Devotion is a dirty word

Devotion is the last thing I ever thought I would be into. I don’t know if it was my saints-in-devotionnon-religious upbringing, the scientific mind-based culture I was born into, or my innate disbelief (from childhood) in an all-powerful male God, but for the longest time ‘devotion’ just felt like a dirty word. Mostly, I realise now, I just had no idea what it was. And I had learnt to be cynical.

As a teenager, I was deeply interested in the ‘spiritual’ – crystals, candles, seances, psychic readings, early attempts at meditation that consisted of sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor with my eyes closed until my head fell back and I imagined that something had happened. I would spontaneously go into strange ‘moods’ (which I now recognize as altered states of consciousness), and would find socializing difficult; and when I tried to talk to people about it, they definitely thought I was weird. I participated in the first levels of reiki training when I was fourteen, and was naturally excited to test it out on those around me. One response I received from someone close was, “Don’t touch me, you freak!”

These early experiences had a huge effect on me. I stopped talking about my experiences and interests in the spiritual realms, and I became cynical of the light and sweetness inside of me. It was challenging and paradoxical: I believed in these things on the deepest level (I had experienced too many things to believe they weren’t real), and yet I was somehow also in denial. Self-protection is a powerful thing.

golden-kirtanEven when I became deeply engaged in meditation and Buddhist practices in my late teens and early twenties, learning about love, compassion, virtues, and service, a part of me was entrenched in a deep cynicism. Even as light and love were growing within me, I was too afraid to let them show – for fear of judgement. And so I judged myself, I judged those who expressed freely (“f*&%ing hippy bhajans” was my standard internal response to people singing devotional songs), and I kept my heart in lockdown.

But the beauty of dedicated spiritual practice, is that ultimately it works.

Fast forward to my early thirties… I started to open to kirtan (devotional singing) through a boyfriend who loved and shared it, and began to experience both the full force of my resistance and the radical joys of my heart. And then on a retreat in India, where the divine Geoffrey Gordon was sharing daily nada yoga and kirtan, my heart cracked. One morning, during a silent ‘listening’ meditation where Geoffrey was singing a song to the divine duo Rama and Sita, I spontaneously started singing with him, tears streaming down my face, and the words echoing in my head, “I just love God so much!” It was done. My heart was open and the light started to pour out.

kirtan-with-geoffrey-india

I’d had no idea that my heart was a heart of devotion. That I loved the divine, I loved the light, and I loved love. And that revelation and transformation would come through allowing it to pour out, fearless and unapologetic.

But as things often go with spiritual practice, we have these moments of deep insight, that often mark the beginning of an intense upheaval, and then take time to mature… So devotional singing cracked my heart open, and I found myself plunged into a period of despair. Then from touching the depths of darkness and desperately seeking a way out, I started to slowly open to love and devotion. I started praying every day. It became my mission to master love, to see with eyes of love, to live as love, to be love. I realised this was my deepest purpose, and would lead me to my greatest happiness – because then it wouldn’t matter where I was, who I was with, what I was doing – I would be in love. And so began my path of devotion.

So what actually is devotion?

Many spiritual paths ultimately offer devotion as the highest practice. In the yoga tradition, devotion is bhakti – a yearning for the divine, a deep love of God. And what is God? My personal experience of God, which connects to the non-dual teachings of yoga and tantra, is that God is consciousness itself. God is love itself. Everything in the seen and unseen world is made of this same fabric of consciousness, manifest in a divine play to experience its own nature and its own awakening. This is the yearning that stirs within us for awakening, for liberation and for love. It is the journey of the self to the Self.

So if we experience the divine as love itself, then devotion is a deep love of love, a commitment to love as the highest path. It is the path of the heart. But more than that, it is a practice of deep offering, surrender, and trust.

intention-of-loveThis is the practice of ishvara pranidhana – surrender (pranidhana) to a higher source (ishvara) – that is offered to us in two of the great texts of yoga, the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. It is a way of getting out of our own way and dissolving the personal ego that we battle with so much. It reminds us to open to life, in all its mystery, and allow grace to pour through us.

