27 September 2010

listen. and then listen again.

"(The Atma) is not even in name different (from the Brahm.) It is not hidden in the high words (of the Vedas.) O Friend! How can I call it uniform or varied? I am by nature Eternal Freedom beyond all ills." Avadhuta Gita, 4.13

"Know me to be free from one and all. For me there is neither the Maya nor its opposite. How can I be said to have anything to do with the Sandhya and other prescribed devotional duties? I am by nature Eternal Freedom beyond all ills." Avadhuta Gita, 4.18

The Avadhuta Gita of Dattatreya

"He who has filled the universe, He who is Self in self, how shall I salute Him!" To know the Atman as my nature is both knowledge and realisation. "I am He, there is not the least doubt of it." "No thought, no word, no deed, creates a bondage for me. I am beyond the senses, I am knowledge and bliss." There is neither existence nor non-existence, all is Atman. Shake off all ideas of relativity; shake off all superstitions; let caste and birth and Devas and all else vanish. Why talk of being and becoming? Give up talking of dualism and Advaitism! When were you two, that you talk of two or one? The universe is this Holy One and He alone. Talk not of Yoga to make you pure; you are pure by your very nature. None can teach you."
-- Swami Vivekananda on the Avadhuta Gita

As a yoga student/teacher, are you only familiar with the Bhagavad Gita?

It is my nature to be Free.

26 September 2010

because yoga cooks us

Chickpea to Cook
~Jalaluddin Rumi
(translated by Coleman Barks)

A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it's being boiled.

"Why are you doing this to me?"

The cook knocks him down with the ladle.

"Don't you try to jump out.
You think I'm torturing you.
I'm giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.

"Remember when you drank rain in the garden.
That was for this."

Grace first. Sexual pleasure,
then a boiling new life begins,
and the Friend has something good to eat.

Eventually the chickpea
will say to the cook,
"Boil me some more.
Hit me with the skimming spoon.
I can't do this by myself.

"I'm like an elephant that dreams of gardens
back in Hindustan and doesn't pay attention
to his driver. You're my cook, my driver,
my way into existence. I love your cooking."

The cook says,
"I was once like you,
fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time,
and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.

"My animal soul grew powerful.
I controlled it with practices,
and boiled some more, and boiled
once beyond that,
and became your teacher."

atha, yoga, anusasanam

19 September 2010

a question of semantics?

Carol Horton's post on Tara Stiles' book still has legs so I thought I would add my two rupees here as a post.

I'm a jazz freak and usually listen to what is considered "real jazz" (as a Sirius XM satellite radio station is entitled) as opposed to "lite jazz" (as a former Chicago radio station billed itself.) Although I learned the piano as a child, I am not a jazz musician so I don't know what technically makes jazz "real jazz" or "lite jazz" -- all I know is that they each sound very different to my ears. However, I also have a "lite jazz" station programmed in my car radio. They advertise themselves as "contemporary jazz."

The other day when I was driving I thought how appropo for yoga nowadays. If a teacher teaches an asana-only class -- i.e,. no pranayama, no meditation, no chanting, no proper instructions on bandhas, no mention of chakras, no discussion on texts or philosophy -- call the class "contemporary yoga" and call it a day.  Don't bother with any name branding, calling it vinyasa, or anything else.  Just "contemporary yoga."

Or if it's an asana-only class, why call it yoga at all? Physical therapists use movements derived from yoga all the time but they don't call it "yoga." It's physical therapy and everybody knows that is what it is. Nothing else.

Just like Frank Jude said in his comment to Carol's post, I have also taught in places other than yoga studios. I started out at my local park district in a gym. But even nine years ago when supposedly there were a lot less people doing yoga, I never felt the need to water down yoga.  Something brought people to my classes other than "slim sexy yoga" or "yoga for abs" when the number of asana-only "yoga" books did not exist as they do now. What brought them, what were they looking for?

I've also been told that more people are being brought to yoga now because of books like Tara Stiles', allegedly a book for beginning students.  If that is the case (i.e., more people doing yoga), then why did I have 40 students in a class nine years ago (when supposedly there was less awareness about yoga) and am lucky now to have 10 in a public class? I'm not the only teacher in my area who has experienced this.

Something in this modern yoga equation does not compute.

As Frank Jude said, "It's so EASY to teach mindfulness, compassionate action, non-judgmental awareness, radical acceptance [my note: what is usually seen in "real yoga" classes] without using any yoga jargon, overt 'spiritual' terms or expressions."

