Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bring it Home

Want to have a more advanced practice?  Want to gain more benefits from practicing Yoga?

I have your solution right here:  Bring your practice home.

Practicing once or twice a week isn’t going to get you anywhere.  Actually it may even set you back—trying to do all that sweating and those fancy poses once a week is a recipe for injury.  I’m not saying drop your weekly group classes—you need them, too.  But if you want to progress, you need to practice more.

Give me 15 minutes, 5 days a week, for 40 days, and your practice will be in a new place.

It’s simple.

What you will need:
  •       You.  Not even a mat or special clothes.  You.  And maybe a chair.
  •       A timer (phone, watch, anything with an alarm)

  •      Set your alarm for 15 minutes earlier than it is set for now. 
  •       Do not give yourself the option not to get up.  No snooze. No “I’ll do it tomorrow/when it’s warmer/at the next solar eclipse.”

Execution (or How You Will Use Those 15 Minutes)
  •  2 minutes:  Get out of bed and get to your space.  You don’t need to change, your pj’s are fine.  You can roll out a mat if you would like, but it is not really necessary.
  • 30 Seconds: Stand up, put your hands together in front of your heart and say to yourself “I give thanks for this opportunity to practice.” Doesn’t matter if you mean it. Say the words to yourself.
  •  5 minutes: Sun Salutations.  Ask your teacher to show you how to do them.  Do them with the breath—inhale move, exhale move.  Do not stop. Do not pause. Breathe and move.  When the timer goes off, finish your round and come back to standing.
  •  5 minutes:  Sit down.  On a chair, on the floor, on a cushion.  Head, neck, and spine erect. Equalize the incoming and outgoing breath through the nostrils.  Keep your eyes open and look down at about a 45 degree angle. Mentally name each inhale IN the whole way in, and each exhale OUT the whole way out.  Don’t worry about other thoughts and distractions.  Just make the recitation of IN/OUT the loudest noise in your mind. TRUST THE TIMER. It will tell you when 5 minutes is up. When the timer goes off,
  • 30 Seconds:  Put you hands together in front of your heart, and say to your self “I give thanks for this opportunity to practice.” Say the words.

You have now done a complete practice of Patañjali yoga: Yama/Niyama: expressing gratitude, Postures (asana) and breath control (pranayama): sun salutations, and Pratyahara: sitting still and shutting up.  All of which set the stage for Concentration, Meditation, and Samadhi (remember, we can actively practice the first 5 limbs, the last 3 occur as a result of that practice, they are states not actions).

And you have 2 minutes left.

Give this 40 days and you will have developed a habit of practice. 

You can do this. 

Establishing the habit of practice is most important.  Save the sweating and fancy poses for your group classes when there is a teacher to help you.  Consistency trumps contortions. Your true practice is what you do everyday.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Maha Shivaratri / Turning Demons into Angels

February 20th is the celebration of Maha Shivaratri, a festival honoring Shiva.  Without going into the complexities of Hinduism, or placing this in a “religious” or sectarian context, let’s sum up the more universal meanings of Shiva. 

Shiva is depicted as embodiment of yogic asceticism, often portrayed sitting in meditation, wearing a loin cloth and snakes, very skinny, with long matted dreadlocks, perfectly at ease and detached from the impermanent world.  Until he gets PO’ed.  All that “burning zeal” of asceticism builds the fire of rajas (passion) and he acts a bit rashly. 

Which brings us closer to the topic at hand.  Shiva is the destructive element of Truth (or the Godhead, or the Divine, or Singularity.  Choose whatever fits you best, they are all the same), destroying all creation to make way for new beginnings.  This is not done out of malice, spite, or anger.  Total dissolution is a natural part of creation: things change, often quite drastically.

We naturally fear change.  If we look at The Yoga Sutras (primarily a philosophical work, not a religious one), Patañajli describes in detail that we take the unreal for the real, and he provides instruction for overcoming this wrong view.  He tells us that even those who have progressed extremely far down the yogic path still have to constantly practice, because the mind will want to go back to the way things were (taking the unreal for the real).  But we must progress.  Very, very, very slowly if we do nothing; faster (but scarier) if we put in effort.

The archetype of Shiva lets us know that change is natural.  It is supposed to happen.  It’s going to come whether we choose to fear it or accept it.  Aging, death, taxes, things coming, things going, sunrise, sunset they will not stop no matter how much we fight.

What we can do is change our mind.  We can choose to accept the inevitability of change.  When we do that, all those little demons that plague us and make us fear turn into angels guiding us along the path. 

So we have Shiva as a reference point—the embodiment of total change. Within the world but not attached to it.  Acting when action is required, then immediately returning to center. 

Whether you identify a three-eyed, trident wielding, mountain dwelling hermit as an object of worship or not, we can all benefit by remembering that change will come, and it is absolutely necessary in order to move forward.

One other thing—Shiva digs a song.

