Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Nemesis II: Attack of the Sequel

I have described this practice as a Mobius strip wrapped in a helix—it intertwines, loops back on it self, don’t know which end is up or where it stops and ends. 500 words or so is not enough to exhaust a topic, especially an ongoing one, so I present Nemesis II: Attack of the Sequel!!!!!

Swami Sivananda counsels (and Dharma Mittra actively teaches) that there is a chamber in the right side of the heart which houses the seed of the Divine.  Read that again.  There is an actual physical space in our bodies which houses our direct connection to the Divine.  As Dr. Nathan Mhyrvold, author of Modernist Cusine, stated to 1200 students, faculty, and staff at The CIA, when he disproved a cooking practice which is taught as gospel: “Sorry.  You don’t have to like it, but that’s the way it is.”

In our physical practice, we are often told to roll the shoulders away from the ears and bring the heart forward.  Physically, this helps to utilize the bone structure, rather than the rotator cuff muscles, to support the weight of the body, especially when the arms are weight bearing.   Physically, this allows us to have maximum expansion of the chest  creating more space for the lungs to expand yielding a fuller breath.  Both very good things.

This action also energetically lifts and opens this chamber in the heart.  Physically, symbolically, and energetically we are leading with the heart.  Which brings us to, you guessed it, Urdhva Dhanurasana.

Why is this important?  What if students run when you mention the Divine?  Well, this is a spiritual practice.  In the Jivamukti Yoga, David Life and Sharon Gannon state “In the West…most yoga teachers are thought of as personal trainers rather than spiritual guides.  This is the fault of the teachers, not the students.”(73)  There are many, many ways to keep this practice spiritual without subscribing to a particular religion or imagery which may be offensive. 

Here is how David Life led Urdhva Dhanurasa.  The workshop opened with a discussion of Yoga Sutras II.1.  In the asana practice, UD was to be done 3 times.  The first time, we were told to think of someone we love, and send our heart (the energy of the pose) to that person.  The second, think of someone we had no opinion of, perhaps a stranger in the room.  Send the energy to that person.  On the third, we were told to focus on someone we hate, loath, despise.  David paused so we could really get worked up about this person.  Then we entered the pose, dedicating all the energy of the pose to them.

Not one word about the placement of the hands.  Not one word about L1 or the psoas. Or explicitly the Divine. He (and Sharon) created a deeply devotional practice in a way which was accessible to all.  For 5 breaths, we were given the opportunity to change our minds.   

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cooking Your Practice II: Recipes v. Ratios

You don't have to know anything about Escoffier to cook.  You don't have to know anything about BTU's, the Maillard reaction or colloidal suspensions to cook either.  You can just follow a recipe and make some darn fine food.

But then you have a nice collection of recipes.  What happens when something goes wrong or when you want to experiment?  As we start to learn techniques we can understand how to apply them widely.  A saute is a saute, whether a piece of meat, fish, or vegetable.  The principles are the same.  Ratios unlock another door.  I know that I get a good result when I use 3 parts of oil to 1 part of acid when making an emulsified dressing.  I can use any oil and any acid and still get the same result.

In yoga, there is no practice which is right for everyone.  Krishna presents 3 paths; as he describes one, he seemingly debunks the other two.  Pattabhi Jois states that the Ashtanga method is to be performed exactly as prescribed, then he states that not every asana is correct for every student, the guru will decide which is correct.  These contradictory statements are to encourage us:  If A works for you stick with it, if not, there is B which will yield the same result. 

When we learn asanas alone (triangle is done like this...), we have learned a recipe.  Darn fine food.  When we learn reasons how that physical practice effects the fluctuation of the mind, we are learning techniques and ratios which open many doors.

Learning recipes is a good place to start.  We need to learn to follow directions which yield tested results.  Making stuff up on our own too early in our education leads to not so great results.  Going deeper is learning why.  Got to know why before we teach someone how.

Copy the teacher.  Study.  Learn.  Practice.  Repeat.  Then share results with others.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Student Training Program

I want to develop a student training program.  “But Ron, isn’t that what we do every class?” Truthfully, no.  No. Because, if we did, there would not be teacher training programs advertising “Deepen Your Practice,” or “From Advanced to Master”  both claims being complete crocks. If students want to deepen their practice, they are not getting something they need from their current practice.   They should not have to shell out thousands of dollars to do this from the same teachers they see regularly. 

