28 December 2010

The Call

upon first seeing Gangakondacholapuram, 2008 

My first OM was in 1973 with Beat Poet and Buddhist, Allen Ginsberg, and I drifted in and out of yoga during the ‘70s. It was only when I returned to a serious yoga practice in the mid-‘90s that everything clicked.

I began yoga teacher training in 2002 at a traditional yoga studio in Chicago. I was a sponge soaking everything in, I could not get enough yoga knowledge. A yoga master named Srivatsa Ramaswami came to the studio to teach a weekend workshop. I had no idea who he was but learning classical yoga from an Indian teacher intrigued me. He set me on my path to India during the first night of his workshop.

That night he chanted and taught us mantras. His chanting cracked something open and I drove home crying all the way, not from sadness but from an inexplicable joy. There was something about the slow, careful yoga he taught that felt perfect. After that weekend something took hold and I knew I had to travel to the heart of yoga.

I researched yoga schools in India but nothing felt right until I read about the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, the school of T.K.V. Desikachar. It was no coincidence that the yoga of Ramaswami that had resonated with me so much was the basis of this school. I told my husband to his dismay that when it was time for me to go to India I would go and nothing would stop me.

Something more than yoga drew me to India. More than one emotion percolated at the same time -- fear, nervousness, excitement, love, passion. All those emotions rolled up together like kittens in a basket, inseparable; sleeping, yet ready to explode at any moment.

It was like when you meet someone again whom you loved and never forgot. The initial emotions of seeing that person - fear, nervousness, love - suddenly come pouring out of your heart, and you are drawn for an inexplicable reason, never to be the same again. You feel that it is a culmination of something, but you don't know what, and you don't want to know, because it doesn't matter. But it is also a beginning and you hold your nose, close your eyes, and jump. I had never been overseas but at the age of 51 I knew in my bones that going to India was something I must do. I went alone.

I had been told by an adept that I would melt into that world. I stood at the doorway of the airport sniffing the early morning air like an animal finally set free. The feeling was primal as soon as my foot touched Indian soil. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I stepped into Ma India’s arms. I was home.

27 December 2010

reflections on 2010 and ruminations on the future

My oh my, what a blessed year 2010 apologies, no regrets, and always moving on.

I started out in South India at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, flew to Kolkata where Kali Ma knocked me down, traveled to Bhubaneswar to meet the 64 Yoginis, and then spent 9 days at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Hardiwar where I jumped into the Ganges on Mahashivratri and met a swami of the highest order.

After India I flew to Africa and spent a night in Nairobi, Kenya after crisscrossing the Persian Gulf to spend hours in Qatar AND Dubai due to flight problems, flew to Zanzibar to spend five days on the beach, then flew to Arusha, Tanzania where I introduced yin yoga to 20 or so Arusha yogins and the two zebras that waltzed into the retreat on Saturday morning. Yoga teaching doesn't get any better than that.

After the retreat I went to the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater and as I watched a herd of wildebeast and zebra, hearing only my breath and the wind and their grunts, I experienced such a visceral feeling of oneness with all things that it rendered any words I had ever read about that primal recognition almost meaningless.

Of course one does not have to travel thousands of miles for that realization -- I feel the same way sitting in my garden and watching the butterflies and honeybees. Or upon opening an acorn and seeing an oak forest in miniature and feeling that time has stopped -- Tzimtzum which means Divine Contraction. It is the belief that if God is infinite, He would have to draw in and make a void into which creation can come, whether it's in my yard or the bottom of a prehistoric crater in Africa.

I don't know why but this year brought a closing in rather than expansion, but not a closing in in a negative way. My yoga practice definitely changed after my trip. I gave up all my classes except my private ones and I was amazed at how content I became because of it.

What was foretold to me had come to pass: I died in India when I jumped into the Ganges and was reborn at the bottom of that crater.

And all that was just the beginning of my year.

The words that describe my yoga teaching this year are "less is more" and "quality over quantity." I no longer teach at studios and have no desire to ever teach regularly at studios again except for the occasional workshop. The students who come to my house are sincere and dedicated and are hungry for more and more meditation. We've developed quite the sangha yet they know I must go to India to refuel. "You will always be my teacher," one student told me on our last night before my upcoming trip.

