Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"One thing I know..."

Happy Holidays! Please accept the gift of this post.
“I’ll tell you one thing, Franny.  One thing I know. And don’t get upset.  It isn’t anything bad.  But if it’s the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you’re missing out on every single g_d_ religious action that’s going on around this house.”
~J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zoey. Little, Brown and Co. 1961 p. 196

What a great time of year this is.  The days start getting longer, people are in good moods.  We get to spend time with family.  We give thanks and concentrate our thoughts on others.  We give to charity. We worship.  In short, we are actively engaged in Karma (selfless service) and Bhakti (intense love) Yoga. 

These practices are much more efficient than our Hatha or even Raja Yoga practices.  For Hatha, we need a mat, space, and time to work our bodies and breath into various positions.  This is only a preparation for Raja Yoga, where we still the fluctuations of our mind through intense meditation.  This takes time and, in the beginning at least, solitude. Raja Yoga is also preparation—reaching the goal of Nirvikalpa (or Nirbija) Samadhi, the yogi can operate in the world with no attachment, assisting others to achieve this state (Karma Yoga).

For those of us who have cultivated a disciplined Hatha practice, we must always remember that we are only engaged in preparation; that we do not spend so much time with the means that we forget to work towards the end.  We can become very attached to our practice.  We may define ourselves by our physical abilities: I can jump to handstand, I can drop back into a backbend from standing (this one is most certainly not me!), or I can hold my breath for a very long time.  And if we do define ourselves by and attach to our Hatha practice, we may become distraught when our practice schedule is interrupted.

But we have to accept that we will not save the world or ourselves by standing on our head, jumping back to chaturanga, or bending more than 180° forward.

We have to remember that BOTH practice AND detachment are required to still the mind (PYS I.12).  When we serve others, help others, put others ahead of our selves out of love and without expectation of rewards, we are cultivating detachment.

“…but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don’t see how you’ll ever even move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment.” (198)

During this holiday (whatever holiday you celebrate) season, we are blessed with the opportunity to practice detachment.  I’m not giving you a free pass to bag your hatha practice for the next two weeks, but I do encourage you to see all the opportunities that you have to practice every day, every minute. 

At the end of the Season, our practice will be to remember that we don’t have to wait until December to practice selfless service. 

Many thanks to Mr. Salinger, whose character Zooey has offered me inspiration these twenty some years.  Taking spiritual advice and instruction from a literary character?  Why not?  If the door is open, walk through it.

Even more thanks to you, Dear Reader, for accepting these offerings.

Happy Holidays!  May you be blessed with health, happiness, and prosperity!

In Gratitude,

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Attack of the Orange Cones!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Picture this:  You are clicking along in practice.  Then, like an orange cone in the middle of the street, something forces you to slam on the breaks.  Illness or injury force you to take a step back; work commitments eat away at your practice time; too much holiday cheer or cookies make getting up a drag; it’s dark; it’s cold; and Doubt (with a capital “D”) in the form of that nagging question: “Why the H E Double Hockey Sticks am I doing this and getting NOWHERE!!!” grinds your beautifully disciplined practice to a dead stop.

I hear you.  I’ve been there, too.  Probably this morning.

When roadblocks of orange cones stand in the way of my practice, I look for advice on the best detour.  Krishna counsels “Therefore let the scriptures be your guide as to what is to be done and what is not to be done.” [Bhagavad Gita XVII.24]  Truthfully I’m a bit of a geek, so I pick out books, flip open a page and see what inspiration comes. Not always the most efficient method, but that’s what I got. If you are coming to me for answers, you are only entitled to the cut-rate spiritual advice I have to offer.  

I have been reading Brahmananda Sarasvati’s Textbook of Yoga Psychology, well, I quickly realized that the psychology part was far beyond my grasp and skipped right to his translation of The Yoga Sutras.  A not-so-random search landed me on I.30-31, which I will liberally give here:

I.30 “Disease, laziness, doubt, heedlessness, lethargy, clinging to sense enjoyment, erroneous perception, failure to attain a state of concentration, and inability to remain in a state of concentration are obstacles which distract the mind.”
I.31 “These obstacles manifest as grief, anxiety, unsteadiness of body, and unsteadiness of breath.”

I was familiar with these verses, and am experientially [all too] well versed in the actualization of these obstacles and manifestations.  What I found incredibly interesting was Brahmananda Sarasvati’s commentary.  Again, given liberally, he likens the practice of Yoga to cleaning a house.  As you clean, you may stir up some snakes.  The snakes are not there as a result of cleaning, they have been there all along.  They have been brought into the open because they have been disturbed by the cleaning.  You do not stop cleaning because you find a snake.  You seek to remove the snake as quickly as possible before it has the chance to hide again and possibly bite you later.

These obstacles let us know that we are doing our practice correctly.  We are shaking up all the gross and icky feelings, samskaras, and karmas that we need to work on to progress further.  If we quit our practice, the obstacles become more firmly rooted.  Of course, I am not saying that you continue to practice crow with a shoulder injury, inversions with bronchitis, or navasana with a raging hangover (no need to deny it, it happens from time to time) —these are times to recover and increase your meditation practice. Let me stress: injuries, sickness, depression require medical attention first! Existential doubt and laziness require a trip to your teacher.   Know that your practice can, will, and should evolve as your life circumstances change.  All teachings agree: at all costs, keep practicing!

