31 May 2011

24 May 2011

what is your yoga truth?

Hanumanasana is Overrated

"From a standpoint where the purpose of Hatha yoga is to facilitate and maintain a healthy functioning body, there is no reason why a person would ever need to be able to do Hanumanasana. However unattached we may be in working towards it, the goal belies our better purpose.

Touting images of flashy classical asana demonstrations as examples of “mastery” has led to a gross exaggeration of physical practice, beyond the point of practicality, and has fueled a physical fitness industry that is more concerned with aesthetics than health. I realize that I may be taking a hard view of things but seeing past the cultural sensationalizing of just about everything can be a daunting task given the deeply ingrained mores stacked against it. Some amount of push back seems necessary."

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher -- and as quoted by Paul Grilley about certain "truths" of modern-day yoga.

His philosophy controversial, Schopenhauer "claimed that the world is fundamentally what we recognize in ourselves as our will. His analysis of will led him to the conclusion that emotional, physical, and sexual desires can never be fulfilled. Consequently, he eloquently described a lifestyle of negating desires, similar to the ascetic teachings of Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism and the Church Fathers of early Christianity." (from Wikipedia.)

Why do we engage in certain practices at a certain time, why do we think they were important at the time? When do we begin to move beyond our conditioning and attachments? What is the impetus that throws us headlong into a different direction when we thought for so long that we were always headed in the right direction?

Has your yoga truth changed since you started your practice?


23 May 2011

the dharma of doo-doo

It always does my heart good when I hear a student talk about how yoga has helped them in their life. Most of the realizations I've heard are more about the non-physical than the physical, things on a deeper level than achieving an arm balance or handstand. I sit back and say to myself (or sometimes out loud), yes, they get it, someone has been paying attention!

I've always said that yoga is about life so what better teaching than a pile of dog doo-doo in the middle of a bike path.

A few weeks ago I had told my students that at Will Kabat-Zinn's retreat he had talked about how one little thought can create our reality in a second. For example, we're walking down the street and we pass someone, we assign the word "creepy", and our mind instantly creates an entire story about that person, we create an entire world around that person. Will said, "you never know what someone else's story is." In other words, just as the Buddha taught, be on the lookout as to how your thoughts create your reality.

Then on Saturday morning during the yin part of our practice I read excerpts from Sarah Powers' chapter in Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga & Buddhism.

Sarah wrote about how embroiled she became in her emotions as she laid in bed bathed in sweat from the heat. She said she became "utterly intolerant of my experience and before I knew it, I was defiantly standing, almost expecting I would encounter an enemy lurking." Sarah said that as she simply watched her intense emotions she became aware of how her angst effortlessly slipped away and how she began to feel calm and present. She was astonished at how a strong emotion can decompose as she mindfully turned her attention inward to her direct experience in the moment. Her next moment was no less fiery, but her inner attitude had shifted. Her experience of the sweltering heat had changed simply because her attention had shifted from resistance to mindful observation.

As my students were in sphinx post one of them told the story of how she was walking her favorite path and she experienced what Sarah experienced: the shift from rage to mindful observation of her fiery emotions:

"On my first lap I just missed stepping in some dog poop in the middle of the paved walking path that circled my neighborhood park. I was enraged that someone would let their dog defecate on the walkway without cleaning it up and assumed it came from the large dog being walked by a woman I had just passed going in the opposite direction a few minutes earlier. I spent the rest of my first lap feeling irritated and blaming this woman for not cleaning up after her dog.

When I got to that same spot during my second lap, I still felt irritated and decided dogs should not be allowed in the park.

On my third lap I began to wonder whether or not the poop had perhaps been there for several hours, which would then exonerate the dog currently in the park as well as his owner. My irritation began to dissipate.

On the fourth lap I realized I had no way of knowing if it was this woman's dog that had made the mess, so I really couldn't blame her. I didn't think anymore about it as I finished the lap.

On the fifth lap, I reminded myself there was poop on the walk but it no longer upset me. An oncoming jogger and I smiled at each other was we both sidestepped the mess."