The women at the domestic violence shelter where I teach have inspired me to take a special training in teaching yoga to trauma survivors. Those battered women who are also my teachers have also inspired me to embark on a new journey into graduate school and a Masters in Transpersonal Psychology. One night after teaching I had another epiphany after speaking with a woman, again so visceral that I saw my life's path laid out before me - there will be no turning back.

The year has shown me how asana is such a small part of the practice. It's only the appetizer to the feast. Yoga blogs where the only thing written about is mastering this pose or that pose are incredibly boring to me. Yoga has become a cult of the body in America. I think, what are they going to write about when they can no longer do that sick arm balance or inversion, what will they have left? Get real.

The yoga blogosphere in 2010 burned up with the heated discussion about Tara Stiles and her book and the "who owns yoga?" debate.

Although I also jumped into the debate I became bored with those discussions, too. The turning point came when a post was published in a yoga-ish online journal that seemingly pitted me against Tara Stiles, my yoga vs. her yoga. While the writer thought it was complimentary, I felt blindsided and betrayed. The writer did not feel it necessary to ask my permission or even to ask my opinion before he wrote about me.

Needless to say the writer felt Kali's wrath and the post was pulled, but the incident left an extremely bad and bitter taste in my mouth that made me rethink my time in the yoga blogosphere. The best thing that came out of the situation was the support shown me by certain yoga bloggers, one especially, who also felt the writer's actions were unconscionable.

The question of what is "real yoga" also arose in different venues. I have always said that this is my real yoga and one of my students also used the phrase. I will say again that I really don't care what your yoga is, I know what mine is, but one thing that I am convinced of is that if something isn't changing for you off the mat or off the cushion (and how many yoga practitioners also have a dedicated meditation practice?), then it's not yoga.

And no apologies to those who hate the phrase "real yoga." I'm tired of that judgment, too. It's almost a reverse snobbism. Anyone who criticized or questioned the yoga status quo was called a "hater" or "judgmental" in the yoga blogosphere. Many discussions served to separate rather than gather the online yoga community. I grew tired and it drained me and further convinced me to stay away from yoga blogs.

Yes, I am sensitive about the topic of "real yoga." Over the five years of writing this blog I've caught flak about being so outspoken and that has made me misunderstood at best and unpopular at worst. I've been described as being passionate in my defense of yoga in the face of commercialism, exploitation, and misunderstanding. If the body cult of modern Americanized yoga is right, then I'd rather be wrong.

I'm not everyone's cup of chai and I've always been an outsider, and frankly, because of decisions I've made, I've never been happier with teaching. Quality over quantity. I don't want to teach a dozen classes a week to those who do not see yoga as a wisdom teaching on self-transformation, as something beyond the cult of the body. There are other teachers who do that but I'm not one of them and that's just fine. It's neither good nor bad, it just is. That's my yoga and yours is yours.

So as I plan my fifth trip to India (I'm leaving in two days), I wonder what 2011 and beyond might hold. What can top the Maha Kumbh Mela and Ngorongoro Crater? My gut tells me that this will be last trip for a few years as I work on a masters degree. I was told that this will be my last trip as a student, that when I return I will bring India something instead. We shall see.

Maybe I am drawn to India because she has her own strong personality, just like me. She shows you incredible aspects of yourself while at the same time showing you impossible suffering. Nothing is hidden, suffering and death are on the street every day. You have to face it and if you go to India for spiritual bliss, you will be challenged beyond your imagination. If you accept the challenge, if you don't run in fear, your life is changed forever.

Sounds like yoga.

02 December 2010

here we go again, part 2


I want to say from the onset that my writing is not meant to be a scholarly history of Hinduism and I won't get into any debates about what Hinduism is, who is a Hindu, etc. I am more than cognizant of the various Hindu gods and goddesses and know the difference between a Shaivite and a Vaishnavite (I'm partial to Murugan who is also known in Mahayana Buddhism as Skanda.)

But all that doesn't matter for this purpose. After all, I am Buddhist with a Kali yantra tattooed on my back so you can figure that out by yourself. I am only writing about yoga as taken from my notes over the years and from the Joshi essay referenced in Part 1. You can read this or move on but be advised that I will not entertain any type of religious debate -- there are other forums where you can argue any point you want to make.

When I wrote that "Hinduism actually rejects yoga" in part 1, I knew those words would be shocking.  But when the KYM teacher used those words he was talking about the way Hinduism in general views the philosophy of yoga as a path of liberation.  I have to say that in any yoga training I have ever done I never heard it said that Hinduism gave birth to yoga.  Yes, yoga philosophy is a part of Hinduism, but as for yoga originating in Hinduism, I beg to differ.