I wish you and orange cone free day. But if you happen to find these pesky critters in your path, pause, accept their presence, reflect on their raison d’etre, then put it into 4L and drive over the top of them!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Gita Jayanti: Happy Birthday Bhagavad Gita!

Dhritarashtra said:
“What did the sons of Pandu and also my people do when they had assembled together,
eager for battle on the holy plain of Kurukshetra, O Sanjaya?”

Having been granted divine sight by the Rishi Vyasa, Sanjaya recounted the events of the great war of The Mahabharata to the blind king Dhritarashtra. The initial event, the conversation between Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna, is known as The Bhagavad Gita, The Song Celestial. 

Krishna (the blue gentleman) counsels Arjuna
The Gita is not just a book for Hindus.  The lessons are universal.  They are timeless.  You do not have to change your religion to find validity in the teachings.  Gandhi calls The Gita “The mother to whom the children (humanity) turn when in distress.”

In The Gita, Krishna speaks of three paths of Yoga: the path of selfless service/actions (Karma Yoga), the path of knowledge (Jñana Yoga), and the path of faith (Bhakti Yoga).  When we read the text, Krishna seems to contradict himself.  Arjuna asks several times: “What is the best path to take?” In one chapter Krishna declares Karma Yoga; in another Jñana Yoga; in yet another Bhakti Yoga.  We can move past these apparent contradictions if we understand that The Gita was a gift to all of humanity, not just to one person at one place and time.

These three paths form the basis for yoga as we know it today.  Patañjali states in the Yoga Sutras (II.1) that yogic action contains tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (study), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender to the divine).  Basically action, knowledge, and faith.  If we look at the three main texts of yoga (this author’s opinion): The Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras, and The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we find devotion/faith, knowledge, and action as the respective foci  of these works.

These three works help us to progress through the gunas, the three qualities of creation. The gunas are Tamas (inertia), Rajas (passion), and Sattva (clarity).  The goal is to (eventually, eventually) move beyond even these three forces.  One overcomes Tamas with Rajas, Rajas with Sattva.  Hatha Yoga gets us active to overcome the inertia (tamas) of being trapped in the cycle of birth and death.  Patañjali’s Yoga is much more philosophical.  Having invigorated the body (rajas), Patañjali guides us to still the mind through meditation.  Finally our meditation (sattva) leads us to accept with faith the teachings of The Gita, thereby moving us past the gunas. 

Or you can just read The Gita because it is uplifting and inspiring. The basic teachings, such as: “Do your work without the expectation of rewards,” “By doing your duty you attain salvation,” “remain undisturbed by success/failure, hot/cold, praise/censure, and other pairs of opposites” are universal teachings.  Certainly not easy teachings to follow, but not dependant upon any specific knowledge or practice of Hinduism.

Swami Sivananda counsels that an aspirant will gain merit by reading just one verse of The Gita per day.  He states that The Gita alone is sufficient for spiritual study (svadhyaya).  Swami Sivananda’s translation of The Gita is available as a free download from The Divine Life Society. 

Today we give thanks for the gift of The Gita.  I encourage you to pick up (or download) a copy and start reading today!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Three Most Useful Poses in all of Yoga-dom

I had the great opportunity this week to present a lecture and asana practice on the history of yoga as a part of a History and Cultures of Asia class.  The students were incredibly receptive and were great sports, many trying yoga asana for the first time.  We teach history utilizing visual and audio media (paintings and songs are examples) but not through movement very often.  Ballet comes close, in that movement tells a story, however, yoga asana is quite unique in that the story is contained within the movement itself.  This could be a direct reference, as Anjaneyasana is dedicated to Hanuman (Anjaneya is another name for Hanuman), or indirectly.  Setu Bandhasana, Bridge Pose, recalls the bridge built by Rama’s army to cross the ocean to Lanka. 

One of the challenges in presenting millennia of history in 1 hour is deciding what to cover.  I decided to close with what I consider are the three most important poses in yoga asana practice.

At # 3:
Salamba Sirsasana:  Supported Headstand.

Yes, I took 100 (3 sections of +/- 35 students each) unsuspecting students and put them upside down.  In the middle of the room.  Of course, I emphasized and encouraged a prepatory stage (even preparation for the pose is the pose!) and most stayed with this option.  Several adventurous souls went for the full pose.

Physically this pose takes no more flexibility than standing upright.  It gives the heart a rest by letting gravity assist with the return of venous blood from the lower 2/3 of the body. There is increased blood flow to the brain, and the internal organs are stimulated by the inversion. Concentration is increased—got to stay alert if you don’t want to fall over!  And it forces you to face the fear of completely changing your point of view.  We can analyze how we react to difficult situations by purposefully (and in a controlled environment) putting ourselves in a difficult situation.

Energetically we reverse the normal downward flow of energy and the sahasrara charka is stimulated through contact with the ground.  Also the nectar (kapha) from the Moon (medulla oblongata) cannot drip into and be consumed by the Sun (Solar Plexus), extending life (there is only a finite amount of amrita, and like sands through the hourglass, when it’s gone, we’re gone)  (c.f. HYP III. 77-82).