Many classes are stuck on anatomy.  There are many teachers who advertise their expertise on alignment.  This is an incomplete teaching.  Now, I can build a toaster by following directions, by precisely aligning the individual pieces.  Problems arise if I do not put the pieces in the correct place.  But at the end, I have a nice collection of metal.  Now, if I understand that I have to run power through the toaster, I can make toast.  If I understand how the power works within the mechanics of the toaster, I can build a tv, clock, radio, etc.  Some students want the toaster, some the toast, some the knowledge to go beyond toaster and toast.
Why is this important?  An example from my practice.  My issues with Urdhva Dhanurasa are well documented.  During my teacher training I asked the question “Why am I having trouble with this?” I really did not receive an answer.  Much later, a good friend and fellow teacher with whom I practice at times pointed out that when I stand with toes parallel, my right knee turns in and my right shin is bowed.  If I have both knees pointed forward, my right foot is pointed outward.  This effects my ankle, knee, and hip joint, and all the muscles which work across those joints.  In part, there is a very individual, anatomic reason why, if I do the pose with the “correct” alignment, it does not yield the “normal” result.  I would not expect a teacher in a regular group class to notice this, but senior teachers, in a training program, and another “master,” when asked the question directly were not paying attention to physical alignment.

Much, much more importantly, if this training was to deepen a student’s practice, that is to move them further along in Raja Yoga, the answer to “Why can’t I…” would be “Reflect upon why you feel the pose you have right now is not the correct pose, when it truth it is.”  PYS I.2.  3 senior teachers whom I spoke with (and paid a LOT of money to) never once brought this up. Out of sheer frustration, I asked it myself.  This one question did more for my practice than years of asana. 

Two more examples which will benefit students and teachers alike.  Padmasana, the poster pose of yoga.  According to Pattabhi Jois, which means according to Krishnamacharia, which means according to Rama Mohan Bramacharia, which means according to Vamana Rishi, the right foot goes on the left thigh first.  Always.  Right first, left on top.  Why?  This energetically benefits the liver and spleen.  It balances out the imbalance in the abdominal cavity.  “But shouldn’t we alter to balance out the hips?”  Padmasana does not balance out the hips.  That is why we do standing poses. The counter to padmasana is Yoga Nidrasana, where the left leg is first placed behind the head.  This balances the imbalance in the chest cavity.   This method is in agreement with Swami Svatmarama, author of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. HYP I. 4-9 traces his lineage and teaching all the way back to Adanath.  If you do not know who Adanath is, go to your copy of HYP and reference it.  Do not know what this book is or do not have it?  Was it not part of your teacher training?

Paschimottanasa, seated forward bend.  The pose involves grabbing the toes, feet, or binding the hands (Left hand on right wrist, right hand in chin mudra).  Many students cannot reach their toes and are encouraged to use a strap.  If this is a gymnastics class, go ahead, use the strap.  In a Yoga class, specifically Hatha Yoga (any yoga focused on postures and breath.  Yes, this includes “restorative”), we are concerned with moving energy within the body.  By holding the toes as above, we are creating a circuit of energy which flows freely within the body to give the benefits of the pose.  By using a strap, we have broken the circuit, the same benefits (those beyond physical) are no longer there. 

I give these two examples because I have never heard these very basic principles explained in classes, workshops, or trainings.  Yet these are the details which deepen the practice, not adding more contortions or memorizing some idealist placement of the tibia which may or may not work for any given student. 

Understanding purpose, like understanding history, moves us forward.  This is the class I try to teach. 

Want to deepen your practice?  Talk to your teacher.  That is why they are there; it is their job as a teacher to provide guidance.  They should reference the Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata in answer to your questions. 

Do you need the HYP, the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita.  Contact me, I will send them to you.  Free.  Ask me questions.  I don’t know it all, but will point you in the right direction. Click “Contact Me” on the right.  Or, better yet, come to class and put theory and practice together. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Roar OM

One of my favorite quotes from Swami Sivananda:
"Do not bleat like a lamb, roar OM OM OM like a lion of Vedanta!" (Yoga in Daily Life, iv full passage below)

In a recent class, we opened with OM (we always open with OM), and I was hit with a wall of sound like never before.  If I had longer hair, it would have looked like the old Memorex commercial.  The students are always enthusiastic, always present, always give full effort, this is not a comment on a change in effort, only an observation.  They roared.

They roared.  I did not tell them to, I did not make them, I only gave them an opportunity.  They roared.

Will it happen again?  Don't know, I'm not in control of that.  Do I expect it to happen again?  No, I have no expectations of anyone's practice.  As a teacher, in a class, my only job is to provide an opportunity, a safe space, a laboratory for students to experiment with their practice.  A free space to roar OM. The student's job is to take the opportunity, the suggestion and run with it to their ability at that particular time.

We cannot know why, we don't control why.  We can control our own actions/reactions.  Positive happens, roar OM.  Negative happens, roar OM.  Nothing seems to be happening, roar OM. 

Vibration is the subtlest form of creation.  OM is the name of that vibration.  The significance of Gen 1.1 is not "Let there be light," the significance is "God said." 

The full passage from Yoga in Daily Life
Do not say: “Karma. Karma. My Karma has brought me like this.” Exert. Exert. Do Purushartha. Do Tapas. Concentrate. Purify. Meditate. Do not become a fatalist. Do not yield to inertia. Do not bleat like a lamb. Roar OM, OM, OM like a lion of Vedanta.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What Is Your Practice?

A few posts back, I shared my practice, because it is useful on this path to have some support, a satsanga, a group of like-minded people who are on the same path.  Although the details of this path are highly individualized, the end goal is the same, as are some of the struggles along the way.  Patanjali addresses these struggles:
I.30 "The obstacles, which are distractions of the mind, are sickness, rigidity, doubt, negligence, laziness, sense indulgence, false views, failure to attain a state, and inability to stay in that state.
I.31  Suffering and frustration, unsteadiness of body, inhalation, and exhalation result from the distractions."

He also provides the solution:
I.32 "To remove them, there is the practice of one principle (tattva)."  Gregor Maehle's proport sheds some light, "if the mind is already distracted...we do not want to confuse it by practicing all methods of yoga simultaneously.  rather we focus on one method now and, when the mind has become focused (ekagra), we can shift to a more elaborate plan of higher yoga."(Maehle, Gregor. Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy. New World Library, 2006. p 169).  Patanjali then provides several specific practices in the following verses.

Of course, it is not always easy for the individual whose mind is encountering obstacles to  be able to find the one principle to practice.Or to effectively apply that one principle to receive benefit. 

So I open the floor (actually the floor is always open, please feel free to comment at any time):
What is your practice?  Have you encountered struggles?  How have you over come them?


Monday, March 14, 2011

Practice Without Fail

I referenced part of this passage in Yoga Mala in class on Saturday.  I offer the complete passage here:

“And yet the practice of yoga still leaves us subject to doubts and misconceptions, which weaken our minds and sense organs. Consequently, we plunge ourselves into the torments of birth and death, and experience various forms of suffering without ever seeing material or spiritual prosperity.  Yet we should accept scriptural authority, as the Lord in the Bhagavad Gita has ordained: ‘Tasmat shastram pramanam te karya akarya vyavasthitau [Therefore, the sacred teaching (shastra) is your measure in determining what is to be don and what is not to be done]{XVII.24 Verse citation mine}.’  If we practice the science of yoga, which is useful to the entire human community and which yields happiness both here and hereafter—if we practice it without fail, we will then attain physical, mental, and spiritual happiness, and our minds will flood toward the Self” (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Yoga Mala, North Point Press. 1999. p. xxi.)

SKPJ does not define specifically how to practice the science of Yoga here.  This is very important.  Yoga Mala does prescribe a specific style of practice, but SKPJ does not say that is the only way.  This verse of the Gita is not quoted by accident.  SKPJ is pointing us to the very shastra which we should follow.  Let us keep in mind that the Mahabharata (containing the Gita) and the Ramayana comprise a very specific class of literature (they are 2 of the 4 works classified as Itihasas, "Friendly Treatises," more specifically Mahakavyas, "Epics"). "They embody all that is in the Vedas, but only in a simpler manner."(Swami Sivananda, All About Hinduism. Web Edition, 1999. p. 13).  Study of these two works is study of the concepts of the Vedas. 

The Lord in the Bhagavad Gita instructs:
“Better is one’s own duty (though) destitute of merits, than the duty of another well
performed. He who does the duty ordained by his own nature incurs no sin.” (XVIII.47)

“Whatsoever a great man does, that other men also do; whatever he sets up as the
standard, that the world follows.”(III.21)

“As the ignorant men act from attachment to action, O Bharata (Arjuna), so should the
wise act without attachment, wishing the welfare of the world!” (III.25)
 [From Swami Sivananda's Translation]

The highest act of worship, and, therefore, the greatest benefit to the Self and the rest of humanity is to continuously do your duty, fulfilling your responsibilities.  This does not mean we shut ourselves off or escape from the world around us. We cannot insulate ourselves, our families from the world.  We can, however, by fulfilling our duties regardless of great happiness, horrible disasters, the pull of the super moon, etc., set an example of strength for others to follow. 

In September of 2001, SKPJ was in NYC to install the Ganesha statue in the Broom St. Temple. (There are some clips in this video   )  He was in NYC on September 11th.  Following that horror, he gave the world a demonstration of faith: he held practice.  He set an example for others to follow.  Had he not held practice, he would have demonstrated that the science of Yoga was a trivial thing, only done when it is convenient.  This would have also set an example.

By practicing without fail (continuously and without attachment to the fruits of our labor), we are benefiting all beings.  Because if one person can do it, so can another.  And another. 

We close our practice with the Mangala Mantra to ensure that we are offering our actions as a benefit to all mankind.  If you attend my classes, I offer a copy of the Mantra for you to take with you.  In closing, please follow this link to see and hear SKPJ chanting the Mangala Mantra. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Practice of Remembering

Our yogic practices are not designed to teach us new things, they are designed to help us remember what we have forgotten: that there is no independent existence, that we are directly linked with a higher power.

For my good friends who are spending the weekend with Sri Dharma Mittra and Krishna Das, and with great reverence (and apologies) to Valmiki and William Buck (whose translation I read again and again), two examples from The Ramayana:

Listen friend, to the story of Hanuman.  Hanuman is the son of the Wind God and a monkey.  He is also considered an avatar of Lord Shiva.  Because of his divine nature, he possesses many great and wonderful powers.  He was  a good little monkey, and always very curious.  Once upon a time, he came upon a group of Brahmins (priests) engaged in their worship.  What fun, Hanuman thought to play with these priests.  Although he meant no  harm, he none the less disrupted the Brahmins’ worship.  They were left with a quandary.  They understood who Hanuman was, an incarnation of the very god they were worshiping; yet he committed a wrong which must be punished.  They decided upon a medium sized curse—Hanuman would forget about his divine powers until someone reminded him.

After befriending Rama, Hanuman, the  monkeys, and the bears searched the world over for Rama’s wife Sita, who had been kidnapped by the demon Ravana.  The entire world was combed, without success. The last place to look was Lanka, 800 miles across the ocean.  Hanuman lamented that they would not be able to cross the ocean and their mission was a failure.  Jambavan, King of the Bears, spoke to Hanuman thus: “You are the son of the wind god and the embodiment of faith.  Why are you whining, you can cross the ocean in one leap.”  “I’ll do it,” replied Hanuman, and taking the name of Rama 3 times, he leapt. 

Did Hanuman cross the ocean because he felt the divine hand carrying him?  No.  He acted in faith.  He ACTED in faith.  Not waited, not hoped, acted. Hanuman held this ability always within.  He just could not remember. 

When it came time for Rama to depart the earth, millions had assembled.  He gave to Hanuman a bracelet of immeasurable beauty and worth.  Hanuman promptly destroyed it. “Monkey, now is not the time for your games,” said Rama.  “This bracelet is worthless,” insisted Hanuman.  “It does not even bear your name.”  Vibhishana, the good demon responded “Then why don’t you destroy your body.  Surely it is just a thing like this bracelet.”  At that Hanuman clawed the flesh away from his chest.  On every bone, every cell of his body was etched the name राम .

Even today, we chant the Hanuman Chalisa (Forty verses in praise of Hanuman) to continually remind Hanuman of his abilities.  Because if he can remember them, so can we.  If he can hold the name of the Lord (Rama) on every cell of his being, so can we. Even if we can't always see it, it is there.   He is our example to follow.  All of our contortions, breathing techniques, chanting, meditation, etc, are only to help remind us that we are a small part of something bigger. 

Every time we choose to forget that we cannot do the impossible, we grow closer to remembering out true nature. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Even if the Exalted Becon

“ Even if the exalted beckon, one must avoid attachment to pride or suffering will recur.”
PYS III.52 (or 51 depending upon your translation)

According to Patanjali, as one continues to practice, they develop certain powers: levitation, clairvoyance, clairaudience, the ability to be in two places at once, the ability to read minds, etc.  This verse appears as a warning after the description of those powers.

According to Vyasa, there are 4 types of yogis:
  1. The novice that is practicing and just beginning to learn.
  2. Those who have achieved some level of success and are gaining these powers
  3. Those who have mastered the elements and the senses, but still practice
  4. Those who have gone beyond practice and who are approaching liberation

The merits and powers that yogis develop attract a lot of attention by celestial beings who are jealous of the yogi and desire their power for themselves.  They may tempt the yogi with kingdoms, planets, more powers, etc. in an effort to knock the yogi back down a few pegs.  Of the 4 types, the second are the most vulnerable. No one cares much for the novice, and the 3rd and 4th stage yogis have moved beyond corruption.  Those who are seeing results but have not yet sublimated the ego are easily tempted.  

I am not going to discount the possibility of celestial beings seducing and destroying yogis, but let’s apply this to a little more tangible scenario.

As we progress in our practice, things tend to happen.  Positive things.  We gain increase flexibility, strength, maybe more shapely abs or backside, maybe less stress.  Our family, friends, and peers may identify us as ‘yogis.’  If we teach, we may see an increase in students (or not, which also can apply here) who are looking to us as experts.

We must be vigilant and constantly remind ourselves of the goal of yoga: the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind (PYS I.2), and that our yogic actions are to remove the causes of suffering ( PYS II.2).  When we become attached to our actions, even our yoga practice can become a cause of suffering. We may not be able to practice in the way we have grown accustomed to due to age, illness, or injury.  A new younger/hipper/better looking/stronger teach may start to take your students.  Rather than adjust to where we are now, we become angry, resentful, jealous, depressed.  Now we are back at square one of our practice.

We have to think about why we are doing the practice we are doing.  The metric of practice is not how far you can bend, your blood pressure number or number of students in class, it is when you can honestly say “I am doing this because it needs to be done,” regardless of the circumstances, mood, or possibility of reward. 
“Practice, and all is coming.”  (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) means that we do our practice when times are good and when times are bad.  We do our practice whether there is anyone to give praise or offer correction, or if we are all alone in the dark at 5 am.  We do our practice when on the mat, at the office, in the car. 

Practice is both the means and the goal. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Maha Shivaratri

Om Namah Shivaya!
 The festival of Maha Shivaratri will be celebrated tonight at the Sivananda Ashram in Woodbourne, NY.  [Note, the date of the festival depends upon where you are and which exact calendar you follow.  It is celebrated on the 13th (or 14th) day of the dark half of Phalgun which translates into the 2nd or 3rd of March for 2011.  The intricacies of the Hindu calendar are beyond my understanding so I had to look it up.]

Unlike some other bloggers who copied Swami Sivananda's description of the festival (from his book Hindu Fasts and Festivals, available for free from dlshq.org--follow link under my "Go Here" tab) word for word, only altering the order, without giving credit, I will let Swami Sivananda's words speak for themselves:

"The name means 'the night of Shiva.' This is a festival observed in honor of Lord Shiva, who was married to Parvati on this day.  People repeat the Panchakshara mantra, Om Namah Shivaya.  He who utters the names of Shiva during Shivaratri, with perfect devotion and concentration is freed from all sins.  He reaches the abode of Shiva and lives there happily.  He is liberated from the wheel of birth and death." ~Swami Sivananda

Hara Hara Mahaadeva Shaambho Kaashi Vishwaanaatha Gange
I call the names of The Great Lord Shiva
Who lives on the Banks of the Ganges at Kashi  (From Krishna Das' album Breath of the Heart)