Before the time of Buddha (563 BCE to 483 BCE, approximate date of death) the religion of India was Vedic Brahmanism and alongside the Vedic tradition there was an ascetic (the sramanas) form of thought and practice originating in prehistoric times. Prof. Joshi writes that Buddhism had the closest affinity with this sramanic culture and Hinduism grew out of a fusion of Vedic Brahmanism with Buddhism and other sramanic religious trends.

In order to discuss the roots of yoga or whether yoga springs from Hinduism, let's keep some dates in mind: Vedicism, 1500-500 BCE; Tantricism and Hinduism, 500-1000 CE.

Sages (munis) and ascetics (yatis) lived in ancient India before the time of the Upanisads.  Prof. Joshi writes that "the Rgveda describes a muni who practiced meditation and led an austere life. He is said to be 'long-haired' and probably wore a beard. The munis either lived naked or wore ... dirty garments and were experts in techniques of silent ecstasy." (Joshi, p.27)

This was the culture -- pre-Hinduism -- that birthed the beginnings of yoga.

In part 1 I wrote about Stephen Cope's talk on the history of yoga during my training at Spirit Rock. He drew a yoga timeline from the Vedas to the explosion of yoga after 1975 when Yoga Journal was first published. He emphasized that the renouncers of the Vedic rituals, these sramanas, starting from the 8th Century BC, used their own bodies and minds as laboratories for the direct experience of yoga and for the research on the nondualism of body and mind.

My KYM teachers taught that Samkhya and yoga are closely related. Prof. Joshi writes:

"In later Brahmanical tradition these two systems [Samkyha and yoga] are generally mentioned together. Yoga as a way of religious perfection is older than the Yoga system of thought now associated with Patanjali's Yogasutras (cir. 300 CE.) Yoga as a way was an essential element of Sramanic culture. Yoga is therefore of non-Brahmanical and non-Aryan origin. The munis and yatis of Vedic age practiced yoga and dhyana. This is clear from the Rgveda... The early Yoga was possibly identical with Buddhist Yoga or the way of meditation. As it belonged to the non-Vedic Sramanic tradition, the early Yoga was possibly non-theistic and ascetic." (Joshi, p.33)

Cope taught that Patanjali wrote the Sutras as a treatise for advanced yoga students and reminded us that only three sutras mention asana, the rest are about meditation and the human experience. So when it is commonly said that “yoga is 5000 years old”, that is not true because it was not until the Middle Ages (1300 app.) when the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written followed by the Geranda-Samhita (1600 app.) and the Shiva-Samhita (1700 app.) that the yoga poses we are familiar with today were revealed.

The Sutras are not about asana practice but about uncovering the roots of human suffering. Yoga and Buddhism both grew out of the same cultural milieu of India as a reaction to the dogma of the Vedic and Brahmin culture. Buddha lived about 700 years before Patanjali wrote the Sutras but given the religious atmosphere of India at that time, it would have been impossible for Patanjali not to have been influenced by Buddhist thought. In his essay Prof. Joshi writes that the Mahabharata (which the Bhagavad Gita is part of) was compiled during the period when Buddhism flourished most in India, during 400 BCE to 400 CE: "the present form of the Mahabharata, with its ethics and philosophy, would have been impossible without Buddhism." (Joshi, p.13.)

Both the Sutras and Buddhism seek to uncover the roots of human suffering. When Buddha said that “second hand answers have no power to transform”, he was talking about direct insight into known experience, the known experience of sitting and watching the breath, watching the body in the body, and the breath in the breath.

Sounds like yoga (asana-pranayama-meditation) to me. It seems that if anyone should "take back yoga", it should be my ash-covered friends in the photo above because it was their pre-Hindu forebears who saw yoga as a path of liberation via one's own efforts rather than through being born into the right caste or through the rites and rituals of Vedic Brahmanism.


Reference:  "Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism: An Essay on Their Origins and Interactions" by Lal Mani Joshi of the Department of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, 1970.

01 December 2010

here we go again, part 1

Hindu blessing of cow, Rameswaram beach, 2006

Getting on the yoga merry-go-round again of the old debate on "who owns yoga?" and whether yoga springs from Hinduism.

There's lots of stuff going on in the world but it must be a slow news day when the New York Times publishes another article with a dramatic title on the Hindu group that is stirring up the debate over yoga's soul.

