Podcast: Finding Refuge in Your Yoga Practice
Questions and answers with Erika Belanger on August 19, 2018
The actual Podcast recording can be found here at this link:
Below are the questions and my answers from the Podcast. They vary a little from the actual recording.
I hope you enjoy both.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what brought you to yoga originally?
I found yoga in my early 20’s. My husband at the time was a chiropractor and wholistic doctor and so he was the one who said we should try yoga. It was not a particularly challenging time in my life…nothing major going on other than the usual. I was just out of college, getting married and trying to sort out what I was going to do with the rest of my life…which is what you are asking yourself at that time.
I had been a “spiritual seeker” from my early childhood so trying yoga seemed to make sense. After my first class, I (like many long time yoga practitioners often say) had an immediate connection with it. It felt like I had found my path.
During that time, I was and had been training as a dancer and teaching dance to children. I was dancing every day, teaching several times a week, doing shows which basically means I did not need more exercise or body movement in my life. So I was not seeking that from yoga.
I have told many of people that I did not go to yoga classes in the beginning for the asana practice. I went for the philosophy, meditation, pranayama and the spiritual teachings. Luckily for me, my early teachers were students of Krishnamacharya (who was still alive then) and TKV Desikachar. These early teachers taught classes that were a combination of asana, pranayama, philosophy and meditation.
It was only later in my yoga life that I found myself diving deeper into the asana portion of the yogic path.
How do you define or see the idea of refuge?
I read this statement somewhere written by a Buddhist monk:
“When we trust that we are the Ocean, we are not afraid of the waves.”
That is what Refuge means to me. Refuge is the place I can go where I can feel that I am the ocean…that vast, infinite, connected to everything space where even the waves that are crashing all around me are OK.
Of course, this is easier to say then do. To experience yourself as that deep infinite…OK with everything that arises is a life-long or more likely many lives long practice.
What does it mean to seek refuge in our practice for you?
Taking Refuge is something we do over and over again. It is whatever you find that can help you find solid ground again and feel safe. It is an internal “safe haven”.
How is refuge different than sanctuary?
Refuge is different than Sanctuary only in the sense that a Sanctuary could be an actual place….like a temple, church, yoga studio, your home, out in nature….a place that you feel safe and secure and that can support you finding your center again. A Sanctuary could also be a person or people …a community of people.
They are both important..and often we need to have a Sanctuary to go to so that we can find refuge.
I think for many people the yoga studio is a Sanctuary for them. I like that…I often think of that when I am teaching.
How does that type of practice look like/feel like? Energetically, physically, mentally?
A practice that you can take refuge in should do the following:
- First – it should calm you down and help you feel a certain inner peacefulness again
- Secondly – It should clear your energy and your mind. Supporting you to have mental focus and some emotional stability. This will help you to see things more truthfully as they really are …help you gain perspective.
I like to say that a “good practice” will help clear my mind enough to give me some “space” from the issue that is bothering me. That “space” is usually enough for me to then begin to see the issue differently .this often helps me to handle the issue with more skill.
- And lastly the practice should support you in connecting to something bigger…it should help you experience that sense of being the Ocean…that we are part of something bigger more Divine….something Holy so that you can recognize the Infinite Awareness within …even if it is momentarily.
These 3 benefits must be there for us to truly feel “changed” by the practice.
We should feel an inner calm, have a quieter heart/mind, able to focus our minds more steadily and to have an experience of being connected to Infinite Awareness….which arises out of our inner quietness.
In most of the Wisdom/Spiritual Traditions taking refuge meant that you are seeking refuge in a particular Divine Being…like Krishna, Buddha, Christ or any other spiritual deity.
Taking refuge in this Divine Being means that you both asking for that Divine Being’s support and guidance in your life and you are recognizing that those qualities that that Divine Being possesses, you also have.
So; in other words, you are saying I will remember that I too am good, honest, courageous, loving, peaceful, holy.
We also have those wise qualities that this Divine Being has and we bow to that and remember to live in more integrity with those qualities.
Thomas Merton who was a Trappist Monk and wrote one of my favorite books called Entering the Stillness..wrote about refuge by saying….that he ended each day by being near God.
He said that he would be near God and talk about his day. What was he frustrated by? What was he hopeful about? What did he do well? What did he not do well? Just talking to “God” as a way to be near to the Divine.
I like this image of Taking Refuge. To just be near God, Universal Presence or any other word that helps you to invoke a sense of being connected to something sacred and holy.
What in your life made you seek refuge in your yoga practice?
Every day of my life is a call for me to Take Refuge. I am not sure how anyone else’s life goes but mine is almost always a series of “ups and downs”….some days are amazing…everything going perfectly and I am loving life…and then other days are either some internal battle I have going on….I feel uninspired or challenged by something outside of myself. Relationships issues, health issues, family issues, etc…
The bigger answer to this question is that from an early age I found that I was looking for a deeper meaning to my existence. I found most things to be a challenge and I wanted to know why? And I began to ask the questions most spiritual seekers ask….who was I?….And what was this life about? What was my purpose in this life?
