Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"One thing I know..."

Happy Holidays! Please accept the gift of this post.
“I’ll tell you one thing, Franny.  One thing I know. And don’t get upset.  It isn’t anything bad.  But if it’s the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you’re missing out on every single g_d_ religious action that’s going on around this house.”
~J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zoey. Little, Brown and Co. 1961 p. 196

What a great time of year this is.  The days start getting longer, people are in good moods.  We get to spend time with family.  We give thanks and concentrate our thoughts on others.  We give to charity. We worship.  In short, we are actively engaged in Karma (selfless service) and Bhakti (intense love) Yoga. 

These practices are much more efficient than our Hatha or even Raja Yoga practices.  For Hatha, we need a mat, space, and time to work our bodies and breath into various positions.  This is only a preparation for Raja Yoga, where we still the fluctuations of our mind through intense meditation.  This takes time and, in the beginning at least, solitude. Raja Yoga is also preparation—reaching the goal of Nirvikalpa (or Nirbija) Samadhi, the yogi can operate in the world with no attachment, assisting others to achieve this state (Karma Yoga).

For those of us who have cultivated a disciplined Hatha practice, we must always remember that we are only engaged in preparation; that we do not spend so much time with the means that we forget to work towards the end.  We can become very attached to our practice.  We may define ourselves by our physical abilities: I can jump to handstand, I can drop back into a backbend from standing (this one is most certainly not me!), or I can hold my breath for a very long time.  And if we do define ourselves by and attach to our Hatha practice, we may become distraught when our practice schedule is interrupted.

But we have to accept that we will not save the world or ourselves by standing on our head, jumping back to chaturanga, or bending more than 180° forward.

We have to remember that BOTH practice AND detachment are required to still the mind (PYS I.12).  When we serve others, help others, put others ahead of our selves out of love and without expectation of rewards, we are cultivating detachment.

“…but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don’t see how you’ll ever even move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment.” (198)

During this holiday (whatever holiday you celebrate) season, we are blessed with the opportunity to practice detachment.  I’m not giving you a free pass to bag your hatha practice for the next two weeks, but I do encourage you to see all the opportunities that you have to practice every day, every minute. 

At the end of the Season, our practice will be to remember that we don’t have to wait until December to practice selfless service. 

Many thanks to Mr. Salinger, whose character Zooey has offered me inspiration these twenty some years.  Taking spiritual advice and instruction from a literary character?  Why not?  If the door is open, walk through it.

Even more thanks to you, Dear Reader, for accepting these offerings.

Happy Holidays!  May you be blessed with health, happiness, and prosperity!

In Gratitude,

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Attack of the Orange Cones!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Picture this:  You are clicking along in practice.  Then, like an orange cone in the middle of the street, something forces you to slam on the breaks.  Illness or injury force you to take a step back; work commitments eat away at your practice time; too much holiday cheer or cookies make getting up a drag; it’s dark; it’s cold; and Doubt (with a capital “D”) in the form of that nagging question: “Why the H E Double Hockey Sticks am I doing this and getting NOWHERE!!!” grinds your beautifully disciplined practice to a dead stop.

I hear you.  I’ve been there, too.  Probably this morning.

When roadblocks of orange cones stand in the way of my practice, I look for advice on the best detour.  Krishna counsels “Therefore let the scriptures be your guide as to what is to be done and what is not to be done.” [Bhagavad Gita XVII.24]  Truthfully I’m a bit of a geek, so I pick out books, flip open a page and see what inspiration comes. Not always the most efficient method, but that’s what I got. If you are coming to me for answers, you are only entitled to the cut-rate spiritual advice I have to offer.  

I have been reading Brahmananda Sarasvati’s Textbook of Yoga Psychology, well, I quickly realized that the psychology part was far beyond my grasp and skipped right to his translation of The Yoga Sutras.  A not-so-random search landed me on I.30-31, which I will liberally give here:

I.30 “Disease, laziness, doubt, heedlessness, lethargy, clinging to sense enjoyment, erroneous perception, failure to attain a state of concentration, and inability to remain in a state of concentration are obstacles which distract the mind.”
I.31 “These obstacles manifest as grief, anxiety, unsteadiness of body, and unsteadiness of breath.”