After my student told her story I clapped and thanked her for sharing this marvelous teaching. "You get it!," I told her, "You've no idea how this does my heart good, thank you for listening all these years!" I asked if she felt these emotions in her body -- Buddha's First Foundation of Mindfulness. Yes, she said. I told her that ultimately on the fifth lap she experienced Buddha's Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, mindfulness of the dharma, i.e., the nature of reality which is impermanence -- all things change. Her feelings of rage at the dog poop in the middle of the bike path during the first lap had changed to feelings of neutrality by the fifth lap. My student's thoughts on first seeing the dog poop and then a woman and her dog had created her reality and her own suffering. If we are paying attention we notice how all things are temporary. That's awakening, and it comes slowly but surely.

I said, "See how our thoughts create our reality? You created your own suffering all because of a pile in the middle of the path." I asked whether she would have noticed these subtle shifts of consciousness if this had happened before she started a yoga and mindfulness practice. Her answer was no.

Yoga is Life. All things are a training. Even a hot steaming mess in the middle of your Path.

16 May 2011

it bears repeating

late July gardens, 2010

Last week on my birthday I listened to Mark Whitwell's talk on the new website Yoga Teacher Telesummit. I have to admit that I did not finish listening to his talk because my birthday arrived with gorgeous weather and I was compelled to practice my other yoga -- gardening. A beautiful day is wasted sitting in front of the computer even if it is spent listening to Mark. You can read my other posts about Mark here.

However, I did write some notes as I listened and what Mark talked about bears repeating: yoga is about the breath first and foremost, as Krishnamacharya taught.

Mark believes that "yoga [in America] has painted itself into a corner by a few obsessed people." He said that exaggerated postures done by people of certain body types is not what yoga is about -- yoga is about connection, our connection with the intimacy of Life.

Mark feels that the source scholar of yoga, Krishnamacharya, has been forgotten and it is "time to put scholarship into what has been popularized"; i.e., put the principles of Krishnamacharya back into what has become popular. When this is done "yoga then becomes efficient, powerful, and safe."  It becomes the "direct tantra of intimacy", the nurturing reality of what yoga really is.

Mark said that five things must be remembered in order to accomplish this:

1. Body movement is for the breath, not the other way around -- body movement IS breath movement. Breath starts and ends every movement.

2. Inhalation is receptivity from above -- the receptive aspect of life; exhalation is from below -- the abs in and up, the chest secondary, strength receiving.

3. Ha-tha Yoga is the union of opposites in your own system: sun/moon, male/female, strength that is receiving, softness supported by strength, yin/yang, shiva/shakti.

4. Asana creates bandha and bandha serves the breath. Bandha is the "intelligent cooperation of muscle groups" in our system. They are in polarity of above to below, inhale/exhale, strength to receptivity

5. Asana allows for pranayama and when you do pranayama in the way that is right for you then meditation arises naturally, this is what Krishnamacharya taught.  Meditation then comes as a siddhi, it is a seamless process. Understanding that Krishnamacharya referred to the combination of asana and pranayama as sadhana -- (sadhana being "that which you can do", that is, the asana that is right for you as Krishnamacharya taught) mediation will arise as a result of YOUR sadhana.

Mark said that sleep arises naturally and spontaneously, you can not force yourself to sleep, it just happens. In the same way you can not force yourself to meditate, meditation arises spontaneously after your sadhana of asana + pranayama.

As much as I adore Mark, I canceled my teacher training with him at Omega in August.  It would have cost me over $1000 and that is the price of a plane ticket to India.  I have a chance to study yoga therapy with AG Mohan, another one of Krishnamacharya's long-time students.  

Sorry, Mark, but I will see you somewhere in 2012.  Ma India is calling me home. Again.

09 May 2011

"Houston, We Have a Problem"

(thanks to the genius of Diane Arbus)

Why doesn't awakening happen just like that? [visualize a finger snap.]

Because then you would never know the pain and the joy of it.


"Houston, we have a problem. What’s that? you say. I listen to these advaita newbies who have suddenly awakened and think, “What part am I missing here?” I know my teacher would fall down laughing if it weren’t so serious. Just because these people are personable doesn’t mean jack. Just because they are telegenic and well-spoken, we fall right into the trap of duality. “They say they woke up, who am I to doubt them. I don’t even know them. And I seem to still suffer the slings and arrows of my errant karma.”

You’re not alone. Awakening cannot be judged that easily. As Vernon Howard said, “Only an enlightened being recognizes another enlightened being.” He would have put the blame squarely on us for believing that awakening happens that often or that easily.

