My only daughter, Hanna Leigh, has always been an inspiration to me. She has never been content to let the prescriptions of others dictate her life’s journey. She is a spiritual adventurer, searching for the best and most freeing elements of various traditions around her. She is also a gifted singer, with two musical compilations to her credit. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog; Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), she describes how singing has become a Source-connecting discipline for her.
To me, the gift of singing is what I call “embodied presence,” shifting me from thinking to feeling. For this to happen, I need to be truly present in my body. The more I focus on the physical vibrations moving through me or ponder the meaning behind lyrics (like a finger pointing to the moon), the deeper I come into this place of fuller awareness.
On a physiological level, singing regulates my nervous system, either through upbeat songs and sounds that spark me out of a slump, or soothing melodies that calm my frenetic energy and quiet my mind. I like to carve out time to have “sounding sessions” with myself, where I simply sit and make the sounds of whatever I am feeling in my body. Sometimes my mind judges these utterances as weird or ugly, but as I allow them to express what could be more difficult through English, there is relief, healing, wholeness…sometimes bringing tears, sometimes laughter. This is a valuable part of my spiritual and emotional hygiene.
As with other art forms and spiritual practices, when I’m truly immersed in the expression, I’m not worried about how I’m going to fix something of the past or achieve something in the future. I spiral into a deeper connection with myself and the living world, opening my senses. I realize that this organic connection was here even before I started singing. It is always here. I just need to tune in and ride the wave.
A beautiful elder and song-leader named Laurence Cole, who has inspired me and many others to sing in circles together, calls singing “a technology of belonging.” When we sing together in a group, we come into a resonant field and remember that we belong to each other. Some of my most powerful memories of growing up in the Christian church are moments of group singing; raising our voices in praise of the glory of a greater power that animates the world. This same impulse continues to inspire me, just as the birds rise at dawn to offer their songs to the web of creation.
I met Ann Averbach on the island of Maui while staying at a commune called Lokahi, which means harmony in Hawaiian. It’s a beautiful place. One night while sleeping in a bamboo hut, I heard the booming sound of humpback whales playfully slapping their fins on the water of a nearby inlet. Ann is a longtime practitioner and teacher of yoga. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters, she shares her insights on why it is such an important part of her spiritual journey. I especially resonate with her description of those moments when we get elevated visions from the peaks still ahead of us.
Yoga is a lifestyle, a discipline, a path, and a constant practice. Many people in our modern world debase it to a series of postures designed for physical fitness. We all need healthy bodies, but the truest benefits of yoga are in our subtle body, our pranic body. Yoga is a full mind, body, spirit discipline whose goal is to bring us home to the luminous peace of our true nature. We are all gods and goddesses and have unlimited potential lying dormant within us. We are powerful beyond measure, and we can activate this power through practices which awaken our kundalini energy—that life-force lying dormant at the base of our spine, waiting for us to raise it up to our higher energy centers.
Like any practice, the more we commit ourselves, the deeper we go. As well-known yoga teacher, B. K. S. Iyengar, says, “Practice and all else is coming.” I tell my students that three times a week is the minimum to keep our practice in balance. If we really want to progress, I recommend five to six days a week with a day off to rest. Anything worthwhile or beautiful in this life takes commitment and dedication.
The wonderful thing about practicing yoga is that it changes with our lifestyle, the seasons, and the seasons of our lives. It adapts to our ever-evolving needs. At first, we may have to force ourselves to practice. However, as we realize that we are more energized and centered, our discipline—what we call our daily sadhana—becomes a joy that gives back to us a thousand-fold!
For many others and me, it is often through crisis that our practice grows. Yoga became my absolute lifeline and saving grace during my mother’s final months on our planet. Losing her was one of the greatest challenges I have faced in this lifetime. Along with my aunt, I was her constant caregiver, and the one activity I had for personal space was to go to my yoga classes. It’s so true that in order to care for others and not burn out, we must first care for ourselves. During this extremely difficult time, I realized how yoga saved my life. It deepened my daily practice and commitment exponentially. Often, when we start inventing reasons why we are too busy or unable to come back to our mats, that is when we need it the most.
Many of yoga’s practices, especially working with the subtle body, are nebulous and theoretical at first. For example, working with the bandhas, or energetic locks, when we first learn to breathe into our pelvic floor. Most people can’t even bring their breath to the low abdomen. However, as we purify ourselves physically, we are able to purify ourselves mentally, energetically, and spiritually as well. We start to tune in to increasingly subtle realms and have “aha moments” and breakthroughs.
I would illustrate it like this, based on my personal experience. We may have times where we are climbing and climbing the metaphorical mountain of our spiritual journey and it seems as if we are so far from the summit. Then, one day, we suddenly fly to the top and have an awakening where we can see from an elevated state, experiencing bliss, samadhi, nirvana. We may slide back down to where we were previously climbing, but that glimpse from the top inspires us carry on, to chop wood and carry water as the Zen Buddhists say. We return to our practice 1,000 times, a thousand times, until eventually we make our way back to that highest summit of spiritual experience and elevated awareness.