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!