Big, deep questions that moved in me the desire to Take Refuge as I like to call it.
What are your thoughts about pain and suffering in general, as part of the human experience?
Hum? I am not sure how to answer this question.
I guess I could say that it seems to be a part of our human experience and as difficult as it is to go thru pain and suffering, these painful experiences are often our greatest teachers. This is the paradox of human experience.
None of us want to suffer but the suffering is what often moves us out of our unhealthy patterns.
I think it is not so much that there will not be suffering but how we handle the pain and suffering rather than the suffering itself that becomes the powerful transformer in our lives.
We can gain enormous inner strength from these experiences.
This is where our daily practices can support us in finding an inner refuge where we can be in our center even amidst the challenges.
What parts of the practice are the most potent in your opinion when what we seek safety and shelter?
I obviously think meditation is the most important thing you can do as part of a daily practice.
A meditation practice that helps you to focus your mind away from all of the distractions of daily life, a practice that supports you in experiencing yourself as you are now, a practice that brings you into the present and a practice that awakens in you the experience that you are not alone, that we are connected to some Divine force…whether you call it God, Divine, Universal Presence, or a more specific name. And that that Divine Presence is always there supporting you, guiding you and loving you.
And a meditation practice that supports you having an experience of a deeper awareness that is beyond your thoughts, emotions, worries, concerns.”
Many people find meditation to be difficult especially in the early years of their yoga practice. If that is the case, your yoga asana practice can be your meditation. As long as you do a asana practice that is mindful enough to help you feel an inner calm and clarity again and when you are done with it, you feel more at ease.
You also do workshops about the Yamas and Niyamas, I see a clear connection between the two subjects. How are they related for you?
According to my philosophy teacher, practicing the Yamas in particular but also the Niyamas help to create an environment around us that is peaceful and safe.
For instance; when we practice Ahimsa, being kind to others, not harming, it sets up both an inner environment and an outer environment which is non-violent. When we are not “at war” with others in our lives or within ourselves, the conditions for us to do a practice are better. We feel more at ease and the space around us is more at ease.
Also; according to Patanjali, the reason we practice the 8 Limbs of Yoga, in which the first two limbs or stages of our yoga practice are the Yamas and the Niyamas is to clear away the obstacles that prevent us from clearly seeing the difference between the (never changing) permanent inner light of awareness and the ever changing …ever fluctuating and reactive part of our nature.
This is the reason for the 8 Limbs of Yoga beginning with the Yamas and the Niyamas.
They are absolutely connected to our ability to Take Refuge.
How much does traditional texts influence/support you in developing this kind of practice?
Quite a bit.
I have been fortunate to have been exposed to these great wisdom texts from early in my yoga life. I also consider myself fortunate in that I took such a great interest in the study of these texts. Often studying them even without the support of a teacher but of course I have also had teachers in philosophy.
I believe that to be firmly grounded on a yogic path you must study the traditional texts. They are sacred books that hold many keys to spiritual awakening.
Why do you want to offer refuge to your students? What do they need refuge from? How did you know/when did you realize you could serve your community in that way?
I do not think I am offering refuge to my students. I am merely sharing what has been shared with me. I truly believe that having a good solid daily practice (whether you do it every day or most days) and a good teacher (this is important especially in the beginning) helps to offset the challenges that our lives will always present to us. We need to develop an inner stability, a balanced and quieter mind that can see things a little clearer. And I believe that having a connection with (shall we say) Spirit is also essential for up-lifting us on a daily basis. This Spiritual connection helps to inspire us to become better people and therefore helping us (little by little) to up-lift the world around us.
What kind of skill are you hoping to develop in your student?
Really I hope to inspire them to want to do a daily practice of meditation and self-reflection. In addition to their yoga asana practice.
What’s the place or the importance of the community when we seek refuge?
Having a good community around us is so important for support on this path. In the Buddhist tradition, taking Refuge in the Sangha (community) is one of the 3 Refuges.
Knowing that you are surrounded by like-minded people who are on this path together can bring great comfort. Plus; we all know that many times the people in our Sangha become our sounding boards when we are going thru troubled times …offering support on so many levels. And those same people since they are walking this same path can remind us of who we really are when we have lost that inner connection.
Where can people find out more about you/this?
I am a local Bay Area yoga/meditation teacher.
My website is www.erikatrice.com. You find more about my classes, workshops and retreats there. Feel free to sign up for my mailing list on my website. I am also offering a workshop the weekend of September 8 & 9, 2018 in Mill Valley at Yoga Works called The Refuge of Practice. Just this topic.
Is there anything important I’m forgetting you would like to touch on?
I think they only other thing I would like to say is that our practice can bring us so much but it is always important to realize that many times we need the support of someone outside of us when times are really challenging. Asking for this support does not negate your practice but it is usually a direct result of your practice. Because the practice has brought you some clarity and from this clarity you may see the need to ask for additional support in the way of counseling, or a spiritual mentor or body work or group classes, etc.
It is important to recognize the role of the helpers in our lives.