I was familiar with these verses, and am experientially [all too] well versed in the actualization of these obstacles and manifestations.  What I found incredibly interesting was Brahmananda Sarasvati’s commentary.  Again, given liberally, he likens the practice of Yoga to cleaning a house.  As you clean, you may stir up some snakes.  The snakes are not there as a result of cleaning, they have been there all along.  They have been brought into the open because they have been disturbed by the cleaning.  You do not stop cleaning because you find a snake.  You seek to remove the snake as quickly as possible before it has the chance to hide again and possibly bite you later.

These obstacles let us know that we are doing our practice correctly.  We are shaking up all the gross and icky feelings, samskaras, and karmas that we need to work on to progress further.  If we quit our practice, the obstacles become more firmly rooted.  Of course, I am not saying that you continue to practice crow with a shoulder injury, inversions with bronchitis, or navasana with a raging hangover (no need to deny it, it happens from time to time) —these are times to recover and increase your meditation practice. Let me stress: injuries, sickness, depression require medical attention first! Existential doubt and laziness require a trip to your teacher.   Know that your practice can, will, and should evolve as your life circumstances change.  All teachings agree: at all costs, keep practicing!

I wish you and orange cone free day. But if you happen to find these pesky critters in your path, pause, accept their presence, reflect on their raison d’etre, then put it into 4L and drive over the top of them!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Gita Jayanti: Happy Birthday Bhagavad Gita!

Dhritarashtra said:
“What did the sons of Pandu and also my people do when they had assembled together,
eager for battle on the holy plain of Kurukshetra, O Sanjaya?”

Having been granted divine sight by the Rishi Vyasa, Sanjaya recounted the events of the great war of The Mahabharata to the blind king Dhritarashtra. The initial event, the conversation between Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna, is known as The Bhagavad Gita, The Song Celestial. 

Krishna (the blue gentleman) counsels Arjuna
The Gita is not just a book for Hindus.  The lessons are universal.  They are timeless.  You do not have to change your religion to find validity in the teachings.  Gandhi calls The Gita “The mother to whom the children (humanity) turn when in distress.”

In The Gita, Krishna speaks of three paths of Yoga: the path of selfless service/actions (Karma Yoga), the path of knowledge (Jñana Yoga), and the path of faith (Bhakti Yoga).  When we read the text, Krishna seems to contradict himself.  Arjuna asks several times: “What is the best path to take?” In one chapter Krishna declares Karma Yoga; in another Jñana Yoga; in yet another Bhakti Yoga.  We can move past these apparent contradictions if we understand that The Gita was a gift to all of humanity, not just to one person at one place and time.

These three paths form the basis for yoga as we know it today.  Patañjali states in the Yoga Sutras (II.1) that yogic action contains tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (study), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender to the divine).  Basically action, knowledge, and faith.  If we look at the three main texts of yoga (this author’s opinion): The Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras, and The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we find devotion/faith, knowledge, and action as the respective foci  of these works.

These three works help us to progress through the gunas, the three qualities of creation. The gunas are Tamas (inertia), Rajas (passion), and Sattva (clarity).  The goal is to (eventually, eventually) move beyond even these three forces.  One overcomes Tamas with Rajas, Rajas with Sattva.  Hatha Yoga gets us active to overcome the inertia (tamas) of being trapped in the cycle of birth and death.  Patañjali’s Yoga is much more philosophical.  Having invigorated the body (rajas), Patañjali guides us to still the mind through meditation.  Finally our meditation (sattva) leads us to accept with faith the teachings of The Gita, thereby moving us past the gunas. 

Or you can just read The Gita because it is uplifting and inspiring. The basic teachings, such as: “Do your work without the expectation of rewards,” “By doing your duty you attain salvation,” “remain undisturbed by success/failure, hot/cold, praise/censure, and other pairs of opposites” are universal teachings.  Certainly not easy teachings to follow, but not dependant upon any specific knowledge or practice of Hinduism.

Swami Sivananda counsels that an aspirant will gain merit by reading just one verse of The Gita per day.  He states that The Gita alone is sufficient for spiritual study (svadhyaya).  Swami Sivananda’s translation of The Gita is available as a free download from The Divine Life Society. 