Coming in at #2: Savasana

In The Compete Illustrated Book of Yoga, Swami Vishnu-devananda, one of Swami Sivananda’s main disciples and the creator of one of the first yoga teacher training programs in the West, compares the body to a car.  He asserts that a car (and the body) needs five items to run correctly: fuel, an electric current (for ignition), a cooling system, lubrication, and an intelligent driver. The cooling system for the body is conscious relaxation.  The body is a machine, and all machines need to be shut down once in awhile.  Savasana allows the body and mind time to cool down so that they can operate optimally.  The students I taught were all culinarians.  This profession is known for excessive hours (10-16+ hour days, 5-7 days a week) under demanding conditions (constant high stress, intense heat, intense personalities).  To survive such conditions, to be physically able to sustain in this career, one must schedule time for the body to rest and recover.

I have not yet (crossing fingers) received any calls by concerned parents wondering why their good money was going to people teaching their children to lay about on the floor!

And at #1 [drum roll] The ultimate and most important yoga asana ever:
I’ll paraphrase Krishna for that answer:

V.27. “Shutting out all external contacts, fixing the gaze between the eyebrows, equalizing the incoming and outgoing breaths moving within the nostrils”
VI.13. “Let him firmly hold his body, head and neck erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of his nose without looking around” (The Bhagavad Gita. Sivananda, tr.)

That’s it.  The most important yoga asana is sitting still and shutting up, more accurately sitting still so we can learn to shut up. Quite literally from God’s mouth to our ears. 

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that the goal of Hatha Yoga (practices which focus on the physical body and breath) are for the purpose of achieving Raja (Patañjali) Yoga.  The goal of Raja Yoga is nirbikalpa (or nirvikalpa or nirbija) Samadhi constant unification with the Absolute with all karmas burnt up.  Meditation is the means to this end.  Sitting still to shut up is what this whole business is about.

Of all the poses I taught, the students had the most difficult time with this one.  This was expected, and, in my experience, pretty common.  It’s hard to sit still, even harder to justify to ourselves to make the time to sit still.  Just like standing on your head, or jumping to crow, it takes continued, repeated, systematic practice.

At a time of year when our bodies and minds are taxed more than usual, these three poses offer much needed solace. And they only take a few minutes to practice.  Give yourself the gift of time to practice.   

Monday, November 21, 2011

Giving Thanks Through the Practice of Cooking and Eating

Ah, Thanksgiving.  The one time of year I allow myself to comment on diet.

But I’m not going to belabor what you should or shouldn’t eat—truthfully, no matter what side of the fence you are on, there is always going to be someone on the exact opposite side (and even deeper into the field) than you are who will argue against you to no end.  Sorry folks, this argument is a waste of good air.

I do want you to think of how you are serving and eating.

“A kitchen is the best training ground or school for developing tolerance, endurance, forbearance, mercy, sympathy, love, adaptability, and the spirit of real service for purifying one’s heart and for realizing the oneness of life.  Every aspirant should know how to cook well.” ( Sivananda. The Practice of Karma Yoga.p.2)

Page 2.  Not buried half-way through.  Right up front.
[Full disclosure: Sivananda himself is very vehement about a vegetarian diet.] 

The Zen Master Dogen, who codified the rules for Zen monasteries, lists the Tenzo (the Cook) as one of the 6 high offices within the Monastery.  Only very highly practiced monks are allowed to occupy the position of Tenzo, as they are responsible for providing the sustenance which gives others strength and health to continue their practices.  And they give up their meditation time in order to provide this service to others.

The act of cooking is an act of service.  You are creating an offering to someone else.  As a cook, it is our duty to create what the guest wants, to the highest level of perfection we can.  This means you may very well have to compromise your personal beliefs so that you can best act in the service of another. 

This, my friends, is Karma Yoga.

If you do not eat meat, but your guests do, and they are expecting a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, then the highest act of service you can render is to cook a tasty turkey.  You will have to taste it, because it needs to be seasoned well. Cultivate an attitude of friendliness and joy as you cook it. Remember that acts done in service, that is without attachments to the fruits of actions, does not result in negative karma.  This is directly from Krishna. 

On the other side, if your guests do not eat meat, do not force the issue.  Pick up a magazine or go on the inter web to find meatless alternatives.  You will also have to taste what you cook.  Tofu and saitan may be different and scary to you.  Get over it.  You don’t have to like it, but you need to make it taste good so those that do like it will enjoy it.

It has been my experience that trying your best to offer your guests what they expect is trumps the actual taste of the finished dish.  The act itself is the most meaningful.

Cultivating an attitude of service and gratitude for our guests is very difficult practice.  I cooked professionally for a very long time.  Stress, heat, yelling, and the attitude of “if it is not perfect you are worthless” is something I still struggle to control every time I walk into a kitchen, some eight years after I sent my last dish out from behind the line.  Quitting smoking was easier (at times) than finding peace while cooking.  It is a practice I consciously work on.  When I find myself getting annoyed or stressed in the kitchen, I do mental japa, or try to focus on those I am cooking for.  The key is to train yourself to identify that you are stressed, because you can’t do anything to change your mental state until you first can identify the state you are in.  Your asana practice gives you the physical strength to cook and regular meditation gives you the mental strength to cook.

