Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Laboratory of the Mat

I had the wonderful opportunity to give an overview and introduction to the science and practice of Hatha Yoga to a generous colleague’s History and Cultures of Asias classes last week.  The students were amazing sports—they came with open minds and tried the practice with incredible effort. 

One of the challenges in preparing for these classes, and any group class really, is how to present a system which, at its core, is a devotional system, without a specific religious connotation. 

We know that yoga is the science of joining the individual to the greater; realizing that there is no independent existence; recognizing and absorbing with that which is permanent.  Gets pretty verbose when trying not to say “God”.  “Divine” works well, but still connotes “God.”  Use Ganesha, Krishna, Shiva and you run the risk of being accused of trying to convert someone into a cult.  “Dancing Elephants?  Flying Monkeys!?!? Who is this nut job?  Get me outta here!”

So, as teachers, we need to place this core into a context which is accessible to our students.  We can’t and shouldn’t ignore it completely—that would be a gymnastics class.  By definition, any practice calling itself yoga must deal with the mind, its fluctuations, and the means to still those fluctuations. 

In one of the classes I took with Ray, he said: “’Divine’ for our purposes, means nothing more than ‘I am a small part of something bigger.’”  I really like and appreciate that definition. In fact, I use it quite often as a starting point.  Basically, if we are to join with something greater, the first thing to do is admit we are not that greater thing.  This involves first acknowledgement (intellectual understanding) then surrender (acceptance).

That’s nice and lofty.  I’m sure my students will love that one.  Ron’s been watching Celebrity Rehab again…

But wait.  Let’s bring this to the Laboratory of the Mat.  Yoga is a science, we can test hypotheses and examine results.  On the mat, we are asked to do many things.  Like a 2 year old, we often want to know why.  Inquiry is a good thing, because it can make something even more meaningful:  Why do we sit cross legged with the right leg in front, and padmasana with the right leg on to the left thigh first?  Because it balances out the imbalance in the thoracic cavity and stimulates insulin production.  Why does it do that?  Because it alters the flow of energy within the body to purposefully effect this area.  Why does it effect that area? [Ready….] I don’t know.  There, ladies and gentlemen, is acknowledgement.  Great first step.  But ask any parent and they will tell you that “I don’t know” does not end the question of “Why?”  Just not knowing is not good enough. 

What does stop “Why?” 

Because that’s the way it is.  Because I said so. Because this is what is going to happen.

And it always, ALWAYS does. Just ask your Mom. 

Now we accept that we don’t have to know, we only have to do. And when we do it, it works out perfectly.

“Why do we do it like this when so-and-so taught me to do it that way?” “Why do you use Sanskrit?” “Why do we say OM?” “Why do you always talk about flying monkeys?” “Why are you making me do headstand in the center of the room?”

Because that’s the way it is.  And that’s what we’re doing.  Because I’m teaching you from my practice, directly from the Laboratory of My Mat.  Not a theory.  Not something I made up on the way in.  I have learned through my own practice that the act and discipline of doing a practice is much more important that the internal rotation of this or the placement of the foot on some imaginary grid to line up with that.  Show up and do what you are told is the practice.

The mind has a great habit of STFU when we do what we are told.   In the kitchen, we say “Oui Chef!” In the military they say “Sir, Yes Sir!” In yoga we say “OM.”  They all mean the same thing: I am a small part of something bigger. 

See you in the Lab!

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