Good teachers make people squirm. They do not sit with a mic in someone’s living room decanting statements from their mouth into your consciousness. Satsang is a silly excuse to get out of doing your laundry if you ask me.

A lifetime commitment to truth is required and you will be broken before you awaken. Sleep tight if you don’t want to know the truth. Pull a Rip Van Winkle and put up a Do Not Disturb sign. The Work requires one to remember the Self that you are while witnessing the self that you are not. It isn’t easy nor is it without arduous engagement of body, mind and spirit.

Do yourself a favor and sit alone. You don’t have to fly around attending satsang with the best and the brightest, the ones with the most YouTube videos and the most influential friends. Get some books and dig in. Pray, purify yourself. Wait and wait and wait. Watch yourself become hysterical and useless. See the demons marching around your mind and try to stop them.

It may all be a play but it’s an hypnotic one. We were never promised a rose garden. Don’t believe it when you see it. Only believe what your inner guide tells you. And if you don’t know who your inner guide is, wait until that is revealed. It’s about revelation, repentance and all of the old biblical truths. We must approach them psychologically instead of literally.

Nothing is what it appears to be, including the truth of who you are. Lotsa luck in those satsangs."

Vicki Woodyard, Author, LIFE WITH A HOLE IN IT

02 May 2011

wisdom from my teacher

Yes, even my yoga guru shuts up to do his practice:

"...[the] English translation of my Guru Sri Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda (I have the Tamil translation of the book for over 45 years and refer to it even today whenever I want to just shut up and listen to my Guru, Sri Krishnamacharya.)"

Note:  that's called of the aspects of a true yogi.

Click here if you want to download Krishnamacharya's "essence of yoga." This is a priceless gift. 

Ramiswamiji's May newsletter on Advaita....

"My teacher Sri Krishnamacharya took considerable pains to teach the Yoga Sutras to his students. He also wanted his students to study and be familiar with other orthodox philosophies like Samkhya, and Vedanta. The several Upanishads, the Gita and Brahma sutra he taught to explain the rather tricky, involved vedanta philosophy, usually following the visishta-advaita approach, though he also was adept in advaita philosophy. He once said in the Brahma Sutra class to the effect that while Advaita could be intellectually stimulating it is visishta advaita that will be emotionally satisfying.

Perhaps the most widely read orthodox Indian Philosophy is Vedanta and especially the Advaita school. There are tons of material available on this philosophy and many people interested in vedic thought study this and gradually become lifelong students of Vedanta. Many long time Hatha Yoga practitioners have taken up the study of Yoga as a philosophical system and considerable material is available from both old and contemporary writers in different languages especially English. And some among the the yoga practitioners have taken an interest in studying the vedanta philosophy also especially the advaitic interpretation. In this however, the published material on Advaita Vedanta available is so technical and involved that the difficult subject is made more inaccessible by several portions which are very technical. Profound and daring, albeit very ancient, this philosophy stands out among all the vedic philosophies. I thought I could write very briefly on the basic tenets of this thought process.

There are at least two things we need to have an experience, a subject and an object. When you and I sit at a table over a cup of coffee or a can of beer or a more yogic glass of goat's or cow’s milk, I am the subject and you are the object and it is the other way from your point of view. We are two different entities and what does advaita say about our relationship? Advaita says that there is only one principle, the observer which is pure consciousness. It implies that there is only one principle or entity that is pure consciousness that can be termed as one having “Existance” (satya).  Nothing else qualifies to be termed “It exists“. So the term advaita refers to that one principle that alone exists. Of course it appears to contradict our experience as we converse as you and I.

Many Indian philosophies both vedic and non Vedic, endeavor to explain the absolute beginning (aarambha) of the creation of the universe. The several puranas have the narration of creation as an essential aspect of purana. They explain how God created the Universe. There are other views like those of the Samkhyas and Yogis who say the evolution of the Universe began with the disequilibrium of the gunas in the dimensionless mulaprakriti. They do not see the need for a God to create the Universe. The vaiseshika philosophy says that the universe came about by the combination of various atoms of earth, of water, etc. and the atoms or paramanus are the basic building blocks of the Universe. Further all these vedic darsanas are careful to point out that there is also the individual self that is distinct and different from the material universe created. Because they suggest two different principles-- the consciousness and matter-- these philosophies came to be called dwaita or dualistic. They also differ from the modern scientific view which says that the universe started by the evolution from a tiny but hugely dense entity called singularity, but seems to imply that individual consciousness is a product of matter and not an independent entity—contrary to the vedic philosophies.