Selfless service also means accepting all offerings which come to you. The Vedas state that gifts from superiors are always to be accepted.  Paramahansa Yogananda mentions in his Autobiography that he grew portly because he could not refuse all the offerings of food his disciples graciously bestowed upon him.  Krishna states: “Whoever offers Me with devotion and a pure mind (heart), a leaf, a flower, a fruit or a little water—I accept (this offering).” (Bhagavad Gita IX.26). Meat or no meat, cooked to our liking or not, if we are claiming to practice the science of yoga, then we have a responsibility to equally and graciously accept all offerings which are given to us.  We “serve the servant” with our acceptance.

Holiday gatherings are supposed to be about the company, the family, the gathering.  Bring your guests together through the act of cooking.  Raise your fork and glass with love and you will raise your spirits.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

And yes, we will spend some time in Mayurasana this week and next to help digest the gluttony.  I am not ashamed to say I will be taking seconds (read: thirds) on the pie, too!

Yatkaroshi yadashnaasi yajjuhoshi dadaasi yat;
Yattapasyasi kaunteya tatkurushva madarpanam.

“Whatever thou doest, whatever thou eatest, whatever thou offerest in sacrifice, whatever thou givest, whatever thou practiseth as austerity, O Arjuna, do it as an offering unto Me!”
 ~Bhagavad Gita IX.27 (Sivananda, tr.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sivananda's Story of a Sugar Eating Boy

Story of a Sugar Eating Boy

A certain old man took his boy who was addicted to eating much black sugar to a Saint and addressed him, “O Santji, my boy eats much black sugar. Kindly advise him to give up eating black sugar.” The Saint said, “Come after fifteen days.” The Saint himself used to take much black sugar like the boy. He gave up at once eating sugar for fifteen days. He found no trouble or mental disturbance. When the old man came on the fifteenth day with the boy, the Saint addressed the boy with great force, “My dear boy! Give up this habit of eating sugar at once.” The old man asked the Saint, “O Sadhu Maharaj! Why did you not advise the boy on the first day?” The Saint replied: “I was myself a victim of the sugar-eating habit. How could I then be able to advise others? I gave it up for fifteen days. I corrected myself first. How can I preach to others when I am myself filled with
Doshas?” The advice of the Saint had very great effect on the mind of the boy. He gave up eating sugar from that day.

The moral of this story is that you must put a thing into actual practise yourself before you begin to preach it to others. Then only will it produce a lasting impression. Example is better than precept. It is easier to preach to twenty than to be one of the twenty in following the preaching.
~Swami Sivananda  Yoga in Daily Life. P. 67 (Freely distributed by The Divine Life Society)

Saints and Masters are out there, but they are rarely the ones offering “Master’s” classes and calling themselves by that designation.  True Masters are working their way along this path just like you and I.  They may be a few steps ahead, but they are still practicing (tapas), studying (svadhyaya), and operating on faith (isvara pranidhanani) like the rest of us. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Training For Students Grand Finale

Artist: Sanjay Patel, via MC Yogi
Saturday, November 12th is the final session of my Training for Students program. (Saturday, Nov, 12, 1:30-3:30 at Hudson River Yoga, Poughkeepsie Thank you to all those who have attended the first three! I have saved the best, well, at least my most favorite topic, for last: The Ramayana.

We’ll follow The Ramayana mostly in order, concentrating on stories which have characters/themes/objects which lend their names to modern yoga postures.  Some you may be familiar with, such as bow (dhanurasana) and bridge (setu bandhasana).  Some you may recognize under a different name, like side plank pose, Vasisthasana, named after one of Rama’s teachers, and crescent moon, Anjaneyasana, named for Anjaneya, another name of Hanuman.  The poses will be practiced along with the stories.

The Ramayana can be read on many levels. It is a love story.  It is a story of good versus evil.  It is Fantasy (and Science Fiction—some have sought to prove that the flying chariot and the gods in the story are ancient aliens).  It is also a devotional work, illustrating all of the ancient teachings of The Vedas in a way that the general population can easily understand. Our physical practice parallels this.  We can do asana practice purely to work out/sweat/burn calories.  We can do it as a warm up for meditation.  We can treat our bodies as temples, and asanas as prayers (nod to Mr. Iyengar). 

No matter how we view our practice or this story, the most important thing is that we find inspiration to keep returning to it.  If it’s your workout, keep doing.  If it’s your prayer, keep doing it. If you like the love story, keep reading.  If the stories help you to make moral decisions, keep reading. 

Everything we need for your practice is already within us.  Asanas, stories, teachers are all just tools to help us realize this. 

Some technical points:
  • My favorite translation of The Ramayana is by William Buck.  It is written for Westerners and has a nice list of characters and map for reference. Unfortunately, it is not in the public domain, so I cannot share it for free.  If you have itunes, you can purchase this version with Ram Dass reading.

  • Some of the poses will be quite difficult.  As always, there is no need to push yourself to the point of injury.  Intention is more important than actualizing someone else’s ideal of a posture.  We will build everything in stages.  The story is primary, not the posture.

