Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"It's REALLY dark in here!"

My 2 ½ year old son will play this game.  He suddenly closes his eyes, really squeezing them shut, then says “It’s REALLY dark in here!”

According to the shastras, the ancient texts, we are doing the same thing.  Except all the time.  The shastras tell us that, as humans, we are blessed with the ability to stop fumbling around in the dark and awaken to our true nature.  But it ain’t easy. 

Lofty stuff, right?  No, I’m not going to be ultra cool and claim that I know the answers and have attained Self Realization.  But I know that doing nothing means a whole lot more time with eyes closed.

First we have to realize that we are closing our eyes ourselves.  Sounds easy.  But our minds have created such complex and very convincing delusions and circuitous back up systems to keep our eyes shut that it is tremendously difficult to make any progress.  Very easy to sit in one place and think “I’m not the body, I’m not the mind, I am Spirit.”  Try to keep that same thought when you get up and try to stand on a foot that is asleep.  Or when you get a paper cut.  Or at the DMV.  Or are stuck in traffic after finishing that Big Gulp. 

Swami Vivekananda says, in Raja Yoga (get The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda Vol. 1 for free from Google Books [unpaid/unsolicited product endorsement]) that “Until you know what the mind is doing, you cannot control it.”  He says “The first lesson, then, is to sit for some time and let the mind run on…you will find that each day the mind’s vagaries are becoming less and less violent, that each day it is becoming a little calmer…but we must patiently practice every day.”

Sivananda and Vivekananda both compare the mind to a monkey (Vivekananda adds that the monkey is drunk on wine and has been stung by a scorpion):  if you try to forcefully control it, it will revolt, screaming, clawing, biting and kicking; but if you give it some space, it will eventually (eventually) settle down.

This is where we encounter problems. All too often, we try to force the mind to settle “I said OM now why aren’t you shutting up!!!!” And meditation seems easy.  Just sit.  Just breathe.  Not like asana where there is a more immediate warning (although, admit it, you ignore it sometimes.  So do I.).  If foot don’t go behind the head, foot’s not going behind the head. Force it all you want.  Pull one or more muscles.  But it’s not going there. I can easily identify current limitations and find out where I need to work.

 I took a course in formal zazen (zen meditation) at a Zen abbey.  Enjoyed the class, felt I learned a lot.  Showed up to an open zazen session.  Sure, I can sit still for an hour.  Bulls#$%  By the time they rang the bell to end the session I was about to scream.  Nice peaceful Zendo and I want to throw furniture through the window.  Just needed more practice, I thought.  Tried a good 5 times with the same result.  Left seated meditation all together for more than 10 years. 

My error was forcing the practice.  2 minutes everyday is what I needed, not 1 hour once a week.  Just like asana.  Day 1 isn’t full Galavasana from handstand.  It takes time to get there.

I lost 10 years of meditation practice.  In the grand scheme, I probably wasn’t prepared for it 10 years ago.  But maybe I would have been if I started as slowly and methodically as I approached asana practice. 

Do not be afraid to start small.  Take 2 minutes EVERY DAY.  You can find 2 minutes. 

I know you can.

Of course, knowing we are walking around with our eyes shut is one thing, learning to open them is another.  Someday I hope to be able to write about that.  It is getting lighter all the time.

“Come up oh Lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep!” ~Swami Vivekananda  

This picture has nothing to do with this post, but it's cool none the less. Molly and I demonstrating that culinarians can do yoga too!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cool Tricks! Cool Tricks!

My audition tape for Yo Gabba Gabba starts something like this:

My name is Ron, and this is my cool trick. 

I have spent a lot of time over the years learning cool tricks. Sometimes I even teach others how to do these tricks.
I can do Galavasana from handstand. 

I can do Padma Mayurasana.

I can even do Ashtavakrasana/ Eka Pada Kundinyasana B/Chin Balance/Chaturanga Dandasana in business clothes.

Those are cool tricks, but, frankly, so what?

“With salutations to Adinath (Shiva), Swami Svatmarama presents Hatha Yoga for the purpose of obtaining Raja Yoga.” (Liberal translation of Hatha Yoga Pradipika I.1)

So begins the The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the oldest surviving texts on Hatha Yoga.  Right away, Svatmarama instructs that all of the techniques which follow: asanas (postures), shatkarmans (6 cleansing actions), pranayama (breath restraint), mudras (attitudes), bandhas (locks), and nada (meditation on the internal sound) are nothing more than PREPARATION for Raja (Patanjali) yoga.  By learning to control the body and breath, we prepare ourselves for what happens when the fluctuations of the mind cease.  Notice I did not say “control/stop the fluctuations of the mind.”  That would require a second mind to control our mind, and another to control that one, etc.; moving us further from the goal of unity.

Physical practice is a great thing.  It creates discipline.  It provides health.  It grants us the opportunity to challenge our preconceived notions about what is possible, in a controlled, laboratory environment.  But this is only one step.

“But Ron, how can I move on to higher levels of practice if I have not mastered the lower levels?”  I know this question is coming.  Listen, I get it.  I have asked it myself.  Many, many times.  Here is how I answered myself.

Think about it for a moment. Sri Dharma Mittra has his famous poster of 908 asanas.  Krishnamacharya knew 2000 asanas.  His teacher reportedly knew 7000 asanas.  It is written that there are 84 lakh (8,400,000—yes EIGHT MILLION FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND) asanas. Are you really going to master them all?  One can spend all day cutting the perfect ¼” dice of onion, but if dinner never gets made, what use is that beautiful onion?

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists 16 asanas, 4 of which (Siddhasana, Padmasana, Simhasana, and Badhrasana) are labeled as the most important.