Indeed it is.  So why the sea of change with the new generation of American yoga teachers?

17 September 2010

good news Friday -- yoga scholarships!

meditation hall, Spirit Rock

Many of you know that I was in the first Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. The 18 month program ran from 2007 to 2009. It consisted of three 10 day retreats held for the most part in silence.  There are readings, homework, and telephone conferences in between the retreats.  There is a core group of yoga and Buddhadharma teachers such as Anne Cushman, Phillip Moffit, Mark Coleman, Anna Douglas, Janice Gates, and Chip Hartranft. There were different guest teachers at each retreat such as Judith Lasater, Tias Little, Stephen Cope, and Sarah Powers, among others.

It was the first training that spoke to my entire being as a yoga practitioner and Buddhist.  My only regret was that Jack Kornfield was not a larger part of the program because I love his books and teachings. I can sit and listen to him for hours.

Now there is fabulous news!  From Spirit Rock's website:

"Two yoga teachers will get full tuition scholarship to 18-month MYMT Program

Yoga teachers working with disadvantaged or under-served populations—for example, in prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, or inner city schools—offer life-changing skills to their at-risk students. But they often struggle with stress, burnout and financial challenges. Now, through a new scholarship program at Spirit Rock funded by a grant from the Yoga Dana Foundation (YDF), two such teachers will have the opportunity to nourish their own yoga and meditation practice—and bring the benefits of mindfulness training back to the communities they serve."

The above link gives all the information you need on the application process.  The scholarships will provide full tuition and room and board for the 18-month Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training beginning in January 2011.  I can't tell you what an awesome opportunity this is to attend a training at one of the premier dharma centers in North America.  I was honored and blessed to have taken part in the inaugural program.  And the food is fantastic!

The teaching population to whom these scholarships are geared toward is one after my own heart.  My work with domestic violence survivors is pure joy.  They are my teachers and they have inspired me to pursue a Masters in Transpersonal Psychology.

Sometimes the path rises up to meet you and after my yoga therapy training in India next year, I want to somehow combine all my yoga/yoga therapy training with the degree so as to truly bring yoga to the people.

Don't miss out on this wonderful opportunity, but you need to apply by October 25.

Good luck!

07 September 2010

Krishnamarcharya and those British gymnastics

"Sir" and his father, KYM, 2005

2010 has been the year of scholarly yoga books such as Mark Singleton's Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture and Stefanie Syman's The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Both authors have written that Krishnamacharya's yoga was derived in part from British gymnastics and military training exercises.

Even the eminent yoga scholar Georg Feurstein recently wrote that:

"The Hatha-Yoga tradition espoused by Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught at the Mysore Palace for many years, derived many of its yogic postures from gymnastics. This has recently been highlighted by a number of authors inquiring into the beginning of modern Yoga. See, for instance, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010). He and other researchers have shown that what we in the West consider as Hatha-Yoga is chiefly a nineteenth-century invention, which was once closely associated with nationalism: Foster healthy people for the country's defence or, in the case, of some nations for their military expansion. We know that in Europe and North America the same attitude has led to gymnastics and body-building and then the modern body cult."

I don't know if Mr. Feurstein has ever spoken with Srivatsa Ramaswami about his guru Sri Krishnmacharya, but I do know that there is not one mention of Ramaswamiji in either of the above-mentioned books (I looked.) Neither is he mentioned in Feurstein's book, The Yoga Tradition, first published in 2001.

Those of you who know me know that I am an ongoing student of Ramaswamiji, having studied with him now for about 7 years. Ramaswamiji studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for 30+ years, longer than his own son Desikachar, and longer than Jois and Iyengar ever did.

So I was glad to see Ramaswamiji address the question of his guru deriving his yoga from gymnastic exercises. If anyone would know, I would think it would be someone who studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for 30 years.

Knowledge from a book is valuable of course, but it can not replace wisdom from an ongoing relationship with a teacher. That is one yoga jewel that has stayed with me from my first training at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram: the teachers said that personal transformation can only begin in a group class; it is achieved by working one on one consistently with a teacher over a period of time. I truly believe this as I have seen the differences with private students v. group classes.

The following is from Ramaswamiji's newsletter, unedited but for the the addition of paragraphs and an [emphasis supplied.]

Maybe this will answer the scholars' questions.


"Yoga Gymnastique -- Srivatsa Ramaswami

Some eight years back I wangled a presenter assignment at a Yoga Conference in Texas. I was never invited again because, among all the presenters, I had the dubious distinction of attracting the least number of participants for every one of my presentations.