  • Come with an open mind.  Yes this is a Hindu devotional text.  Yes it talks about gods from the perspective that the events actually happened.  No, I am not asking you to believe or convert.  The concepts are universal, even though the characters are most relevant to another culture.

This is my absolute favorite story of all time.  I enjoy sharing it, and am excited to share it in this way.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll chant the Chalisa for you at the end. 

As always, please contact me if you have any questions.

Looking forward to sharing the world’s oldest epic with you!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

#occupyyourmat: The Theory and Practice of Yoganomics

That’s right, I’m droppin’ a hashtag.  Be warned, I may even play the Gandhi card.  But first, let’s talk about Yoganomics.  The theory of Yoganomics can be summed up in (read: I borrowed this from) a line from a song by The Night Watchman, Tom Morello.  It goes like this: 

“If you take one step towards freedom, it will take two steps towards you.”

Patañjali has us begin with Kriya Yoga, and the first step on that path is discipline (tapas).  Kriya, like Karma, comes from the root kr- “to act.” We must initiate action, then everything else begins to move. The ultimate end result is Kaivalya, freedom. 
An example. Swami Sivananda writes about japa practice, echoing the Kali-Santarana Upanishad: “The name of God chanted correctly or incorrectly, knowingly or unknowingly, carefully or carelessly, with Bhava (feeling/faith/devotion) or without Bhava, is sure to give the desired fruit.  The Bhava will come itself after some time…” (The Essence of Yoga  p. 17).  Swamiji absolutely encourages faith and devotion during japa (and all forms of) practice, however, the sheer act of repeating a name of God over and over again is a jump start toward liberation.  Not as fast as japa with devotion, yet light years ahead of not doing anything. Start in some way, shape, or form, and a chain reaction follows.

By Sanjay Patel via MC Yogi. The story of Rama is Yoganomics in action
Here’s the fun part:  we may not know, long term, what we are looking to achieve with our practice, and we may not know how we are going to do whatever it is we are going to do, but the second we act, not think about acting, not committing to act, but actually get off our butts and do something, we have succeeded.

This is microyoganomics, working toward freedom as an individual. An interesting phenomenon happens when you start the micro-, the macro- follows right along.  Taking a step towards freedom changes the individual, and it also starts to change the world.  An individual’s actions are contagious. 

Occupy Wall St. is this theory unfolding into practice right before our very twitter stream.  Someone, or maybe a group of people, decided to stop griping about what they saw as wrong with the economic system and do something about it.  I will not pretend to know any details; I’ll let the results speak for themselves:

Problem:  The people have no voice.
Solution: A completely democratic collective, where everyone has equal opportunity and voice.

Problem: Those negatively effected by the current economic system feel they have no support.
Solution: People are gathering and offering support to each other.

Problem: There are people without food.
Solution: People with food share with others.

Problem:  There are people in need of medical attention.
Solution: Doctors and nurses providing free care to the best of their ability.

What is the movement trying to prove?  Can a collective movement be sustainable in the absence of accountable leadership, a spokesperson, a platform? Who are these people? Are they communists/heathens/slackers/hippies/[insert unfair disparaging label here]?

Who cares. 

They are you and me.  

We can’t control what others do, think, or say.  But we have full control over what we choose to do.  One person choosing to help another sparked the desire in more people to help each other.  That is the result. That is all which matters. That is success

The practical application of Yoganomics:  Once we do, whether that is getting to the mat or sitting for meditation, giving a cup of coffee to someone without heat, listening to someone who feels unheard, saying ‘thank you’, etc., we are making a difference.  Gandhi taught us to “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” (told you. Gandhi card.)  All it takes is one kr-, one act. It does not matter if people follow, it only matters that you provide the example by taking the first step. . “The truth,” as Mr. Slater’s character in Pump Up the Volume informs us, “is a virus.”

 My Yoganomics offering to my students, past, present, and future:

If you are trying to convince yourself to get to your mat, if you have doubts, if you are struggling to find your practice, know that I am there too, and I support you. Even though not in the same physical space, you have a partner/comrade/compatriot. I will share with you from my practice. We are students on this path together.

If you want to practice, I’ll give you the tools. If you cannot afford to come to class, I will comp you one and provide you with instruction to continue your practice at home.  I have found a great number of teachings which are available for free, and I will share them with you.  

I will do my best to answer your questions and will direct you to better authorities for better answers than I can provide.

I will provide you with an environment of inclusion where you can be safely challenged without being judged.

Your practice makes a difference.  Take one step and see.

Friday, October 28, 2011

New and Improved! Now with More Enlightenment!

Some days I wish there was a yoga pill: “One a Day to a better you! Now with MORE ENLIGHTENMENT!”  Bottle it and make a bundle.  Because when it’s early and dark and cold and early and early, motivating body and mind to get out of bed is challenging.

Patañjai does give us that pill.  No, it’s not asana.  Although we would like it to be because that’s where we expend so much energy. And money.  No, it’s not the 8 limbs.  It’s what the 8 limbs (or at least the first 5) prepare us for: meditation.

