Monday, November 21, 2011

Giving Thanks Through the Practice of Cooking and Eating

Ah, Thanksgiving.  The one time of year I allow myself to comment on diet.

But I’m not going to belabor what you should or shouldn’t eat—truthfully, no matter what side of the fence you are on, there is always going to be someone on the exact opposite side (and even deeper into the field) than you are who will argue against you to no end.  Sorry folks, this argument is a waste of good air.

I do want you to think of how you are serving and eating.

“A kitchen is the best training ground or school for developing tolerance, endurance, forbearance, mercy, sympathy, love, adaptability, and the spirit of real service for purifying one’s heart and for realizing the oneness of life.  Every aspirant should know how to cook well.” ( Sivananda. The Practice of Karma Yoga.p.2)

Page 2.  Not buried half-way through.  Right up front.
[Full disclosure: Sivananda himself is very vehement about a vegetarian diet.] 

The Zen Master Dogen, who codified the rules for Zen monasteries, lists the Tenzo (the Cook) as one of the 6 high offices within the Monastery.  Only very highly practiced monks are allowed to occupy the position of Tenzo, as they are responsible for providing the sustenance which gives others strength and health to continue their practices.  And they give up their meditation time in order to provide this service to others.

The act of cooking is an act of service.  You are creating an offering to someone else.  As a cook, it is our duty to create what the guest wants, to the highest level of perfection we can.  This means you may very well have to compromise your personal beliefs so that you can best act in the service of another. 

This, my friends, is Karma Yoga.

If you do not eat meat, but your guests do, and they are expecting a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, then the highest act of service you can render is to cook a tasty turkey.  You will have to taste it, because it needs to be seasoned well. Cultivate an attitude of friendliness and joy as you cook it. Remember that acts done in service, that is without attachments to the fruits of actions, does not result in negative karma.  This is directly from Krishna. 

On the other side, if your guests do not eat meat, do not force the issue.  Pick up a magazine or go on the inter web to find meatless alternatives.  You will also have to taste what you cook.  Tofu and saitan may be different and scary to you.  Get over it.  You don’t have to like it, but you need to make it taste good so those that do like it will enjoy it.

It has been my experience that trying your best to offer your guests what they expect is trumps the actual taste of the finished dish.  The act itself is the most meaningful.

Cultivating an attitude of service and gratitude for our guests is very difficult practice.  I cooked professionally for a very long time.  Stress, heat, yelling, and the attitude of “if it is not perfect you are worthless” is something I still struggle to control every time I walk into a kitchen, some eight years after I sent my last dish out from behind the line.  Quitting smoking was easier (at times) than finding peace while cooking.  It is a practice I consciously work on.  When I find myself getting annoyed or stressed in the kitchen, I do mental japa, or try to focus on those I am cooking for.  The key is to train yourself to identify that you are stressed, because you can’t do anything to change your mental state until you first can identify the state you are in.  Your asana practice gives you the physical strength to cook and regular meditation gives you the mental strength to cook.

Selfless service also means accepting all offerings which come to you. The Vedas state that gifts from superiors are always to be accepted.  Paramahansa Yogananda mentions in his Autobiography that he grew portly because he could not refuse all the offerings of food his disciples graciously bestowed upon him.  Krishna states: “Whoever offers Me with devotion and a pure mind (heart), a leaf, a flower, a fruit or a little water—I accept (this offering).” (Bhagavad Gita IX.26). Meat or no meat, cooked to our liking or not, if we are claiming to practice the science of yoga, then we have a responsibility to equally and graciously accept all offerings which are given to us.  We “serve the servant” with our acceptance.

Holiday gatherings are supposed to be about the company, the family, the gathering.  Bring your guests together through the act of cooking.  Raise your fork and glass with love and you will raise your spirits.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

And yes, we will spend some time in Mayurasana this week and next to help digest the gluttony.  I am not ashamed to say I will be taking seconds (read: thirds) on the pie, too!

Yatkaroshi yadashnaasi yajjuhoshi dadaasi yat;
Yattapasyasi kaunteya tatkurushva madarpanam.