Patanjali lists zero asanas. ZERO.  In fact, he only devotes 3 tiny verses toward asana. 

Krishna prescribes 1 asana and 1 pranayama:  sitting cross legged with the spine erect, gazing between the eyebrows or at the tip of the nose, and equalizing the incoming and outgoing breath within the nostrils.  (Bhagavad Gita V.27, VI.11-14).

Cool tricks help us to get started, but if we don’t move on to seated meditation, we are just doing gymnastics.  If we totally identify our practice with these cool tricks, what happens when we become injured or age?  The ability to do tricks will go away.  Then we are just as miserable, if not more so, as when we started to practice, because we can’t do what we think we should be able to do. 

The purpose of physical practice is to prepare for meditation.  Do not wait to put preparation into practice! 

Monday, September 12, 2011

I Don't Know My ASANA From My BANDHA

It’s back to school time again (wait, didn’t I use that in a post already?).  Time for Training for Students Session 2: Light on Hatha Yoga, or "I Don't Know My Asana From My Bandha." Saturday September 17th from 1:30-3:30 at Hudson River Yoga!

This session we will focus on The Hatha Yoga Pradipika.  Written in +/- 1350 by Swami Swatmarama, this is the oldest surviving handbook for the practice of Hatha Yoga.  It is safe to assume that every class you have ever attended (or most likely, will attend) is based on this one small volume. Every class.

So why haven’t you heard of it?  I have my theories, the one I’m working on is that it is hard to say “Pradipika” and “Swatmarama.”  Does not roll off the tongue as easily as “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.”  Some of the techniques, at first read, can be pretty demanding and obscure.  No, we will not be swallowing and regurgitating a meter of gauze, nor will we be slicing the membrane on the bottom of our tongue so that it can reach back and up into our sinuses.  But when we go beyond the foreign language and beyond the out of the ordinary practices, we are left with a very straightforward guide book for practice.

During the workshop we will have the opportunity to practice asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, and meditation as prescribed in the Pradipika.  We’ll put the practice of these techniques in perspective and discuss how they relate to the overall goal of the science of Yoga.  There will be handouts (and electronic hand outs—if you would like a copy of the Pradipika, I will send you a link to download a free pdf version of a pretty good translation).  And there will even be a fancy Prezi presentation. (Just say NO to Powerpoint!).

This workshop is for EVERYONE.  It is a good introduction for students new to Yoga, a way for current students to deepen their practices, and a great opportunity for current teachers to build on their knowledge.

Contact me directly for more details.

See you on the mat!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Copy the Teacher"

Sri Dharma Mittra instructs “Copy the teacher.”  This is a very practical instruction for students.  If you want to learn something, yoga, cooking, medicine, business, etc., you look toward experts and follow their examples.  You have to have some measure of faith and ego-less-ness: the teacher knows more than you, so do what you are told.  Although asking “why” is good, but at some point we, as students, just need to shut up, pay attention, and repeat.

Sri Dharma’s instruction very much applies to teachers as well.  Teachers must be aware that students are looking to them and copying them.  The teacher serves as the example, the proof, and the reminder that the method works.  This is an underlying theme in both the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita.  In the Ramayana the characters are archetypes of perfection:  Rama is the perfect King, Husband, Son; Sita is the perfect wife; Hanuman is the perfect servant; even Ravana is the perfect villain.  How should a leader act?  Read what Rama does.  How should a devotee act? Look to Hanuman. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains that, as Supreme Lord, he does not need to do anything.  He chooses to act (ie incarnating in the world of Man) because if he did nothing, all of humanity would follow his lead and do nothing.  One of the responsibilities of leaders is to set the example for others to follow.

This is why it is so vital that teachers practice the methods they teach.  Teach asana, practice asana.  Teach meditation, sit on your cushion.  Quote the shastras, read/study/apply the teachings from the shastras.  If teachers are not actualizing the methods they teach, what choice will the students have but to follow their direction?

A little side trip, then we’ll come back around…

The celebration of the birthday of Ganesh, called Ganesh Chaturthi, was observed on September 1st this year.  The date is based on the lunar calendar, it falls on the 4th day of the bright fortnight (waxing moon) of the month of Bhadrapada (August/September)(Sivananda, Hindu Fasts and Festivals). 

And back for serious content…

In September of 2001, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was in New York City to preside over a ceremony consecrating a statue of Ganesh at the Broom St. Temple as part of the celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi.  He was in Manhattan on September 11th.  Following September 11th, he stayed in NYC and continued to teach.  Doing so set an example for his students.  “Do your practice, and all is coming,” means do your practice in good times and bad.  If he did not continue to teach, he would have demonstrated that yoga is only a fanciful exercise with no lasting value.  How do you get through bad times?  Do your practice.  How do you build and demonstrate strength and faith in the face of disaster?  Do your practice.  How do you help others overcome tragedy?  Do your practice.  How do you demonstrate good (Truth) triumphs over evil (Ignorance)?  Do your practice.  Be an example for others to follow. 

Our example is how our individual practice benefits the world.  Others see our practice, and the strength (not talking physical) and goodness which comes from it.  Have we all conquered ignorance, anger, stupidity, ego?  Not necessarily.  Our continued practice demonstrates that we are trying to move towards Truth.  In good times and bad, through disasters man-made or natural, our practice will provide the hope and inspiration for others who are hopeless and lost.  We are the teacher, we must teach something worth copying. 

svasti prajabhyah paripalayantam
nyayena margena mahim mahisah
gobrahmanebhyah subhamstu nityam
lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu

Auspicious Mantra
May all be well with Mankind.
May the leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping the right path
May there be goodness for all who know the earth to be sacred
May all the worlds be happy
[TR Sri K. Pattabhi Jois]