My journey started on the yoga mat over a decade ago, trying to run away from my demons.
I did not have a word for what I would find at the end of that decade-long search until last year when I became a student at Elephant Academy.
I have slayed a demon or two, but definitely not all of them. I am far from perfect. I had practices that helped me along the way: metta, loving-kindness, compassion, gratitude, grace, forgiveness, love, and light. I had been introduced to and practiced various forms of meditation. Despite the number of tries, I was never successful at sitting.
Yoga practices in the West are a mishmash of lineages, with a broad range of teachers, that just adds more confusion to a simple practice. Just do a google search and you will at once become overwhelmed with the possibilities.
Early in my journey, one of my first searches led me to Elephant. I read, digested, and explored. I received their communications until I didn’t, and then I went on to the next sparkly thing on my path.
I knew I was on a journey that would change my life forever after attending my first yoga teacher training weekend. I was overwhelmed with the stories of my fellow trainees, the peacefulness of the teachers, and the turmoil in my head. The meditations and yoga practices were designed to bring up darkness, or ego. This is part of the journey. You have to go through the mud to find the lotus.
I always had the feeling that the teachers were holding back. That they were in a secret society that we, as trainees, did not belong. They were giving us pieces of the puzzle but never the missing link. In hindsight, I see that they were sharing exactly what they were called to share respecting the circumstances of the situation. I realized I was missing something in my life; their presence was too comforting. They paused before they spoke; their presence ignited the air. I wanted to find that peace they radiated. So, I dove in headfirst and explored a little of everything. But a constant was my journal.
Writing was easier for me than sitting in the stillness of meditation. Journaling became my best friend. I have written in and burned dozens of journals over the years. Pen and paper helped me to change the way I reacted to things. Once I realized I was going through the same situation infinitum, sometimes during the same week of the next year, I was forced to make changes. God knows I did not want that incident to play out again in a slightly different context. It took 15 years for all that crap to fall aside and for me to land at where I am now. Journaling was there every step of the way. Writing is a form of growth, letting go, and meditation for me.
My exploration of deepening my yoga and meditation knowledge led me to Rajanaka. At first, I was introduced to concepts that were way over my head. But I grew in knowledge and eventually began to understand Douglas Brooks’ teachings. I connected with the goddesses and learned how to be completely present in walking meditations with an open yet inquiring mind. I had found a missing link, the energy of community, practicing with my teachers and fellow students. But still, it was not something practical I could practice by myself day-to-day. Continuing my search, I thought the answer may be in deeper Tantric teachings.
I found an advanced yoga teaching training tied to Tantric Buddhist philosophy. The yoga asana technical teachings transformed my practice and made me a better teacher. The various meditation practices were too difficult and time-consuming to be introduced consistently into my lifestyle. One of the practices I was given, I could not complete because of my body. My hip was impinged, and it was impossible for me to move past the pain to complete the required prostrations. I did learn that the Buddhist philosophy was a comfort to me; I just didn’t know how to successfully integrate it into my life.
I was taught that there are many ways to find “the path.” I knew that you needed a teacher, someone who has walked the path and can share the knowledge. I have kick-ass yoga teachers in my life, which has always been the easy part. The space I share with both my teachers and my students is sacred. It is comforting; it inspires and challenges me every single day. Meditation was different. There was always a missing piece, until there wasn’t, and now, I know that that piece is maitri.
Maitri put my life and my journey into perspective as a practice.
I found the practice, the feeling, the energy, and community after years of searching. It came full circle to where my journey started, with Elephant Journal. My relationship with Elephant was rekindled in October of 2021 at an Academy Writing course. It was here I was first introduced to maitri. I have finished the final week of that course, and practice daily. I feel part of something bigger than myself. I feel connected.
I realized that in some ways, I had been practicing maitri all along. I found the one word that meant so much more. It rolled everything I felt and believed in into one little package. I had been giving myself grace, forgiveness, and loving-kindness, I had been sitting in sadness for years. I wasn’t floundering; I always had a practice. I just did not know it. I wasn’t ready to receive it until now.
The teachings share similarities with the lineage I was introduced to in my yoga teacher training. The difference was a seamless introduction into my lifestyle. Maitri was like an old friend, waiting for me backstage.
I mentioned it started with a writing course, where we were taught to meditate before we wrote, so our writing was from the heart. I learned to write. I also learned to listen, to be present and mindful out of respect for the community. In hindsight, Waylon made us practice loving-kindness by removing our shoes, or not using paper products. Sneaky, but brilliant. Every Friday from 12 to 1:15 I sat in complete presence listening to his teachings. Waylon is human, raw, genuine, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and passionate. I wanted to learn how to be a better person from him.
In one of his Friday meetings, Waylon mentioned the book Shambhala, The Sacred Path of The Warrior. This book was already in my personal library, acquired years earlier because it resonated with me on some level. I reread it, slowly, and digested what was being taught. I gave that copy to my son when he was stumbling on his path. I found another copy as well as a stack of other written gems by Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chödrön in three of my favorite used bookstores. These books are now part of my daily reading practice.
When Thich Nhat Hanh passed, also a placeholder for years on my bookshelf, and Waylon and Elephant recognized his brilliance, I was deeply moved. This was about the time I decided to dive deeper into the teachings introduced to me at Elephant. For the first time in over a decade, I felt like I could sit comfortably in uncomfortable stillness.
Maitri and shamatha meditation make sitting easy. All you do is sit with the only thing that is always at your disposal, your breath. At first, I struggled with being told to keep my eyes open. Yogis are often taught to close their eyes to feel the internal sensations, to focus on their third eye. I noticed that closing my eyes, my hearing became keener, I felt like I was connected to the birds in the trees and the world around me. I slowly integrated the practice of open-eye meditation into my sitting; my hearing didn’t change, but my body temperature did. I felt as if I was supported, molded by the air around me.
Shamatha taught me to focus on the exhales. Exhale…dissolve…pause was referenced in one of Thrangu Rinpoche’s teachings in Looking Directly at Mind: The Moonlight of Mahamudra.
Waylon taught me to label “thinking.” When I experienced a clear mind, internally body-present with my eyes open and a connection to something greater than myself, that was the final curtain call. I knew I had found a practice for the rest of my life. Now, I do not want to close my eyes. I am afraid I will be miss something! But most importantly, I want to sit every day to add to that energy that is so much greater than me but supports me at the same time.
In Tonglen, breathing in the darkness also felt foreign to my body, almost like a strong rejection at first. After calming my nerves and resuming the practice mindfully, I was able to feel the results in a unique way. The exhales were filled with light and beauty that kept diminishing the darkness, and the practice settled. This practice is so useful to help make shifts to live a kinder gentler life, not only to yourself but to others as well. To be able to see the power behind this practice is humbling. Once again, it makes me want to practice daily.
It was not the advanced tantric teachings I needed after all; working within those strict parameters was not fluid in my life. It was through Rajanaka, in the comfort of community, that I was taught to be completely present. I can still feel and am grateful for the 10 Mahavidya Goddesses that live on my fingertips. I am grateful for the winter solstice teachings seated in community. Currently, I am honored to be learning from Waylon and Elephant, his mom, Linda, and their lineage that allows me to grow me into community. They helped me to recognize what was always within me, the connection of breath and maitri.
It doesn’t matter how we find a path. What matters is how we share the beauty of the journey of our paths as they intersect. How we take the practice of maitri out into the world.
How maitri will always be there to support each one of us forever.