“Whatever thou doest, whatever thou eatest, whatever thou offerest in sacrifice, whatever thou givest, whatever thou practiseth as austerity, O Arjuna, do it as an offering unto Me!”
 ~Bhagavad Gita IX.27 (Sivananda, tr.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sivananda's Story of a Sugar Eating Boy

Story of a Sugar Eating Boy

A certain old man took his boy who was addicted to eating much black sugar to a Saint and addressed him, “O Santji, my boy eats much black sugar. Kindly advise him to give up eating black sugar.” The Saint said, “Come after fifteen days.” The Saint himself used to take much black sugar like the boy. He gave up at once eating sugar for fifteen days. He found no trouble or mental disturbance. When the old man came on the fifteenth day with the boy, the Saint addressed the boy with great force, “My dear boy! Give up this habit of eating sugar at once.” The old man asked the Saint, “O Sadhu Maharaj! Why did you not advise the boy on the first day?” The Saint replied: “I was myself a victim of the sugar-eating habit. How could I then be able to advise others? I gave it up for fifteen days. I corrected myself first. How can I preach to others when I am myself filled with
Doshas?” The advice of the Saint had very great effect on the mind of the boy. He gave up eating sugar from that day.

The moral of this story is that you must put a thing into actual practise yourself before you begin to preach it to others. Then only will it produce a lasting impression. Example is better than precept. It is easier to preach to twenty than to be one of the twenty in following the preaching.
~Swami Sivananda  Yoga in Daily Life. P. 67 (Freely distributed by The Divine Life Society)

Saints and Masters are out there, but they are rarely the ones offering “Master’s” classes and calling themselves by that designation.  True Masters are working their way along this path just like you and I.  They may be a few steps ahead, but they are still practicing (tapas), studying (svadhyaya), and operating on faith (isvara pranidhanani) like the rest of us. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Training For Students Grand Finale

Artist: Sanjay Patel, via MC Yogi
Saturday, November 12th is the final session of my Training for Students program. (Saturday, Nov, 12, 1:30-3:30 at Hudson River Yoga, Poughkeepsie Thank you to all those who have attended the first three! I have saved the best, well, at least my most favorite topic, for last: The Ramayana.

We’ll follow The Ramayana mostly in order, concentrating on stories which have characters/themes/objects which lend their names to modern yoga postures.  Some you may be familiar with, such as bow (dhanurasana) and bridge (setu bandhasana).  Some you may recognize under a different name, like side plank pose, Vasisthasana, named after one of Rama’s teachers, and crescent moon, Anjaneyasana, named for Anjaneya, another name of Hanuman.  The poses will be practiced along with the stories.

The Ramayana can be read on many levels. It is a love story.  It is a story of good versus evil.  It is Fantasy (and Science Fiction—some have sought to prove that the flying chariot and the gods in the story are ancient aliens).  It is also a devotional work, illustrating all of the ancient teachings of The Vedas in a way that the general population can easily understand. Our physical practice parallels this.  We can do asana practice purely to work out/sweat/burn calories.  We can do it as a warm up for meditation.  We can treat our bodies as temples, and asanas as prayers (nod to Mr. Iyengar). 

No matter how we view our practice or this story, the most important thing is that we find inspiration to keep returning to it.  If it’s your workout, keep doing.  If it’s your prayer, keep doing it. If you like the love story, keep reading.  If the stories help you to make moral decisions, keep reading. 

Everything we need for your practice is already within us.  Asanas, stories, teachers are all just tools to help us realize this. 

Some technical points:
  • My favorite translation of The Ramayana is by William Buck.  It is written for Westerners and has a nice list of characters and map for reference. Unfortunately, it is not in the public domain, so I cannot share it for free.  If you have itunes, you can purchase this version with Ram Dass reading.

  • Some of the poses will be quite difficult.  As always, there is no need to push yourself to the point of injury.  Intention is more important than actualizing someone else’s ideal of a posture.  We will build everything in stages.  The story is primary, not the posture.

  • Come with an open mind.  Yes this is a Hindu devotional text.  Yes it talks about gods from the perspective that the events actually happened.  No, I am not asking you to believe or convert.  The concepts are universal, even though the characters are most relevant to another culture.

This is my absolute favorite story of all time.  I enjoy sharing it, and am excited to share it in this way.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll chant the Chalisa for you at the end. 