If we read the Yoga Sutras the way most of us practice, that is beginning as a novice, our work begins in chapter 2 (from a practice standpoint, most of us begin at ch. 2 then progress to 3, 1, and 4).  The first thing we must do is engage in Kriya Yoga, which is to develop discipline of and desire for practice, study of texts written by those who have successfully followed the path, and faith.  These let us move beyond the klesas, afflictions: ignorance (the cause of all the rest), egoism, attraction, aversion, and clinging to life.  II.11 tells us “In their [kleshas] gross form, as patterns of consciousness, they are subdued by meditation.” 

A lot of work before we even get to the 8 limbs. 

Further along the path, Patañjali warns of obstacles which impede even the more advanced practitioners: sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, hedonism, delusion, lack of progress, and inconsistency, which manifest as distress, depression, and the inability to remain steady in posture or breathing. (I.30-31).  Patañjali presents 6 specific techniques to conquer these obstacles, which are truly all forms of, you guessed it, meditation.

Funny, think of the percentage of practice time the average yoga student (by that I mean think of your own practice and I’ll think of mine) spends on asana, practice of poses, versus the amount of time in meditation.  Asana only takes up 3 of 196 verses (4 if you want to count the verse that says “The 8 limbs are….asana…”) or 1.53% of the system. 


So to get the benefit of the other 98.47% of the practice, for every 1 hour of asana we need to do 65.36 hours of meditation.

No wonder why Ramakrishna and Vivekananda totally bagged asana in favor of meditation. 

Asana practice is useful.  It gets us disciplined.  It gets us strong enough to sit still.  It helps us focus.  But it is not the goal, only a minor method.  Patañjali gives no asana instruction.  In fact, the only physical practice prior to the Hatha Yogis (recall that Hatha Yoga is but a preparation for Patañjali’s Raja Yoga) comes from The Bhagavad Gita:

V.27. Shutting out (all) external contacts and fixing the gaze between the eyebrows, equalizing the outgoing and incoming breaths moving within the nostrils,

VI.11. In a clean spot, having established a firm seat of his own, neither too high nor too low, made of a cloth, a skin and kusha grass, one over the other,
12. There, having made the mind one-pointed, with the actions of the mind and the senses controlled, let him, seated on the seat, practice Yoga for the purification of the self.
13. Let him firmly hold his body, head and neck erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of his nose, without looking around.
(Sivananda Tr.)

That’s it. That’s what countless hours of asana practice is for:  To let us be able to sit and breathe in and out. 

And then the real work begins. 

Personally, I do about a 1:3 ration of meditation to asana, about 20 minutes v. 60 minutes. Better than the 0:100% of not too long ago.  Much work to do, but getting there.

There are no shortcuts. No magic pill.  But if we practice smartly, and focus on what is important and provides the most benefit, all is coming.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Greatest Story I Know

Once upon a time, in India, a King was nearing the end of his life.  Before his death, he desired to see his son, Rama, installed as king.  All of the arrangements were made, and the Prince was set to take the throne.  The night before the coronation, one of the King’s co-wives asked that he make good on his promise of granting 2 wishes to her.  The King, always true to his word (as a King must be) assured that he would grant what ever she asked.  The Queen’s first wish was that her son be installed as king rather than Rama, and the second, that Rama be sent into exile for 14 years.  The King was broken, but bound by duty. Rama, without questioning the request nor displaying any malice toward his Step-Mother, obeyed the order of his father, and entered the forest along with his wife and one of his brothers. 

The series of events which followed make up the oldest epic poem in human history: a story of love, honor, great heroes, horrible enemies, a great war, and, my personal favorite, a flying monkey. 

At the end of 14 years, Rama had lost and recovered his wife and had slain a 10-headed, 20-armed demon who had wrought havoc upon the heavens and earth. 

The celebration of Rama’s return from exile is celebrated on Diwali, this year falling on Wednesday 26 October.

The story of Rama, The Ramayana (Lit. “The wanderings of Lord Rama”) is full of ideal actions: we have the ideal king, father, husband, wife, brother, bad guy, and servant.  To study the Ramayana is to study the very Vedas themselves.  When he was a boy, Krishnamacharya (the preceptor of Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar among many, many others) was given a copy of The Ramayana by his grandfather, and was told “This is all you will ever need.”  In his Autobiography, Gandhi states that The Ramayana of Tulsi Das is “The greatest piece of devotional literature ever written.”

The story of Rama is the light which dispels darkness for 1/7th of the world’s population.  Diwali is a festival of lights, internal and external: candles are lit, fireworks light the sky, and all enmity is forgotten. 

I welcome you to join me for class on Wednesday night where we will celebrate Diwali with stories from The Ramayana.  Move your body with asana practice while moving your mind with the greatest story I know how to tell.

This will be a bit of a primer for the final Training for Students session (Nov 12th) which will focus more deeply on the stories from and poses inspired by The Ramayana.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll tell you the second greatest story I know, about a specific character in The Ramayana.  In Hindi.  If anyone wants to bring and play the harmonium, I’ll tell it to music.

Jai Ram!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

GSD in the face of Statistical Impossibility and Certain Doom

I have a healthy disrespect and distrust of statistical analysis when it is used to pre-determine a course of action and preclude any alternate course of action.  The fallacy of statistical analysis (and often policy) is the absence of one piece of information.  Information which cannot be metric-ed and reported on to death with Access or Excel:  The human animal’s ability and willingness to GSD in the face of impossibility and Certain Doom.