During one of the breaks a well known yoga teacher in US came and sat by my side and inquired about me, about where I was from, etc. I mentioned that I was a student of Pandit Krishnamcharya for three decades. With a quizzical look he asked, “What were you doing for 30 years with him?', and with a wry smile he said, “Oh, you must have been doing your daily practice at his school”. He left before I could start my long answer. “How can anyone study Yoga for such a long period when there are just a half a dozen sequences or just a little over a score of asanas?,” he must have wondered.

Krishnamacharya as I have mentioned earlier was like a many splendoured diamond each facet brilliant in its own way. He taught yogasanas following the Vinyasakrama, the art form. He also used yogasanas, pranayama and meditation for chikitsa or therapeutic applications. He taught a vast range of Sanskrit chants from the Vedas and also from smritis. He taught several traditional texts like the Yoga Sutras and the sibling philosophies including the several Upanishads, following mainly the Visishtadwaita approach. He taught Vaishnava religious texts as well to a number of his Vaishnava followers. He was a well rounded Yogi and he could make every class absorbing. There would always be something new and insightful. One could never get bored in his classes whether it be the asanas, chanting or textual studies. I wanted to explain these to my celebrity friend but he was too busy to stay and listen.

Some research scholars have mentioned that Krishnamacharya's vinyasa approach to yoga has a considerable dose of physical exercise systems prevalent at that time in India like the drills and also gymnastics imported into it. But my experience with Krishnamacharya's asana practice is somewhat different.

It is true that some of the vinyasas and vinyasa sequences like part of Surya Namaskra, the handstands, the jump throughs, jump arounds, push ups (utplutis) may appear to mimic floor exercises in gymnastics. Perhaps there are some asanas and vinyasas Sri Krishnamacharya taught that had some resemblance to drills or gymnastics. But he taught to me almost 1000 vinyasas making up close to 150 asana subroutines. The head stand, the sarvangasana, padmasana are distinctly different from gymnastics and each one of them has scores of vinyasas that are uniquely yogic and no other system seems to have anything like that.

Further, yoga as a physical culture is very old. We may not have records because in ancient times most of instructions were oral and the transmission of knowledge was from teacher to student and the only way to learn was to go to a teacher and learn, practice and internalize. Later on a few texts were written as scripts were developed but they were written in easily perishable palm leaves -- like the Yoga Kuranta -- and barely one manuscript, no xerox copies, no electronic books were available. So in these matters we have to rely upon authorities/tradition or as the Vedas would call it “aitihya” or firmly held belief.

Even from the available texts like the Puranas one can glean a lot of reference to yoga practice including asana practice. The Brahma Sutras mention that a seated asana is a necessity for meditation. Works written hundreds or even a thousand years back contain sections on Yoga including asanas. Thirumular, a yogi said to have lived 3000 years back wrote about several asanas in his Tamil classic Thirumandiram. Puranas, smritis and several later day Upanishads have sections on asana practice.

There is a dhyanasloka pertaining to the Ramayana which mentions that Sri Rama was in Vajrasana while seated in his flowered bedecked, jeweled throne. In fact from time immemorial many people in India, as a religious practice, have been doing sandhya or morning worship of the sun with specific sun worship mantras and physical movements and gestures. It includes mantras like the Gayatri, pranayama and many postures like tadasana, uttanasana, utkatakaasana, and danda namaskara and utakatasana are specifically mentioned in the smritis.

So in a way we may say that suryanamaskara with mantras and the physical exercise has been a very old practice. The word Yoga is indeed a vedic word. You may check with my book “The Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga” (here no commercial intended) based on my studies with my guru and I do not think it in any way resembles a book of gymnastics. Yogasanas have their own distinct nicety. Gymnastics of course has its own charm. Gymnastics was one my favourite programs while watching the Olympics. I do not know if I would enjoy Yoga Olympiad.

My guru had mentioned on a couple of occasions that physical yoga had been the core system of physical exercises in India. It had technically influenced several ancient systems like wrestling, archery, fencing etc., very physically demanding disciplines, requiring a high degree of strength, dexterity and focus. Yoga is called a sarvanga sadhana as it is helpful for all parts of the body, including the internal organs. There were other indigenous circus-like practices such as malcam, kazhakkoothu where they use ropes or poles and do routines very similar to asanas. He had also mentioned that almost all the physical systems of the world, including gymnastics, had borrowed heavily from Yoga, because the asana portion of Yoga was the most ancient and developed physical culture system. Therefore it could be that there were a few similarities between asanas and some obscure gymnastic systems in different parts of the world at different times. Then one has to investigate the origin of those obscure systems, whether they were older than Yoga, or if they themselves borrowed from ancient yoga practices.