In the words of my great teachers, “Everything is conspiring for your awakening.” So when we trust in this greater force, whether we call it God, love, or the divine, we recognize ourselves as a small part in the great play of life, that is ultimately bringing us towards our own greatness. We bow down humbly, offering ourselves to the will of God, to the highest good, to love. And we listen. The practice becomes both the offering and the listening, for the voice that guides our next moves. And as we do this, we begin to experience grace and synchronicity, a deep sense of trust, and an often radical shift in perspective – even the hardships have their place, and as we willingly surrender to them in great trust, there is an ease that pours through us.

So devotion might seem like a dirty word, because it is in so many ways the unknown. And it demands that we drop down into the mysterious space of the heart and surrender the constant grasping of the analytical mind. Challenging in a world that triumphs logic and science. When we walk the path of devotion, we open to the great mystery of life. We walk the razor’s edge, because we know that we don’t know. We have to be willing to sacrifice our ego, to have our heart cracked open, to trust life and go where it asks. It’s the most daring and courageous path I know. But the gift is an ever-greater love that begins to awaken within us.

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Awakening the Voice of the Body-Soul

Durga sanskrit mandalaWhen you listen, you discover that life has a way of weaving itself into being through you. Because life is ever-creative, it is constantly revealing new gifts and insights, and inviting us to explore new paths into greater discovery and fullness.

As I return home from two months of travels and teachings in Thailand, Bali and the Philippines, I see clearly that the thread that has been distinctly woven for me this year has been awakening the voice.

I don’t simply mean the singing voice – the one that we’re told is good or bad, that sounds beautiful or like a cat howling, or in tune or out of tune. I mean the Voice of the Body-Soul. The voice that expresses the stories, the yearnings, the trials, the emotions, the ecstasy and the pain of all we experience in this human life, in this human form.

And as we get even more refined, we understand as the voice of consciousness itself. It is the power of the word, of thought, of the very vibration of life that takes us closer and closer to our essence. So we can start at the voice to travel the exquisite journey inwards, towards silence, towards our essential nature. It is one of the most powerful tools we have.

Kirtan band Mei LaiFrom a deep love of devotional singing, community and a wonderful acoustic space, I began late last year to offer free community kirtans. To my surprise, a kirtan band emerged, and growing numbers of people started coming together to sing. It felt amazing, and so I continued. I quickly discovered that people were deeply curious to use their voices more, and to work with mantra and chants. These are powerful tools to soften the mind, connect to the heart, and lead us into silence and meditation. And so I began offering workshops, exploring this yoga of sound, to which people flocked. These practices unlocked not only people’s voices, but also tears, emotions and experiences that had been repressed for far too long in a culture that says that only a small handful of people are ‘qualified’ to use their voices.

I was then invited to teach the Art of Voice and Mantra on my dear friend Emily Kuser’s High Vibe Yoga teacher training in Bali in July. I love these spaces outrageously, where there is time and freedom to explore and experiment.

Thirty students opened their voices and hearts fully to daily devotional song, so willingly High Vibe Yoga freedomand beautifully that we cried. They courageously used their voices to freely release and express the stories and pains lying hidden with the body. And then used their voices to soothe and soften. Without words, without stories, without guidelines or limitations. We discovered together the connections between the voice and the force of life, the breath; and the direct connection between the voice and consciousness, the essence of life. We sang, we laughed, we cried, we screamed, we crooned, we sighed and we discovered ourselves anew.

Through our Voice we are born and we die, we create and release, renew and discover. It is profound, simple, and astonishing. And something we all innately and uniquely have.