What the heck does that have to do with my yoga practice?

Let me answer that question with another topical departure.  I want to talk about Mariano Rivera.  Yes, the greatest closer in the history of baseball.  Mariano has one pitch, the Cutter.  As a batter, you know what is coming.  You know he will throw it in the strike zone.  You have seen and studied countless hours of video and volumes of statistical analysis.  You don’t have to watch for his hand position on the ball, the rotation of the seams, it is the same every time.  You know exactly what is coming and you will still not be able to do anything against that Cutter.  Maybe you get lucky.  Once.  Not repeatedly.  Not consistently.  To face The Sandman is, at least statistically, Certain Doom.
The Cut Fastball.  Certain Doom from the Greatest Closer in the history of Baseball

As great as Mariano is, batters still come up to the plate and try to get a hit.  All the hours of analysis mean squat if the batter doesn’t swing the bat.  If the batter thinks too long about swinging—you know, planning and organizing rather than leading—once he is in the box, the ball has gone right past him. At some point you just have to swing to get s*it done.

Here is the cross over.  We face certain doom every time we approach our practice.  Think about what is working against us.  There are more than 7 billion people in the world.  That means that there are 7 billion people who have not yet achieved the goal of existence (and the practice of yoga): ultimate unification which results in breaking of the cycle of birth and death.  By virtue of being born, all of us (with more added every second) have utterly failed. Struck out. Down swinging or looking, doesn’t matter.

Chew on that for a minute. 

But that is only true from a certain point of view.

Humans, the shastras tell us, are the only created beings with the capacity to work out our karma and actively move toward the ultimate goal.  We can get, and are GSD right now.  We may not know it.  We may have only a vague understanding of what we are doing.  We are most likely adding more S to GD as we are G our current SD—yes, that’s a problem.  But if we allow that understanding to scare us into inactivity, we are truly sunk.

It is useful, to an extent, to explore how we GSD.  The danger is spending too much time in analysis and too little time in execution.  Spending hours and hours examining pricing, mileage, traffic patterns, selecting an outfit, tying the perfect overhand knot on my sneakers does not matter if I need milk for dinner.  I cannot finish a project at work if I spend all day long analyzing my thought patterns, creating SWOT charts, and going to committee about the font on the document. I cannot progress in headstand through reading about the pose, watching videos, or relying on someone else’s description of perfection of the pose. 

The key to success in any of these is accepting risk of failure and going for it anyway.

Yes, analysis needs to happen, but not at the expense of GSD. 

How and why do you GSD, whether in the batter’s box against Mo, being pulled in countless directions at work, or trying to stand on your head?

You figure it out and do it. And you do it and figure it out.

There are those who have done it before, and that gives us hope.  Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Yogananda, all Self Realized beings who walked the Earth and left very extensive insights to help us along.  Sri Mahayogi, Self Realized at the age of 8 is with us today, dividing his time between Japan and NYC. Their teachings point the way and provide encouragement, but ultimately we get to our practice for one reason:

Because it needs to get done.  And we have faith that it will get done.

Swami Sivananda says “Brahmamuhurta [4 AM, the most auspicious time to begin practice] is NOW!”  Meaning get your tail in gear and do something this instant!

Explore action, means, and reasoning together.  There’s no need to wait or rely on anyone else's opinion of what the method, means, and outcome should be.  It doesn’t matter if you can explain to someone else how or why you got results, truthfully your method probably won’t work for them anyway.  It’s your practice that counts.  Your swing. Your results. 

Do it because it needs to be done. Do it because someone else did it.  Do it because no one else has done it.  Just GSD.

Friday, October 14, 2011

I Can Do This Job Standing on my Head

Ok, so this is handstand, not headstand.  I do know the difference—there is the occasional (read: often) right/left mix-up, but I’m pretty good with correctly identifying head- v. handstand.  We’ll call this one artistic license.

I have the great opportunity to use headstand in my position as a yoga teacher and in my big people job.  It is one of the most useful tools for self-analysis.  Better than personality tests (woo-hoo, I’m an INTJ.  How does that get me a raise?).  Better than “Tell me about a time when…”  Headstand allows us as students to safely observe how we approach radical shifts in our environment, how we react to being pushed out of our comfort zones, and how we approach change. 

I teach headstand very early in my classes.  Sun salutations first, headstand second. 

And always, ALWAYS we practice in the center of the room.

The reason for this is very simple.  It is not the wall’s practice—it is your practice. #1: If your feet are touching the wall, you are not safely supporting your weight in the pose. #2: We carry all the answers within ourselves; nothing external is needed.  The secret to practicing headstand in the center of the room is to create your own definition of headstand.  Not everyone is ready to (or should) work into the complete expression of the pose.  Crown of the head down, hips above head, hands/arms/elbows pressed into the ground to set the shoulders correctly and hold the majority of the body’s weight is headstand.  Sitting or standing, with head, neck and spine aligned, practicing mula and uddiyana bandhas is headstand.  Crashing against a wall, puffing like a red-faced Thomas the Tank Engine, grasping the back of your head for dear life is NOT headstand.