Then there was the USA Today article, "Take Back Yoga Campaign: Back Where?"

Lisa Miller in Newsweek asked whether yoga's Hindu roots matter. I thought her article was a breath of fresh prana in this debate, but I still think she is mistaken about some things.

And after the debate burned through the yoga blogosphere and Facebook this week, Deepak Chopra finally weighed in on the yoga yada yada in HuffPo.

I thought his article was a bit amusing, since in Miller's article he claims to have "sanitized" Hinduism in order to make it more palatable: “The reason I sanitized it is there’s a lot of junk in [Hinduism],” explains Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru....“We’ve got to evolve to a secular spirituality that still addresses our deepest longings … Most religion is culture and mythology.  Read any religious text, and there’s a lot of nonsense there.  Yet the religious experience is beautiful.”   But in his HuffPo article he states that  "the nobility of Indian spirituality elevates Hinduism to a unique place in the world."

Uh, which part of that nobility did he sanitize? OK, whatever...Deepak is a zillionaire guru and I'm not. He must know what he's talking about because he's written a ton of books. And is a zillionaire guru. Did I mention that already?

STOP THE PRESSES! I've always wanted to say that....

One would think Chopra would be the last word on this but no, I don't think so...gather 'round, kiddies, and I'll tell y'all a story. I will preface this by saying that I'm not a yoga scholar and have never written a book. I have no fancy advanced college degrees (yet.) I'm a yoga student first and then a teacher but I've been around the yoga block a few times and have taken a workshop or two.  My only claim to yoga fame is studying four times (soon to be five) at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Desikachar's school in Chennai, India -- two intensives and private classes. That's all.  Like Tao Porchon-Lynch, "I don't tell you these things from ego, but because it's what I know." Be advised that I pulled out my notes from KYM. And I take damn good notes.

But I want to say to the Hindu American Foundation referenced in the NY Times article that I feel your pain. I understand why they are verklempt. As Lisa Miller wrote in Newsweek, “You can’t stop people from using and transforming yoga.  But you have to honor and credit the source....know where yoga came from and respect those origins." I'm getting very tired of yoga articles written in terms of "fighting" and "owning", but I don't blame Indians one bit for wanting reverence and respect paid to an art and science that originated in India. Don't get me started on OM tattoos on feet but I digress.

But yoga doesn't come from Hinduism and Hindus don't own yoga.

Yoga is much older. What I learned at KYM was that yoga was part of the six systems of philosophy in India called the saddarsanas, darsana meaning "to see":

1. Nyaya -- logic; using analysis to look a problem;

2. Vaisesika -- evolution; what is the evolution of something to discover its reality. EX: a desk comes from wood which came from a tree which came from a seed.

3. Mimamsa -- rituals and rites (doing something in order to get something.) EX: animal and human sacrifice; fire rituals.

4. Sankyha -- closely related to yoga; our problems arise because of "seer" and what is seen; there is confusion between the "I" and the rest of the world. "Sankyha" means knowledge of Self through right discrimination. (See the Samkyha Karika of Isvara Krsna.)

5. Vedanta -- school of philosophy that interpreted the Upanishads (advaita vedanta is a subset of this philosophy.)

6. Yoga -- school of philosophy that holds that the mind is the problem; focus the mind and we solve our problems.

The above information is from my Yoga Philosophy class notes, 2005. The next line I wrote was: "Hinduism actually rejects yoga." As a legal assistant for 20 years I sat in many a lawyer's office and wrote their words verbatim to transcribe into letters and legal documents.

So no, I did not make that up and I suppose those words shock some of you. When long-held beliefs are challenged it can be quite painful. Let me try to explain the yoga and Hinduism connection (or non-connection as the case may be) in part 2 after I finish reading the scholarly essay "Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism: An Essay on Their Origins and Interactions" by Lal Mani Joshi of the Department of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, 1970.

This essay was sent to me by a long-time reader and is an essay that Stephen Cope of Kripalu used for his book on the Sutra-s. When I did the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock in California, Stephen Cope used many of the points in the essay in his talk to us on the history of yoga.

The gist of the essay is that many of the things Westerners and contemporary Indian Hindus think of as "classically Hindu" actually come from the shramanical tradition generally (the sramanas being the ancient yogis, the ascetics who lived in the Vedic era which is pre-Hinduism) and Buddhism specifically and were incorporated very late in Indian history.

Stay tuned.