Today we give thanks for the gift of The Gita.  I encourage you to pick up (or download) a copy and start reading today!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Three Most Useful Poses in all of Yoga-dom

I had the great opportunity this week to present a lecture and asana practice on the history of yoga as a part of a History and Cultures of Asia class.  The students were incredibly receptive and were great sports, many trying yoga asana for the first time.  We teach history utilizing visual and audio media (paintings and songs are examples) but not through movement very often.  Ballet comes close, in that movement tells a story, however, yoga asana is quite unique in that the story is contained within the movement itself.  This could be a direct reference, as Anjaneyasana is dedicated to Hanuman (Anjaneya is another name for Hanuman), or indirectly.  Setu Bandhasana, Bridge Pose, recalls the bridge built by Rama’s army to cross the ocean to Lanka. 

One of the challenges in presenting millennia of history in 1 hour is deciding what to cover.  I decided to close with what I consider are the three most important poses in yoga asana practice.

At # 3:
Salamba Sirsasana:  Supported Headstand.

Yes, I took 100 (3 sections of +/- 35 students each) unsuspecting students and put them upside down.  In the middle of the room.  Of course, I emphasized and encouraged a prepatory stage (even preparation for the pose is the pose!) and most stayed with this option.  Several adventurous souls went for the full pose.

Physically this pose takes no more flexibility than standing upright.  It gives the heart a rest by letting gravity assist with the return of venous blood from the lower 2/3 of the body. There is increased blood flow to the brain, and the internal organs are stimulated by the inversion. Concentration is increased—got to stay alert if you don’t want to fall over!  And it forces you to face the fear of completely changing your point of view.  We can analyze how we react to difficult situations by purposefully (and in a controlled environment) putting ourselves in a difficult situation.

Energetically we reverse the normal downward flow of energy and the sahasrara charka is stimulated through contact with the ground.  Also the nectar (kapha) from the Moon (medulla oblongata) cannot drip into and be consumed by the Sun (Solar Plexus), extending life (there is only a finite amount of amrita, and like sands through the hourglass, when it’s gone, we’re gone)  (c.f. HYP III. 77-82).

Coming in at #2: Savasana

In The Compete Illustrated Book of Yoga, Swami Vishnu-devananda, one of Swami Sivananda’s main disciples and the creator of one of the first yoga teacher training programs in the West, compares the body to a car.  He asserts that a car (and the body) needs five items to run correctly: fuel, an electric current (for ignition), a cooling system, lubrication, and an intelligent driver. The cooling system for the body is conscious relaxation.  The body is a machine, and all machines need to be shut down once in awhile.  Savasana allows the body and mind time to cool down so that they can operate optimally.  The students I taught were all culinarians.  This profession is known for excessive hours (10-16+ hour days, 5-7 days a week) under demanding conditions (constant high stress, intense heat, intense personalities).  To survive such conditions, to be physically able to sustain in this career, one must schedule time for the body to rest and recover.

I have not yet (crossing fingers) received any calls by concerned parents wondering why their good money was going to people teaching their children to lay about on the floor!

And at #1 [drum roll] The ultimate and most important yoga asana ever:
I’ll paraphrase Krishna for that answer:

V.27. “Shutting out all external contacts, fixing the gaze between the eyebrows, equalizing the incoming and outgoing breaths moving within the nostrils”
VI.13. “Let him firmly hold his body, head and neck erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of his nose without looking around” (The Bhagavad Gita. Sivananda, tr.)

That’s it.  The most important yoga asana is sitting still and shutting up, more accurately sitting still so we can learn to shut up. Quite literally from God’s mouth to our ears. 

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that the goal of Hatha Yoga (practices which focus on the physical body and breath) are for the purpose of achieving Raja (Patañjali) Yoga.  The goal of Raja Yoga is nirbikalpa (or nirvikalpa or nirbija) Samadhi constant unification with the Absolute with all karmas burnt up.  Meditation is the means to this end.  Sitting still to shut up is what this whole business is about.

Of all the poses I taught, the students had the most difficult time with this one.  This was expected, and, in my experience, pretty common.  It’s hard to sit still, even harder to justify to ourselves to make the time to sit still.  Just like standing on your head, or jumping to crow, it takes continued, repeated, systematic practice.

At a time of year when our bodies and minds are taxed more than usual, these three poses offer much needed solace. And they only take a few minutes to practice.  Give yourself the gift of time to practice.