My Guru himself was a passionate researcher. He would always be looking for works on yoga and other systems. He even would advise us to go to different agraharams (small cluster of homes of scholars in certain villages) and look for works on Yoga available with such scholars. He would say that we should visit the hundreds of temples in India, especially South India, and observe the sculptures and idols all over the temples for study of yoga postures. And because of the oral tradition and relying on degradable palm leaves, Yoga itself had a checkered progression, in the limelight during some time in history and obscure at some other times. It then becomes a futile exercise to try to determine which among the physical exercise regimens came first, the seed or the tree or the better known example of the chicken and the egg.

There are distinct differences between the yoga I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya for a long period of time and some of the aerobic exercises like gymnastics. In the vinyasa krama asana practice, the breathing is synchronized with the movements at the rate of anywhere between 5 to 10 seconds for inhalation and exhalation thereby reducing the breath rate to about 3 to 5 per minute, whereas in contemporary aerobic exercises including gymnastics and gym workouts, the breath rate increases to much beyond the normal breathing rate of about 15 or so. This alone makes yoga practice of Sri Krishnamacharya distinctly different from other drills.

The variety of movements in Vinyasa asana practice is said to be designed to exercise all parts of the body including the internal organs. We do not find deep movement, synchronized breathing, and the significantly profound exercises like the bandhas -- which are an integral part of Sri Krishnamacharya's asana practice -- in other forms of physical exercises, especially gymnastics. Look at the 1930's videos, the bandhas of my Guru, they are not a gymnast's cup of chai.

When I was young, some exercises were very popular. They were outside the pale of yogasanas. One was known as “dandal”, which would look very much like a repetitive movement between caturanga dandasana and the plank or a simpler version of urdhwa mukha swanasana. The other was known as, if I remember right, 'bhaski'. It involved standing up and doing repeated squats. The first one, 'dandal' looks very similar to part of Surya namaskara. Baski resembles a very popular ritual that is done by thousands even today and is known as “toppukaranam” in Tamil and “dorbhyam karanam” in Sanskrit. One holds the lobes of the opposite ears with one's hands and squats usually in front of the idol of Lord Ganesha. It could be 12 times or 108 times. It is both a good physical exercise and a loving devotional practice to the charming Lord Ganesha.

Are these physical drills, yoga exercises, or devotional practices? Which came first? God knows, Lord Ganesa knows.

Then there is the question of whether Suryanamaskara is old, from the Vedic times. The Surya namaskara can be considered from two views; one is the mantra portion the other is vyayama or the physical part. Certainly Suryanamaskara mantras are from the Vedas. In fact, there is a complete chapter of Suryanamaskra mantras from the Veda which takes about an hour to chant. Again, the other important Surya mantra, Gayatri, is also a Vedic mantra. The Vedas exhort using Gayatri as a mantra to worship the sun daily.

Worship of the sun is considered a daily obligatory duty for the orthodox in India. We have a procedure called Sandhya vandana which is supposed to be done thrice a day, but definitely once a day. This Sandhya procedure is a kind of a worship ritual, towards the end of which one prostrates towards the Sun. While the Gayatri japa portion is done sitting in a yogic posture after required number of pranayama, the upasthana or the second part is done standing. Towards the conclusion the worshipper of the sun has to do a namaskara, a prostration. So from the standing position, usually one bends forward, half squats, places the palms on the floor, takes the legs back by jumping or taking one leg after the other and does an saashtanga namaskara or the danda namaskara prostration). One has to go through these steps (from standing to prostration) and if the steps are properly organized we get the surya namaskara vyayama, a sequence, a vinyasakrama. So, since one has to do sandhya daily and has to do the namaskara startig from standing and since the sandhya is mentioned as an obligatory duty, it will be correct to say that suryanamaskara, both the mantra portion and physical namaskara portion, are from the Vedic times. The actual steps may vary but the physical namaskara to the sun is a procedure practiced from ancient Vedic times.

Further, in India you can see many people who do not practice yoga or the formal ritualistic sandhyavandana, standing on the terrace or on the beach, facing East early in the morning, and doing prostrations a few times, returning to the standing position every time. They do not call it Yoga but suryanamaskara. Some of the present day yoga enthusiasts however do the suryanamaskara, probably at night, in any direction or directionless, do not use the mantras or the devotional bhavana associated with it, but as a mere workout.