Advaita as the name implies indicates that there is only one principle and none else . That principle is pure non changing(sat) consciousness(chit) which they call Brahman. How do they explain the existence of the evolved Universe? Since there is only one principle which itself does not undergo any change with time (avakasa) or place (akasa) the evolved universe is not real but only an illusion and not independent. When we attempt to find out the beginning of the evolution we go back from the present. The classic examples of the chicken and the egg or the seed and the tree are mentioned to indicate the impossibility of finding out the beginning of the evolution. One school of advaitins says that since the chicken-egg phenomenon involves an unending chain of changes the beginning of which can not be determined , so the very exercise of finding out how the universe started (Aaramba vaada) is futile and all views about how the universe began are wrong. In fact, accordingly, the several theories about the beginning of the Universe cancel one another. The impossibility of finding the absolute beginning also could open the possibility that there is no real beginning and that the evolution of the universe itself is not real- the world is not rock solid as we see- and at best it is virtual. They assert that there was no real creation. Gaudapada in his commentary of Mandukya Upanishad states “nobody is ever born.”

In this context I remember a movie I saw when I was young (I was hardly sixty at that time). In the mystery movie, the young detective was trying to find out who murdered “Victim X”. After two years of painstaking investigations (and two hours of my painful viewing) the detective is unable to find the killer, only because “Victim X” did not die in the first place. Our detective started with a wrong premise. I have been trying like crazy for 72 years to understand how the world was created, poring over orthodox and contemporary dissertations on the origin of the Universe and now some Advaitin says that I can not find it because the world was never really created.

Advaita also asserts that a non-changing pure consciousness can not produce a 'real' material world nor can a non-conscious prakriti, paramanus or singularity produce non-changing consciousness which is the nature of our true self. So in our dualistic world the advaitin's view is that only the consciousness is real while the persistent world is unreal. In this context one may consider the statement of Einstein, “Reality is merely an illusion albeit is a persistent one”. Reality here refers to the universe which we experience as real. And advaita rubbishes the general perception that the Universe was really created (sat karya), a universal, taken-for-granted view. The advaitins give several examples to explain the 'virtuality' of the observed universe. They compare it to the space that we see in a mirror; though the space that we see in the mirror may be considered to be within the two dimensional mirror surface, it appears to be outside (beyond and behind) of it. The other example is that of the dream experience. In the dream, the space, the objects and the other beings and even our own dream self can be considered to be taking place within the dreamer's head but they all appear to be real and outside, during the dream state. The third example they give is that of the work of a magician who is able to create an illusion of space and objects. At a higher level is the world created by Siddha yogis.  There is a story of sage Viswamitra creating an illusory heaven to accommodate one of his disciples, King Trisanku. And the Lord who created this virtual ‘universe of illusion’ is the most consummate magician of all.

The Brahman, the only one existing - the advaita -, is pictured as even smaller than an atom (anoraneeyan) but is immensely dense consciousness (prajnana ghana). Within it, due to the inexplicable Maya the beginning less universe appears, only appears, to evolve and exist and persist. Further even though the universe is within the Brahman, it appears to be outside it. And that is the grand illusion.

There is an interesting episode about Lord Krishna as a toddler. Krishan was a purna ‘avatar’ or complete incarnation of Para Brahman or the supreme being. He was raised by his foster parents Yasodha and Nandan in Gokulam. One day he was playing and his mother saw him taking some dirt from the floor and putting it in his mouth. Concerned the mother lifted him and asked him if he put dirt into his mouth.  Without opening his mouth the child shook his head. The mother now more concerned asked him to open his mouth. The child opened the mouth wide and lo and behold! Yasodha saw the entire Universe in his mouth. She had a bird’s eye view, rather an eagle’s eye view (or a Google view) of the Universe including her holding the open mouthed divine child in her arms. She realized that the child was para brahman (the supreme being). The entire universe was within Him even as He appeared as a child, within the vast universe, like all of us. The Lord says in the Bhagavadgita “Everything is in Me but I am not in everything.”