One of my favorites is sung by Krishna Das:

Hara Hara Mahadeva Shambho, Kashi Vishwaanaatha Ganga
(I call the names of The Great Lord Shiva Who lives on the Banks of the Ganges at Kashi [Benares])

Another favorite is a line from Bhagavan Das’ “Shiva Shambho”:
“My Daddy taught me how to pray, and if I ain’t praying all of the time, it ain’t nobody’s fault but mine.”

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Right Tool for the Job

Yogic science and technique and culinary science and technique are parallel disciplines.  So, once upon a time, at culinary school…..

I was assigned to fish station in the busiest on-campus restaurant.  During the first week of Lent.  Although a learning environment and a classroom, this was a fully-functional restaurant.  Real guests paying real money (and lots of it), expecting nothing less than excellence in the execution of the food, the service, and the overall experience.  

The fish was finished by a technique called “Buerre Poêlé.”  Butter is added to the sauté pan and allowed to brown slightly.  The hot butter is spooned over the fish.  Done correctly, the butter foams when it hits the skin of the fish, frying it slightly.  This is a time consuming technique, requiring all one’s attention.  Great results, but frankly a real PITA when plating several at one time.

I was finishing a fish in the middle of a hectic service.  I grabbed a teaspoon to butter poêlé.  Immediately Chef was at my station.

“Ronald,” he said.
“Yes, Chef!”
“Do you know what you look like when you use a teaspoon to butter poêlé that fish?”
“No, Chef!”
“A f*&%ing housewife.  Use the right tool for the job.” And he walked away.

A bit of explanation is necessary here for those who have never worked in a professional kitchen.  The expletive, although rather awakening coming from a college teacher, is common in kitchens.  As is the negative designation of being called a “housewife,” as this implies that one is not acting as a professional should.  [NOTE: I personally feel that housewives have a much tougher job and perform it with a much better attitude than most professionals do.]

Chef said a lot with those 10 words. He let me know I was not paying attention to what I was doing.  He let me know I was not economizing my movements (10 passes with a teaspoon rather than 3 with a serving spoon when selling 20 portions during lunch service adds up to a lot of time guests are waiting for their food).  He let me know that I was not performing as I was shown.  He let me know he was watching.  He let me know that no BS excuse was going to be accepted.

And he was 100% right.

We need to use the right tool for the job in our yoga practice as well.  A great many of us discover this practice through the practice of asanas (postures).  This makes a lot of sense.  According to yogic philosophy, all nature (you, me, mosquitoes, that tree, rocks, the ring top from that Tab can) is governed by 3 qualities: tamas, dullness/inertia; rajas, action/passion; and sattva, purity/clarity.  These qualities govern in differing amounts at various times.  The goal of the yogi is to transcend these qualities and join with Truth.  To overcome tamas (inertia), rajas (action) is needed.  To overcome rajas (action), sattva (clarity) is needed. 

The sages tell us that we are living in a cycle dominated by tamas.  Yogic practices have been developed for this cycle which are based upon physical postures and breathing techniques.  The general energy of the time is inertia, so we transcend that through activity.

This is where many get stuck. I certainly include myself in this category.

We forget that the practice of postures is a tool, a useful one to be sure, but a tool only. NOT the goal.  So we keep plugging along, trying to add more and more postures, thinking that if we can only do that we will reach Truth. Suddenly, we do not get the same results we once did.

We may be suffering from disease, inertia, doubt, heedlessness, laziness, indiscipline of the senses, erroneous views, inability to reach a state of concentration, and the inability to hold onto that state of concentration.  These manifest as sorrow, despair, unsteadiness of body, and irregular breathing. (PYS 1.30-31)

These are signs that the tools we have been using are no longer correct, given our current situation. Having overcome inertia with action, we must now overcome the very action which had helped us to progress in the first place.  How do we do that?


Not headstand.  Not warrior 1.  Not internally spiraling your spleen loop charka. These are teaspoons.

Meditation is the serving spoon.

In the roughly 200 verses of The Yoga Sutras, 3 are dedicated to postures.  The first 5 of the 8 limbs take up only about 25 verses, roughly 1/8 of the work.  The rest boils down to meditation.  That is the tool which moves the dedicated forward. Yet we spend 98% of our time on something that we are directed to spend 2% on, and 2% on what we are directed to spend 98% of our time on.

As a practice, sitting still for meditation is infinitely more difficult than contorting our bodies.  Most of the time I would rather try Urdhva Dhanurasana with one foot behind the head than try to figure out how to sit still and STF up. But if we want to progress, we must accept this challenge.  Like cooking, yogic practice requires a firm foundation—we cannot make any forward progress without first training the preliminaries.  Then we build upon the basics by using tools and techniques that are appropriate for the evolving situation.

Keep practicing, we will get there.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Oh Misery! Shame and Scandal in the Family

 It's Madness!  From The Dangerman Sessions

Readers of Yoga Dork are witnessing the steady crumbling of the Anusara brand.  For those unfamiliar, there have been numerous allegations of personal, um, misconduct and illegal business practices levied against Anusara founder John Friend.  YD has presented both the allegations and JF’s responses. Read the saga on YD if you would like, the specifics are not really my focus today.