As always, please contact me if you have any questions.

Looking forward to sharing the world’s oldest epic with you!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

#occupyyourmat: The Theory and Practice of Yoganomics

That’s right, I’m droppin’ a hashtag.  Be warned, I may even play the Gandhi card.  But first, let’s talk about Yoganomics.  The theory of Yoganomics can be summed up in (read: I borrowed this from) a line from a song by The Night Watchman, Tom Morello.  It goes like this: 

“If you take one step towards freedom, it will take two steps towards you.”

PataƱjali has us begin with Kriya Yoga, and the first step on that path is discipline (tapas).  Kriya, like Karma, comes from the root kr- “to act.” We must initiate action, then everything else begins to move. The ultimate end result is Kaivalya, freedom. 
An example. Swami Sivananda writes about japa practice, echoing the Kali-Santarana Upanishad: “The name of God chanted correctly or incorrectly, knowingly or unknowingly, carefully or carelessly, with Bhava (feeling/faith/devotion) or without Bhava, is sure to give the desired fruit.  The Bhava will come itself after some time…” (The Essence of Yoga  p. 17).  Swamiji absolutely encourages faith and devotion during japa (and all forms of) practice, however, the sheer act of repeating a name of God over and over again is a jump start toward liberation.  Not as fast as japa with devotion, yet light years ahead of not doing anything. Start in some way, shape, or form, and a chain reaction follows.

By Sanjay Patel via MC Yogi. The story of Rama is Yoganomics in action
Here’s the fun part:  we may not know, long term, what we are looking to achieve with our practice, and we may not know how we are going to do whatever it is we are going to do, but the second we act, not think about acting, not committing to act, but actually get off our butts and do something, we have succeeded.

This is microyoganomics, working toward freedom as an individual. An interesting phenomenon happens when you start the micro-, the macro- follows right along.  Taking a step towards freedom changes the individual, and it also starts to change the world.  An individual’s actions are contagious. 

Occupy Wall St. is this theory unfolding into practice right before our very twitter stream.  Someone, or maybe a group of people, decided to stop griping about what they saw as wrong with the economic system and do something about it.  I will not pretend to know any details; I’ll let the results speak for themselves:

Problem:  The people have no voice.
Solution: A completely democratic collective, where everyone has equal opportunity and voice.

Problem: Those negatively effected by the current economic system feel they have no support.
Solution: People are gathering and offering support to each other.

Problem: There are people without food.
Solution: People with food share with others.

Problem:  There are people in need of medical attention.
Solution: Doctors and nurses providing free care to the best of their ability.

What is the movement trying to prove?  Can a collective movement be sustainable in the absence of accountable leadership, a spokesperson, a platform? Who are these people? Are they communists/heathens/slackers/hippies/[insert unfair disparaging label here]?

Who cares. 

They are you and me.  

We can’t control what others do, think, or say.  But we have full control over what we choose to do.  One person choosing to help another sparked the desire in more people to help each other.  That is the result. That is all which matters. That is success

The practical application of Yoganomics:  Once we do, whether that is getting to the mat or sitting for meditation, giving a cup of coffee to someone without heat, listening to someone who feels unheard, saying ‘thank you’, etc., we are making a difference.  Gandhi taught us to “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” (told you. Gandhi card.)  All it takes is one kr-, one act. It does not matter if people follow, it only matters that you provide the example by taking the first step. . “The truth,” as Mr. Slater’s character in Pump Up the Volume informs us, “is a virus.”

 My Yoganomics offering to my students, past, present, and future:

If you are trying to convince yourself to get to your mat, if you have doubts, if you are struggling to find your practice, know that I am there too, and I support you. Even though not in the same physical space, you have a partner/comrade/compatriot. I will share with you from my practice. We are students on this path together.

If you want to practice, I’ll give you the tools. If you cannot afford to come to class, I will comp you one and provide you with instruction to continue your practice at home.  I have found a great number of teachings which are available for free, and I will share them with you.  

I will do my best to answer your questions and will direct you to better authorities for better answers than I can provide.

I will provide you with an environment of inclusion where you can be safely challenged without being judged.

Your practice makes a difference.  Take one step and see.