So I am completely and utterly in love. And dedicated to diving even further into this journey of the Voice. In early September I am flying to the US for a retreat with Sally Kempton and Silvia Nakach, for five days of mantra, voice and meditation with these shakti masters. And I am dedicated to sharing more of my own discoveries, gifts and awakenings with anyone who wishes to courageously and lovingly explore their own Voice. Because it’s one of the most incredible things I know.

When we follow the inner promptings, our own true Voice, we know exactly where to go. And what we discover along the way is bound to be astonishing.

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Upcoming workshops:

Kali: Doing the Shadow Work, Saturday August 27th 12-3pm, Gertrude Street Yoga Studio

Sound and Silence: mantra and meditation, dates to be advised soon

Consciousness, autonomy, the profound and the ordinary – Insights from Continuum Movement: At the Crossroads retreat

Amber Gray

Amber Gray

I recently had the pure delight of spending five days on a Continuum Movement retreat near Sydney with my dear friend and inspiring teacher Amber Gray, who, amongst many other skills and credentials, is the only Continuum teacher to regularly visit Australia and offer this rich practice.

Continuum Movement was developed by Emilie Conrad, a US dancer who spent five years living and dancing in Haiti in the 1950s. It was during this time that Continuum Movement was birthed out of a deep curiosity and insight, into a rich practice of somatic inquiry. It is a practice that uses breath, sound, movement and an evolving philosophy of life to tap into and awaken the natural intelligence of the body and its fluid resonance. In my experience, it fosters an easeful practice of listening and a profound state of open, alive awareness that I have not encountered so deeply in any other practices or traditions.

water flow creek

The title of this particular retreat was “At the Crossroads”, drawing on Amber’s experience in the vodou traditions and ceremonial practices of Haiti (out of which Continuum emerged). With our Continuum ‘dive’ structured according to the phases of Haitian ceremony, Amber wove the history of Haitian vodou and insights from the philosophy and tradition through the retreat. The crossroads is the place, the plane, the movement between birth and death, light and dark, love and fear – that, like the yin-yang of the Tao, ultimately reveals these polar opposites as one and the same, inseparable and interdependent. During the retreat, we were invited to bring our questions, our desires, our offerings and honourings to this crossroads and receive our own insights through the practice.

Veve of Legba - Guardian of the Crossroads

When I talk about Continuum, I often find myself describing it only as ‘weird’ or ‘amazing’, at a loss for words as I am still trying to find ways to articulate what the practice is and why it is so powerful. The most ‘useful’ way I have discovered to describe it recently is a “moving sound meditation”. But even that does not do justice to the richness of the practice, which alternates particular patterns of breath, unusual sounds, and simple movements with “open attention” – where you rest into echoes of the patterns and follow the impulses and sensations that arise into spontaneous movement. In this space of open attention, you can experience profound physical unwinds, emotional releases, deep rest, trance states, or the experience of the body ‘being moved’ by some natural intelligence that is awakened. Or perhaps you are simply present and awake to the very ‘ordinary’ experience of being in your body and your everyday mind.

One of the most potent lessons I have received through my practice of Continuum is that the ‘profound’ states and the ‘ordinary’ states are equal in value. They are all expressions of consciousness, of being, of life: consciousness doesn’t change, only the states of the mind change. And they are all equally precious, equally wonderful, equally ordinary, whatever they may be. Many traditions teach their students not to go chasing ‘spiritual’ experiences, as the very chase can lead you astray from the discovery of awakening into simple being.

Alex Gray image

A key element of Continuum is an emphasis on what Emilie called being “self-referential” – which we might also think of as autonomy. Rather than simply doing what you’re told to do moment to moment, as in many traditions of discipline, you are taught the sound/movement sequence (the “dive”), and then you make your own way through it. In this way, your experience emerges through your own intelligence, wisdom and self-reliance: through listening. You become your own guide, your own teacher, and the master of your own experience.