My own personal opinions of this method and its founder (pure hokum, both) aside, there is no denying that a great many people found benefit by practicing this method.  There are also a number of people who have invested a significant amount of money to become certified to teach this method, and, if they are actively teaching, have been making some income from this method.

True or not (JF admits in general terms to some wrong doing) these allegations have hurt the brand. Meaning the teachers and students who follow the method have taken a greater hit than JF himself.

For those of us who teach yoga, we need to be aware that we are representing a brand, more accurately several brands:  Ourselves as teachers, the method/style/school we teach, the locations where we teach, and yoga as a business.  When any one of these brands suffer, we all feel the effects.

I am not saying that we teachers need to be saints.  We need to be sincere students.  We need to demonstrate the positive results of this practice because, let’s face it, our students have a choice.  There is a lot of competition.  There is always another teacher, another studio.  They can decide to just go for a jog instead of to a yoga class.  This is the struggle they don’t tell you about in teacher training.

At the very core of our teaching needs to be our personal practice.  I am pained every time I hear a teacher complain they don’t have time to practice or state that they need to practice more.  It is very easy for a student to see when a teacher does not practice what they teach.  What message does that send about the teacher and the practice?  Discipline (tapas) is the first step on this path—find the time.  Our students have found the time to show up; we have the responsibility to show up to our practice as well.  

We also need to align ourselves with the correct people. I am very blessed to teach at a studio where the owner is very supportive of the teachers.  She is actively in the community making a positive presence for the studio.  She is transparent and gracious with the teachers. She minds the brand.  This inspires me to promote the studio. In turn, the studio draws good teachers and the student base is continually growing.  The students get quality classes, the teachers make money, and the studio stays open.  Positive business practices perpetuates positive results.

I have been in the opposite situation as well, where shoddy business practices (late payments, owner not actively promoting the business, teachers constantly subbing out their classes) make it difficult to want to continue—the saving grace is the students.

As teachers, we need to mind our collective brand.  We need to keep our own practices consistent, and we need to encourage our fellow teachers to do the same.  The main reason why the situation with JF got to the point of an explosion on the blog-o-verse is because people allowed JF to get away with it—no one called him out on it until last week.  He wasn’t minding the brand (although he kept making a lot of money from it), but neither were the teachers and students who allowed the bad (and illegal) behavior to go on. That is called ‘vicarious liability.’

We don’t have to be saints; we need to be sincere students.  Sincere students and sincere teachers keep each other in check.  We all benefit when we all mind the brand.

Speaking of getting to practice: Flight School—Arm Balance workshop Saturday Feb. 12, 2-4 at Hudson River Yoga.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rejecting the Gift of Crazy

Some people want to give the gift of their craziness.  You know, the ones who always have some kind of drama, and they put out that it is the duty of everyone around them to routinely pick up their pieces, take over their responsibilities, fix their mess. Usually in the form of a mass e-mail plea which infects the recipients like a virus and causes a cluster of back-and-forth reply-alls and generally tests every bit of yogic patience you have been attempting to cultivate.

I give you permission to reject the gift of crazy when it is given.
Sri Ramakrishna gives two examples (liberally quoted from memory from The Gospel of Ramakrishna) of how to do this.
Ramakrishna teaches that we should view all things as having Divine essence.  He says that a wild tiger has a Divine essence, but you should not go and try to hug a wild tiger.  Its Divinity is best worshiped from afar.  So to should we treat those who are ‘wicked’ and try to suck our energy dry with distance.
This is not necessarily always possible.  So Ramakrishna offers another bit of advice, in the form of a story (again, liberally ibid):
Once upon a time, a monk was walking down a road.  A poisonous snake darted out from the bushes and reared up to attack.  The snake sensed the Divine power emanating from the monk, and paused. 
The monk said “Dear friend, you should not seek to inflict harm on other living creatures,” and he continued down the road.  The snake was immediately filled with compassion, and from that day forward, he no longer attacked anyone.
Some time later the monk was returning along the same road.  He came across the snake lying in the road, bruised and beaten.  “Dear Friend,” said the monk, “how did this happen?”
“Brahmana,” replied the snake, “I was so filled with compassion following our encounter that I vowed never to attack another living being again.  When the villagers saw that I would not bite them, they beat me with sticks and threw rocks at me.”
“Dear Friend, you should not bite anyone, but you can still hiss!”
When we cannot keep our distance, we can encourage others to keep theirs. 
Cultivating the attitudes of compassion and indifference does not mean that we must accept the gift of craziness when it is given.  Removing ourselves either physically or mentally form the situation may seem mean or aloof to the giver, but it is preventing resentment and the overall perpetuation of craziness, which is working toward the greater good.
Never feel bad about insulating yourself from those who give crazy.  Hit delete.  If you must reply, reply only to that person so as not to perpetuate the crazy.  Disinfect yourself with OM when they cough crazy in your direction. Rest in the knowledge that you need to do, and are doing, your duty, not theirs.   
And if they continue to try to give crazy, don’t be afraid to hiss a little.
A long way of saying “Yes, I received the e-mails.  No thank you; I’m not going to reply. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM”