Friday, May 27, 2011

Like Ragu...

Patanjali’s yoga system is one of synergy, with all the components working together to still the fluctuations of the mind.  The four chapters of the Yoga Sutras (Padas, literally “feet”) are, according to Krishnamacharya, written for specific students at different stages of their practice.  The varied practices lead to the same goal.  If we shift our point of view slightly, we can see that the varied practices radiate out from a central point—they are, in fact, ALL contained within, and inseparable from, each other.
It's in There!

The second chapter, Sadhanapada (The Means by which We Obtain the Previously Unattainable), was written for Baddhanjali, a student whose path was blocked by impurities within himself. [Health, Healing, and Beyond. T.V.K Desikachar] More than half way through this chapter Patanjali presents the eight limbs.  He details the first five in this chapter, with the final three, which are higher level practices, detailed in the following chapter.

Although the 8 limbs are presented in a linear fashion, as students we must remember that the practices are not separate from each other.  There are times when one limb is more prominent that the others, yet the practice of one limb incorporates all of the other limbs.
The genius of the system is that the unity, non-separateness, shunyata, use whatever term you like, is imbedded in the practice of the system.  Goal and method are one.

Let us take asana, because that is one of the most accessible starting points for those coming to yoga.  Patanjali states that “Asana has the dual quality of firmness and relaxation / Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached / From then on the sadhanka is undisturbed by dualities.” (PYS II. 46-48, liberally rendered from Iyengar’s tr.).

That’s all.  Nothing about headstand, nothing about the internal rotation of the spleen, nothing about (Thank [insert deity here]!!) juicy and luscious back bends.

But he says a lot.

The 8 limbs found within asana practice:

Ahimsa (Non-Harming), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-Stealing), Brahmacharya (Continence), Aparigraha (Non-Hoarding).  Practice of the Yamas removes the dualities (opposites).  According to Sivananda, “ [t]he pairs of opposites are pleasure and pain, heat and cold, gain and loss, victory and defeat, honour and dishonour, praise and censure.” (Bhagavad Gita, commentary on II.45).  Practicing Ahimsa keeps us uninjured preventing the disturbances from pain.  Practicing Bramacharya (ie not worrying about how appealing to others our bodies become, or coveting the appearance of others), Asteya, and Aparigraha alleviates the disturbances from gain/loss. Practicing Satya alleviates the disturbances from all the opposites.  

Saucha (Cleanliness): Asana removes toxins from the body.
Santosha (Contentment): Effort becomes effortless when we decide to be content with our individual asana.
Tapas (Zeal of Practice): Steady practice is implied if the goal is to obtain perfection.
Svadyaya (Self-Study): Every pose has a story based in scripture or the lives of saints.
Ishvarapranidhana (Devotion to the Supreme Ideal): Ishvara is the first teacher.  Through practice, we are honoring our teachers, their teachers, their teachers, and so on back  to the original source.
Pranayama:  The quality and state of the breath indicates if we are practicing at the balance point between firmness and relaxation.
Pratyahara: Outward performance of asana requires an internal focus.  We will falter in the pose if we are watching others, checking our phones, sipping water. 

The final three limbs, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi arise from the first five.  We cannot “practice” concentration, meditation, or complete integration; these states arise when we have used the first five limbs to create a conducive environment. 

Can’t we just practice to get bathing suit ready?  Sure, if that is what you want.  But if you want something deeper, it’s all there.  You only have to shift your point of view.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It Learns You

“Every line of the Hanuman Chalisa is a Mahamantra.” ~Neem Karoli Baba

On January 3rd 2010, I set out to learn the Hanuman Chalisa so that I could sing it to my son and inspire his spiritual growth. On May 21st 2011, I chanted the whole Chalisa to him, from memory.

Am I Hindu?  No.  Do I believe there is a white monkey who flies over the oceans with RAMA (the name of the Lord) inscribed on every cell of his body, and that The Lord has taken the form of a green-skinned King who saved the world by killing a 10 headed, 12 armed demon?  Why not?  I have found more spiritual inspiration in this story than in any other.  The concepts are universal.  Worship of one form of the Divine is worship of all aspects of the Divine.  “Whatsoever form any person shall worship with faith, that same faith I make firm and unflinching” ~The Bhagavad Gita, VII.21.

Hanuman is the master of all three types of Yoga: Bhakti (the yoga of devotion), Jnana (the yoga of knowledge), and Karma (the yoga of action.  Raja yoga is an offshoot of Karma yoga.  Hatha yoga [any yoga focusing on physical exercises and breath control] is an offshoot of Raja yoga.  When you go to a class, you are practicing Karma yoga).  In The Ramayana, Hanuman always acts in service of the Lord, represented by Rama.  Hanuman constantly holds His name, sings His praises, and helps fellow devotees. 

The Hanuman Chalisa (Forty verses in praise of Hanuman) recounts Hanuman’s deeds and abilities, and offers him praise.  The story goes that as a young monkey, Hanuman angered some sages by playfully disrupting their ritual. For this, he had to be punished.  The sages recognized that Hanuman was a divine being (the son of the god of the wind, and an avatar of Lord Shiva), so they didn’t want to punish him too much.  They cursed him so that he would not remember all of his divine powers unless someone reminds him.  The Chalisa, written by Tulasi Das, is for that purpose.

The act of learning The Chalisa is an act of devotion. It is long, 40 verses with an introductory prayer and a concluding prayer (these probably have specific literary or musical names, if anyone knows, please let me know.  I call them intro and outro…), and it is in Hindi.  The English translation really does not matter.  Tulasi Das, who lived in the 15c or so, wrote this poem and an updated version of Valmiki’s Ramayana (the world’s first poet and poem).  He is, in fact, considered to be an incarnation of Valmiki. I learned The Chalisa one verse at a time, listening every day, reading every day, and reciting what I had memorized every day to my son as I put him to bed. 
Each verse was transcribed to an index card and posted next to my computer.

The Chalisa cannot be learned.  I am certain of that.  It truly learns you.  Each verse becomes a part of you as you chant it over and over. Through faith and constant practice the poem and what it represents becomes a part of you.  It is not a matter of rote memorization.  Hanuman is the breath of Rama. Without Rama there is no Hanuman.  Without Hanuman there is no path to Rama.  The goal of The Chalisa is to serve the servant, thereby serving the Lord.

As long as I have a mind and breath I will chant these verses to my son so that he can hold the Lord in his heart.
 राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम
राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम 
राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम 
राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम राम
“My Daddy taught me how to pray, and if I ain’t praying all of the time it ain’t nobody’s fault but mine.” ~Bhagavan Das, “Shiva Shambo” from the album Now

Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning to Fly

A mostly accurate excerpt from a not so recent conversation about flying:
Me: “There’s no way something that big and heavy should be able to fly.”
Paul: “ According to the laws of physics, there’s no way is shouldn’t fly.”

This week is flight school.  Not that we will be doing a whole lot of arm balances, per se, rather we will be paying attention to the relationships which create the foundation for flight. 

I have frequently said that crow (kakasana—very similar to crane, bakasana.  Quite honestly I have not been able to find sources which agree on the differences between the two.  Although the Second Series calls the pose bakasana, I actually prefer kakasana, because of the association with the Ramacaritamanasa of Tulasi Das.  Unfamiliar with this reference?  Come to class this week to hear the story!) is the gateway arm balance, meaning that if you can approach crow, you can (and will want to) approach other arm balances.

In crow, we find an interplay of opposites.  There is a forward bend (the hips are in extreme flexion allowing the torso to meet the thighs and the knees to reach the upper arms) and an upper back bend (the chest is lifting and moving forward) held together by the fear of not faceplanting into the mat.

The Little Engine that Could was one of my favorite books growing up.  My son now has the copy that was given to me as a child
The pose is more faith than strength, more mula bandha than flexibility.  If your first thought when approaching crow is “I can’t do that,” then you are 100% correct.  We will build a foundation that, with consistent practice, will bring you into the full pose over time.  Remember, the goal is not any specific expression of the pose; the goal is learning to approach something that is purposefully difficult.  The goal is “I think I can!”

It is supposed to be difficult.  It is supposed to be scary.  It is not always going to happen all at once.  We will take the pose in stages so that every student can work in some aspect of the pose.

Yes, I will ask some of you to try to jump into the pose.  I may even ask some to enter it from handstand in the center of the room.  It can be done. I will show you.  I will guide you.

Faith and mula bandha.  Faith and mula bandha.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Practice of "And"

“The suspension of these fluctuations is through practice and detachment.”
            ~The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali I.12 (Gregor Maehle, tr.)

With thanks to the purport of this sutra by Gregor Maehle, let’s talk about the most overlooked word in this sutra: “and.”  If we are to reach the goal of yoga, which is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind (I.2), we must practice.  Obviously how we are going about our day to day lives is not ceasing these fluctuations, so we have to apply some other method.  As with all new things, it takes time and continued steadfast effort to change.  A danger comes when we start to see results: better physical condition, increased knowledge, more evenness of temperament, etc.  The results themselves are good, but our mind is so conditioned to attach to things that we begin to become attached to our practice.  We may start to believe that the practice which is successful for me is the best and we may start to judge others’ practices as inferior.  With a focus on practice alone, we are in danger of becoming fanatical and incapable of accepting that others’ methods are valid, even if they are not right for us.

To the other end of the spectrum, if we focus on detachment by letting go of all of our attachments, we can also begin to see benefits.  We may realize that we can reduce our wants thereby reducing our consumption.  We can see the value in all methods of practice without feeling as if our own method is the most correct.  We may become so detached that we cease to practice at all, either for fear of attachment or because we feel our development is in the Divine’s hands.  We may practice many varied methods, seeing all as equal, without the focus or dedication needed to truly evolve.  We loose the ability to discriminate between what is correct for us as an individual, and what is not an ideal way of practice for us as an individual.

“And” creates the balance.  As with many subjects in Hatha Yoga, the practice is a synergy of opposites.  First one dominates, then the other, and eventually they balance out.  The balance comes when we are firmly rooted in our practice, with continued observation, experimentation, and analysis, AND we can see others’ practices are also valid.  We understand and continue to do those things which help us evolve, and discontinue those things which hold us back.  At the same time we are not condemning those who are not on the same path as we are.

An example of this is easily seen with dietary choices.  There are those who take no meat, with the belief that to eat meat is a violation of Yama  of Ahimsa (non-harming).  Among that group, there are those who seek to convert others by any means necessary.  They antagonize meat eaters and  display violent disgusting images of animal slaughter.  Unfortunately, these individuals are perpetuating the same violence in thought, word, and deed that that they claim to be against, and they are focusing more of their life on violence and eating meat (a negative focus is still a focus) than most meat eaters do. This is an imbalance of practice.

On the other side, there are those who practice yoga who give no thought whatsoever to the food they take.  They do not pay attention to the effect their food has on their bodies, they do not give thanks for the efforts and the bounty of the food they eat, and they do not see the relationship their food choices have to the environment and other beings.  This is an imbalance of detachment.

How does one integrate the two?  Let’s look at Krishnamacharya.  According to his son, Desikachar (which means according to Krishnamacharya, for all of Desikachar’s teachings come directly from his father), there is NO point in the scriptures which forbids the eating of meat. 

Before the comments start to come in, we need to dissect this statement a bit. 

Krishnamacharya was a Brahmin, and one could easily surmise that he did not eat meat.  To say he had an extensive knowledge of scripture would be an understatement.  His scriptural authority was well documented.  He could probably identify thousands of places in scriptures which forbid the eating of meat.

So why make this statement?  Krishnamacharya believed that the student should be taught to their own capacity, and that yoga was India’s gift to the world.  How do you make a foreign practice accessible to the masses?  By creating a system which includes, rather than precludes.  Through his actions, Krishnamacharya demonstrated the balance between  practice and detachment by keeping to his own beliefs while accepting and not judging the actions of others.

Our individual practice is valid.  If it works for you, do it.  Others’ practices are valid if they work for them.  Their actions are of no consequence to our practice. 

Two teachings which give us specific direction to ensure a balance between practice and detachments:

“Clarity of mind is produced by meditating of friendliness toward the happy, compassion toward the miserable, joy toward the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”
~ Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I.33 (Gregor Maehle, tr)

“Whatever thou doest, whatever thou eatest, whatever thou offerest in sacrifice, whatever thou givest, whatever thou practice as austerity, do so, O! son of Kunti, as an offering unto Me.”
~Bhagavad Gita, IX.27 (Sivananda, tr.)

“And” creates balance and inclusion.  If we cannot find these things in our daily lives, how can we expect to progress in a practice which leads us to total integration (Samadhi)? 

Practice “And”

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Assuming the Right Amount of Risk

I had the great opportunity to both see and interview (2 minutes 14 seconds is still an interview!) Chef Grant Achatz last week. Chef Achatz has 3 restaurants in Chicago,  his first, is 3* Michelin rated Alinea.  Some minor background, and I promise I will tie it all together:
 Food and Wine's "Best New Chefs," 2002; James Beard Foundation's "Rising Star Chef of the Year," 2003; Gourmet magazine's "Best Restaurant in America," 2006; James Beard Foundation's "Outstanding Chef," 2008; Restaurant magazine's "#1 Restaurant in North America" and "#7 Restaurant in the World," 2010. At the age of 36, Grant Achatz, owner, creator, and visionary behind Chicago's Alinea restaurant, has earned virtually every desirable accolade in the culinary world. His greatest achievement thus far, however, may be surviving. For, in 2007, just as all of the stuff of his personal and professional dreams was falling into place, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma--tongue cancer.
(from The CIA’s press release about Chef’s visit)

Chef Achatz was told he would lose his tongue, most likely part of his jaw, and possibly his life.  He sought out non-surgical treatments and beat this cancer.  In speaking with Chef, he recounted that “If you wake up in the morning and feel a little nauseous, you are assuming the right amount of risk.  If you wake up and feel like throwing up, you are probably spreading yourself too thin.  If you wake up and do not feel nauseous at all, well, then you are just being lazy.” 

Our practice requires us to assume a certain amount of risk.  We are constantly required to challenge the perceptions of our abilities and to confront mind stuff that mostly prefers to remain unconfronted. For this practice to be successful, that is, to remain an integral and integrated part of our daily lives for a long time, then we must figure out the right amount of risk for ourselves, as individuals. 

Some have exceptional flexibility or strength.  They can contort and lift their bodies is apparently super human ways.  We can look at that person’s practice and be completely turned off because it is so outside of our ability that  we cannot conceive of ever being able to do that.

The truth is that all practice builds up from a foundation.  Any pose can be broken down to a level where any individual can work.  Working slowly, gradually, and consistently, the pose will change over time, and the impossible will become possible.

Practice takes effort and risk.  If you hang out, you will not progress.  If you throw yourself into something, you will injure yourself and not progress.  If you work smartly, and systematically with the guidance of a teacher, you will assume the correct amount of risk and progress over time.
Thank you, Chef, for your inspiring words.