor of the full moon of Sukkot . Please consider what the words “full” and “whole” mean in the context of gratitude in the context of community)
Mountain-hands in prayer- turning towards partner bowing head in gratitude

• Back to back breathing (back of heart to back of heart-shoulders touching shoulders) Feel the warmth and support of your partner-heart to heart-breath to breath…connecting soul to soul…this is an unusual opportunity to feel close to another human being. Just breathe together.
• Lifting opposite arm overhead and pressing palms for shoulder and chest opening stretch. (Be aware of what it means to reach toward another person with an open heart)

• Coming to floor laying on back…bridge-being a gesher…what does is mean to BE a bridge?
• Coming down to rest completely on the floor in Sivasana

Shabbat Ki Tavo (Jr Congregation) 9/20/08

3 words. T’shuvah, Neshima, Neshama
return, breath and soul

The following is a teaching I offered to our 3rd-6th Grade students in preparation for the High Holy days.

One of the big themes this time of year is t’shuvah. Some people interpret this word to mean repentance…

What does that mean to you?

T’shuvah also means return. What/Who are we returning to?
How do you do t’shuvah?

Here’s another way I’d like to share with you.
Lets look at the next two words on my little list.
Neshima and Neshama come from the same Hebrew root: Nun Shin Mem. This is really cool because if you go back to the beginning of the Torah (which will be doing in a couple of weeks there’s the story of the first human being.

How does God bring Adam to life? God “breathes into his nostrils the breath of life”…nishmat Chayyim…nishmat…neshimah, neshamah do you hear that the words are intertwined?

Any ideas about why I might be connecting the words breath and soul to t’shuvah…return?

Because…our breath is a perfect reminder that in order to reconnect to return to God all we have to do is pay attention to our own breath…

No matter what you do, or I do…as long as we are living beings. We have to breathe.
Breath seems to disappear as we exhale…but it always returns when we inhale.

Try it. Empty your lungs completely and see what happens.

No matter what we do in our lives…no matter how badly we misbehave or treat other people or even treat our selves…we are never really disconnected from God because God’s Presence resides within us…God’s breath filled adam and brought him to life…God’s breath in my way of understand this story became adams soul.

It’s the same for you and me. Our breath is a path to t’shuvah… to returning to God…It’s the same breath that God breathed into adam…the same breath that brought him to life and filled him with a soul is the breath we are sharing right now.
Everybody exhale….inhale…this is pretty amazing…the same breath being passed around forever.

Knowing this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apologize to people when we hurt them. We still have to make amends in some way….but this understanding of how close God really is to us…right inside of us...helps us to know that we can do the right thing. We can return to being kind and compassionate no matter how bad our mistakes have been…the path back… the return to God will happen…just like the next breath…but we need to pay attention to how we act and think…we need to pay attention to God in other people, in all of Creation around us…nishmat Chayyim…the breath of life is everywhere! Paying attention to our breath reminds us that t’shuvah is always possible…and in a sense…just a breath away.

I want to teach you a prayer we can say everyday…
The prayer is this:

Elohai neshama, shenatata bi, tehora hi

God, the soul/breath you placed in me is pure.

Breath awareness exercise-one hand on heart, one on the belly.