To enter this pose, you first must identify where you are with your practice. Secondly you need to follow the teacher’s instructions (whether you are in class or not.  Even at home, with no one looking, FOLLOW YOUR TEACHER’S INSTRUCTIONS.)  Thirdly, work to where you can.  Not to where others are.  Not to where you think you should be.  Not to where you worked yesterday.  Work to where you can now, this session.

Yes, as you learn in the center of the room you will fall.  It will be funny.  I know, I fell quite often when I was learning.  I still fall if I am not paying attention.  I have fallen when trying to demonstrate how to do it in a room full of students. The students laughed, I laughed. It’s ok to fall, it means you are trying.   

Falling down or not being able to go up are not the enemies.  Not trying and acquiescing to defeat before starting are the enemies.

My big people job is in Career Services.  I have the unique opportunity to meet with Seniors in their last semester as part of their History and Cultures of Asia class.  I put them all into headstand.  This gives me great insight as to how to work with the students on their career management plan.  Some go for it.  Others try meekly but not really.  Others resist loudly.  (Honestly, same as in a yoga class.) I let the students know that at the end of the semester their world will be changing, their responsibilities will increase, and they will not have “senior” status.  They need to approach and face these realizations.  Headstand provides a laboratory to experiment.

If you ever interview with me, I will put you in a headstand. Does not matter which side of the table I am on. (Yes, I realize who some of my anonyms readers are.  Or who they should be J)  Say you’re looking to effect change; you think out of the box? Let’s test that.  I will know in an instant how you take direction, confront the unknown, and operate on risk.

Are you ready to turn your world upside down?  Tomorrow (Saturday 15 October) explore headstand and Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras with me at Hudson River Yoga.  1:30-3:30.

See you on the mat!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Once is Coincidence, Twice is Conspiracy

The ancient teachings tell us that our true nature is  sat-chit-ananda: truth, eternal consciousness, and bliss.  There is no separation, no independent existence. This nature alone is permanent, everything else is illusion.  Furthermore, this true nature is already inside us; we have just forgotten it. 

Hard to understand.  Harder to internalize.  Even harder to achieve this Truth.

But if we shut up once in a while, we can see glimpses of this.

I have been thinking a lot about coincidences lately.  When coincidences keep happening,  something else is going on. Those of you who know me are probably singing Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” right about now. If the shoe fits, I’m happy to wear it.

When I was in my early teens, my aunt took me to see a psychic.  The psychic told me a bunch of expected generalities, then said “You need to learn how to stand on your head.”  20 some years later, I was the only student to show up to a yoga class, and the teacher said: “Do you want to learn how to stand on your head?”  I count that day as the day I truly started practicing yoga.

I used to listen to a lot of punk and NY Hardcore music.  The teacher who amplified my asana practice at the exact time I needed it to be amplified was the lead singer of one of these bands I listened to 15+ years ago. 

At a time when I didn’t know anything about kirtan other than recognizing it as background music in yoga classes, a line from Krishna Das’ “Sita Ram”—“Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram” suddenly roared in my head with as much clarity and volume as if I was standing next to a speaker.  I didn’t even know who Krishna Das was or what the words were—I had to hum it to a friend to get the name of the artist and song.  This mantra has stuck with me ever since.

Speaking of Rama, once I knew the line, I sought its meaning.  A little interweb searching, and I had the basic story.  Funny thing, there was a copy of The Ramayana sitting on our bookshelf.  My wife had read it for a class in college and it had been in our various living rooms staring at me for 12+ years.  I had, and still have, a profound, uncontrollable emotional response to this work.

My practice shifted toward Sivananda’s method of Hatha Yoga, and, through research, came across The Complete Illustrated Guide to Yoga which is the main text for the Sivananda Teacher Training program.  I never spoke of this to anyone.  Less than a week later, a student comes to class and offers me several books, saying “Something told me you could use these.”  Among them, The Complete Illustrated Guide to Yoga.  The first yoga book I ever bought was about the Sivananda method.  My practice had come right back to where it began.

And the inspiration for this whole tirade: Last weekend, my Mom and Aunts came to visit.  We were in my son’s room, and my Aunt (the one who took me to that psychic, now 25 years ago) asked about a sticker on my son’s crib.  I explained it was the name Rama.  She almost fell out of the chair.  She said that many, many years ago, when she began taking meditation classes, the teacher (who is now deceased) instructed her how to meditate on the word Rama.  My Aunt never knew what the significance of the word was, but she practiced what she was taught.

Everything keeps coming back to Rama and Sivananda.  So I keep reading the Ramayana and Sivananda.   

Part of the aim of our practice is to train ourselves to be aware of and receptive to these “coincidences.”  Don’t continue to ignore those big flashing arrows that point you in a certain direction! 

Once is coincidence, twice is conspiracy, three times, well that is just someone shouting WAKE UP!

Speaking of headstand and waking up: Training for Students Session 3 is coming to Hudson River Yoga on Saturday October 15th!  Turn your world upside down with an introduction to Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras and an inversion primer.  No matter where you are in your practice, I will give you the tools to do headstand, shoulderstand, and just maybe handstand away from the wall!