I, as I know myself, wrapped in this maya (maya=that which really is not: the trickster), even though I am within the supreme consciousness, the individual I, as part of the Universe appear to be outside of it, engulfing It, the Brahman. And consequently the supreme consciousness, Brahman, appears to be within this physical me as the Atman or the individual Self ,in my heart cave (dahara). Now, though I am in It, It (Brahman) appears to be within me as my Self or Atman. The Upanishads tell us the means of finding It, within each one of us. The pancha maya model is one such vidya or practice by which each one can find the self within oneself, within the five kosas. It is an exercise by which one knows the only real principle that exists, the Brahman, the pure consciousness as one‘s self or Atman. The Self that resides in my heart lotus (dahara) and the Self that you, sitting across the coffee table , find in your heart lotus are one and the same, the same Brahman. That is advaita. Advaita does not mean all the varied objects like you and I are one and the same, but the Self within us are one and the same, even as they appear to be distinct and different, shrouded by illusion.

There is a considerable amount of source material available on this advaita pilosophy. The ten major Upanishads are the main source followed by the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavat Gita. In the Upanishads the Vedanta philosophy is presented succinctly through anecdotes, dissertations and dialogues between parent and offspring, teacher and pupil, spouse and spouse, God and devotee, saint and sinner and friend and friend. The advaitic interpretation is chiefly presented by Sri Sankara through detailed commentaries on these major Upanishads, Bhagavat Gita and also the Brahma Sutras. Sankara and some of his pupils have also written several easily accessible texts on advaita called prakrana granthas, like Atma bodha, Vivekachudamani and others.

Many of his works with some translations are available online. The Upanishads themselves explain the philosophy in detail from several viewpoints answering multitude of questions that may arise in the followers’ mind. Several vidyas or dissertations help to have a clear understanding of this old, unusual philosophy. They also contain some very pithy statements which are used as mantras or memory aids and are tellingly direct. Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman), Pragnyanam Brahma (Absolute consciousness in Brahman), tat tvam asi (You are That, the Brahman) ayam atma brahma (this individual Self is Brahman) are the most famous. Further there are other equally powerful statements like Brahma satyam, Jagan mitya (Brahman is real/ existence, the Universe is myth --mythya--illusion). Jiva brahmaiva na aparah (The individual Self is definitely Brahman and none other.)

What is the benefit of this kind of inquiry, especially to the majority of us who muddle through life rising with the tide and rolling with the punches? The advaitins say that knowing the truth about ourselves and the Universe is essential and they aver that this is the truth. Truth should be known whether it is sweet, bitter or insipid. Once we know the truth about ourselves and the universe around us our interaction with the outside world could drastically change. The Yogis say that the external world ,predominantly, is a constant source of threefold sorrow (duhkha). So say the Samkhyas. But the advaitin goes a step further and says that to a discerning mind the external world is not only a source of duhkha (barring individual variations, look at the enormity of the threefold collective duhkha in the world–self created, caused by other beings and by nature's fury) but is itself an illusion. How much importance do I give to the dream experience during dream time and then when I wake up? One tends to shrug off the dream experience as 'just a dream' on waking up.

Likewise when my mind after study, contemplation and determination finds that the world after all is virtual like a dream, I may not take my transient worldly life with so much anxiety, expectation and remorse as I seem to be doing all my life. An enormous amount of psychological burden that I unnecessarily carry may be taken off my mind then, and make me peaceful, hopefully. Furthermore, the thought or realization that I am the non-changing majestic reality, the one and only eternal Brahman, is just cool!"

Advaita Pranayama

While slowly inhaling, meditate that the virtual external world is being withdrawn into the source, the Brahman in one’s heart.  Next during the breath holding (antah Kambhatka), meditate on the fact that the Universe is within the Brahman and has no independent real existence.  Then while doing the exhalation meditate that the
illusionary universe is being renounced.  And in Bahya Kambhaka the meditation is on the pure Brahman that alone exists as advaita (based on Sankara’s work and Tejobindu Upanishad.)

A Sanskrit prayer

Death without distress
Life without dependence
Grant me, Oh! compassionate Lord Sambhu (Siva)
In Thee are established all.