In a Continuum ‘depths’ retreat, there is an ‘all-nighter’ – this is a period of time, often 24 hours, in which you are in silence and you continue to practice the dive throughout the night in the hall. It is through this ‘all-nighter’ that I felt the potency of the practice in awakening this sense of natural autonomy. Although the space and the ‘dive’ is there as the guide and the container, and at certain set times the group comes back together to sit for a few moments in silence, the beauty of this practice is that you can do just as you feel during this whole time. Unlike other practices of ‘discipline’, you are encouraged to have a cup of tea when you like, go for a walk, take a break, spend time in nature, rest, sleep, journal, draw – you follow the impulses that arise as an expression of your own being. So I did just that. And at the completion of the ‘all-nighter’, and a whole array of profound, mystical and very ordinary experiences, the only words I had to express were, “I just feel so natural!”

woman standing with clouds and sunrays

In a conversation with Amber on my constant monkey-mind musings on what the practice is, what it’s for, what are we doing, Amber’s simple response to me was, “You know what it is. It’s a life practice.”

And I finally awakened to that simple realisation.

 

 

In deep reverence and gratitude to Emilie Conrad, who passed away last year; to my dear friend and teacher Amber Gray; and to all of the Continuum teachers who are keeping this evolving, rich practice of discovery and life alive.
Emilie Conrad

Instagram and the Gymnastics of Yoga

CONFESSION OF A YOGI…

photoInstagram and the Gymnastics of Yoga: Please join me in a conversation…

Now I know that human beings are human beings. And one of the truths of being human is that we like to be wowed. We love tricks. We even teach them to our dogs. And a one-handed scorpion is certainly impressive and most likely the result of a lot of physical discipline and practice. But if we get stuck there, we miss what yoga is really about…

I was very recently introduced to the world of Instagram yoga: courageous fun-loving super-flexy yogis posting pictures of themselves in extreme contortions from all corners of the globe. My friend told me some of these yogis have thousands upon thousands of followers, and have veritably built their yoga ‘career’ through instagram.. My mind boggled at the concept, my eyes boggled as I perused some of the poses, my friend exhorted to me that I needed to get with the Instagram program (which, incidentally and amusingly to me, I did), and I wondered cheekily whether I could build up a following of thousands by posting pictures of myself in serene meditation somewhere new and ‘daring’ every day.

Because the question it brought up for me is: why are people so drawn to the ‘gymnastics’ of yoga? And is the ‘wow’ factor actually leading us astray?

Yogrishi Vishvketu

Yogrishi Vishvketu

The physical practice of yoga – ‘asana’ – is a foundational practice in the path of raja yoga – it creates a strong and healthy body, a strong nervous system, and if practiced properly, a deep embodied awareness. It prepares the body and mind for the deeper practices of pranayama and meditation. It has innumerable benefits. But if practiced solely for fitness, without proper intention, awareness, and breathing, it is what I recently heard Yogrishi Vishvketu laughingly call ‘jumping pumping’ (imagine this in your best Indian accent). It is not yoga, and will never take you deeper…

But for many, the allure of being fit, strong, and capable of impressive tricks, is what draws people to take the first steps on the path of yoga. It is only a matter of time, as they discover its deeper benefits, before they start to gain more of an interest in the path as a spiritual practice and as a way of life. Bingo! Everyone wins.

However, as I thought more about this, about the merits of inspiring people through mad handstands, and as I started to contemplate my own foray into the world of instayoga, a more interesting question arose for me – why are the ‘successful’ yoga teachers mostly ones who can do crazy gymnastics? Is that what it takes to have credibility as a yogi or a yoga teacher now? And what is the message that ‘modern yoga’ is conveying: “Real yogis do scorpion on one hand while drinking a raw smoothie”?

Now I know that human beings are human beings. And one of the truths of being human is that we like to be wowed. We love tricks. We even teach them to our dogs. And a one-handed scorpion is certainly impressive and most likely the result of a lot of physical discipline and practice. But if we get stuck there, we miss what yoga is really about. Does it matter if I can do a one-handed scorpion, or does it matter more that I have a practice and the tools to cleanse and calm the mind, open the heart, transform the spirit, shatter the ego, and develop immense insight and compassion.

And we may also miss the importance of the journey of the practice… because most of us do not embark upon a practice of yoga with a ‘perfect’ body.

photo copy 2

Which leads me to my own confession: I have moments when I am confronted by others’ superior physical abilities, and in those moments of weakness I have even wondered about my own credibility. Have I not put in enough dedication and hard work? Have I not been doing the practice properly? Am I a ‘fraud’?

Well actually, the answer is pretty simple: we all have different bodies, we all have different histories, and we all have different journeys. The point is to honour the one we are on. I am not one of those super-flexy crazy pretzel yogis. I was not a gymnast or a dancer, or even into sports at all, and I am not ‘naturally’ flexible. I couldn’t touch my toes as a teenager. I never even kicked up into a handstand as a child. I’ve had injury after injury (from life, not from yoga) that have compromised by neck and left shoulder, my lower back, both of my ankles, my right wrist, and hip and pelvis problems that no amount of asana practice seems to resolve. BUT, as a result, I have been on – and am still on – a journey with my body, my mind, and my heart that has taught me patience, love, and awareness – for myself, and now for my students who arrive in class with ‘less-than-perfect’ bodies. I have also derived an immense and particular satisfaction from this long and difficult journey, which I would never have had if I had arrived at my yoga practice already strong, flexible and physically capable.

photo copy

But most importantly, this ‘struggle’ with my body has constantly reminded me and kept me dedicated to the deeper journey of mind, heart and spirit that is the true path of yoga. This is the journey that should take us towards selflessness, wisdom, authenticity, liberation, compassion and love. If we get to a one-handed scorpion and never make it to these other qualities, we have not been practicing yoga… we have just been doing gymnastics.

I would love for this to be a conversation – please share your comments, your thoughts, your own journey… yoga for every body

Now, off to Instagram my meditation… ❤

xo Mei Lai

Thoughts for the new year: every moment is an opportunity for a new beginning

Beautiful people, Happy New Year!

I hope you had the perfect start to the new year, filled with love, joy and celebration, with the letting go of things no longer needed, the inviting in of things desired, and the setting of clear intentions for the year ahead.

They say start how you intend to continue. For me, this means that one of my favourite things to do from time to time is to begin a new year on retreat – as a sign of my commitment to continued and dedicated transformation. And that is where I was this year: a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, on a beautiful property just out of Melbourne, doing the gruelling but unbelievably rewarding work of sitting in meditation for 11 hours a day, diving deep into the inner world, and emerging with new insights, clarity, a renewed appreciated for discipline, and of course, a whole lot more questions… inspiration for more practice!

Vipassana Centre

The last couple of years have been a time of huge change for me: 2012 brought tumultuous inner upheaval, dissolution and letting go, and 2013 saw the results of mindfully working through that upheaval and trusting the process through the paving of new paths, opportunities more rewarding than I could have imagined, immense joy and satisfaction. I understand this and celebrate this as the constant and not always easy cycle of dissolution and creation that is the path of life, of growth, and of transformation. This is what brings us into new awareness, new understandings, greater joy, and of course, more love.

And it was again at this juncture that I arrived towards the end of 2013 (I remember an old uni friend of mine said once, “Every body goes through changes, but somehow it’s like you do everything in fast forward!”). After a year of new clarity and insights, these dissolved into a place of a sweet ‘not-knowing’. Everything that I understood as ‘the path’, as ‘practice’, as ‘yoga’, presented itself as a blank – but rather than feeling as if the rug had been brutally pulled out from under me, it was instead a gentle melting away, an understanding that I was at the point of some new and deeper truth, some new insights, new understandings… and with that, I knew that the only thing to do was to practice, intensely, fervently and with great discipline. Vipassana offered me that opportunity, and I was very excited and grateful to become re-acquainted with this simple but incredibly powerful practice of meditation after many years, and the very pure and love-filled teaching of S.N. Goenka, who brought Vipassana to the world, and who passed away last year at the age of 90. And more excited to know that that is only the beginning of the continued practice to come over the course of this year…

seedling

The details of my insights, discoveries and experiences of the last 10 days are stories that I am sure will unfold through my continued practice, in my classes, through my continued teaching and studentship. They are seeds that will grow over the coming weeks and months, and I am looking forward to sharing them as they ripen. But for now, what seems most relevant to me as a way forward, is to see each and every moment as an opportunity for a new beginning, the opportunity to start afresh, for new possibilities – trusting in the flow of life as we do the work of walking the path and deepening our awareness.

So all the potency that we pour into the ‘new year’ – pour that into every moment. Work hard, with dedication. Stay open to possibility. And make the most of it – celebrate every moment of life, however it presents itself. This is the journey and the mystery and the reward.

with love,

Mei Lai

SEVA: Yoga, Selfless Service, and Social Justice

When I was in my late teens and early twenties studying Buddhism and international development, and wondering how the two fitted together, I came across the idea of “socially engaged Buddhism”, a term coined by Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that completely lit my fire and made my heart glow. Here was a way that helped me make sense of the connection I felt between my growing spiritual path and my fervent desire for social justice in a confounding and beautiful world. It felt like a call to action with the deepest of intentions and understanding: that we are all fundamentally connected, and that the path of personal transformation for our own happiness is actually the path of the heart that leads us to desiring freedom, happiness and equality for all the people and all the creatures that we share this earth with.

Many years later, and deeply on the path of yoga, I discovered that this was not in fact a relatively new ‘spiritual’ concept as I had naively believed, but a very ancient practice in the yoga tradition: ‘seva’ or selfless service.

“Living creatures are nourished by food, and food is nourished by rain; rain itself is the water of life, which comes from selfless worship and service.” – Bhagavad Gita, 3.14

hands-heart-flame-250x227

Yoga means union. It is a path of self-transformation that leads us to feel and experience deep connection with ourselves, others, and all of life. Feeling this connection can naturally lead us to want to help others – not from a desire for personal gain, recognition, or even martyrdom, but because we see the same preciousness of life (which some would call the divine, or God) in every person, in every creature, in every particle of earth. It is a selfless desire to give and to serve life, in any form, and where it is most needed.

We start to feel a natural desire to share the benefits of our yoga practice (peace, happiness, vitality, love), and then to our delight we also discover that what goes around comes around: love creates love, peace creates peace, and by transforming the self we also come to transform our world. Gandhi was right on point when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It starts right with ourselves and our own transformation. But it doesn’t end there.

In our contemporary world, we hear less about ‘seva’ – selfless service, and more about the ideas of social justice and activism. In many ways, they are not so different – they are about creating a better world for all. But to place social justice and social change within the realm of seva means that we are creating social change from a genuine place of love, from the felt experience that we are deeply connected and truly one, rather than from a place of guilt, anger, or a purely intellectual understanding. Our attitude and energy become completely transformed, and this is when we realise what it truly means to give and to serve – the gift of our positive energy and our ability to love and connect may be enough to create great change. And as we practice the art of selfless service, we also deepen our experience of what it means to be truly connected, to realise that we are all the same, and we receive the gifts of giving. When we come from this place, we find an abundance of energy and inspiration – giving becomes receiving, rather than depleting.

So this is an invitation to enter the world of personal transformation and the path of the heart, and to practice the art of selfless service in whichever way you feel inspired – starting a free community yoga class, teaching English to a newly arrived refugee, making an inspiring film, giving an elderly woman a foot massage, volunteering abroad to build a school or making a meal for a homeless person. Every small action, done with love, counts…

“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” – Mother Theresa … which I think means that all of us can do great things.