I had chanted the suyanamaskara mantra almost on every Sunday with my guru for several years. Namarupa also published my article on Sandhya vandana with pictures of the steps some time back. I also have the one hour long Suryanamaskara mantra chant from the Yajur Veda (which I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya) recorded in mid '80s and the CDs are still made available in India.

Sri Krishnamacharya's range of teaching was sweeping. I have mentioned about the asana teaching, his chikitsa krama and vinyasa krama. His chanting of vedas was beautiful and very engaging. I do not know of any yoga teacher during his times who could chant as well as he could from memory. He earned the title “Veda Kesari” or Lion of Vedas. He was a Sanskrit scholar, a Sanskrit Pandit. He taught the vedanta philosophy, the prastana trayas, the Upanishads, the Brahma sutra and the Bhagavad Gita in the visishtadvaita tradition. He was given the title “Vedanta Vageesa”. He was also quite familiar with the advaitic interpretation. He once said while doing the sutra on Anandamaya “Anandamaya abhyasat” in which the two interpretations, advaita and visistadwaita differ from each other, “If you want I can teach you the advaitic interpretation, but advaita may be intellectually challenging but does not give the emotional satisfaction one gets from the visishtadvaitic approach”. He also taught us several important Upanishads. I studied with him several Upanishad vidyas from the major Upanishads, like Brahadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Kaushitaki and others. Some of the vidyas he taught include Pancha kosa Vidya, panchagni, pranava, madhu, Sandilya, Dahara Pratardana and many others.

Once I asked him why if the goal is the same, understanding Brahman the ultimate Reality, then there are so many Upanishads, why so many vidyas. He would say that pupils have different questions about the ultimate reality and these vidyas take you from the known to the unknown.

Supposing fifty people, strangers from different places, go to an unknown country, Pineland, and take a picture with the leader of the country, Mr Pineman. Every one sends home a copy of the picture by email. The way they would point to the unknown leader, Mr Pineman, to those back home would be to start from the known. The known entity in the picture will be the one who sends the picture. He may tell his son/daughter, ”the leader is three rows in front and eight to the right of me." Another person would start first by asking his kid to identify him/her first in the picture and may say the leader is three rows behind and five seats to the left. Likewise, all the various vidyas of the Upanishads try to help the aspirants to realize the ultimate truth, starting from a known tatwa. I had the privilege of studying several Upanishd vidyas from my guru Sri Krishnamacharya.

He also taught many of the sibling philosophies so that one's understanding of Yoga and Vedanta will be on firm grounds. He taught Samkhya philosophy by explaining the Samkhya karika with the commentary of Gaudapada. He also taught Yoga Sutra in considerable detail. He had obtained the titles “Yogacharya” and “Samkhya Siromani”. He also was an expert in another profound philosophy called Nyaya and had been conferred the title “Nyayacharya”. He also taught smaller or easier works like Tarka Sangraha to introduce the difficult Nyaya philosophy.

His religious studies were outstanding. He was such an expert in the Vaishnava philosophy, that he was in consideration to head a well known Vaishnava Mutt. He was truly a devotional person. As he practiced yoga he performed his daily puja with great devotion. He had several students who studied the Vaishnava religion in considerable detail. He could quote from the epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata and several other puranas like Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, etc.

I do not know of any person who was so well versed in the sastras and also at the same time an outstanding practising Yogi. Sri Krishnamacharya is well known, it is almost exclusively due to his yogasana teachings. But his scholarship and teachings were enormous. I feel a bit sad when he is portrayed as a hatha yoga teacher who plagiarized some exercises from gymnastics and called it yoga to make a living, and nothing more. [emphasis supplied.]

Maybe there is some common ground between these two different physical disciplines. I continue to remain in awe of his enormous scholarship, practice and teachings and kindness towards his students. He was a teacher who would uplift you, a true Acharya. When you study with him, you get an unmistakable feeling that his only goal in life was to transmit the traditional knowledge and make it accessible to the student. He was a unique Yogi, a unique teacher, a unique individual. Twenty years after his passing away, I remember him everyday, while practicing, studying or teaching, sometimes in dreams -- fondly."

If you want to study with a true yogi, a true yoga scholar, and a vedic chant master, Ramaswamiji will teach at the Chicago Yoga Center September 17-26.