Thursday, May 31, 2012

Open Letter to Yoga Teacher Trainee Graduates

Congratulations graduates!  Wherever you have completed your training, whatever style it happened to be, I know that you have put much effort, time, and money to get to this point. But this is not the end of training.  You have established a little foundation, a base, a seed which still requires much cultivating.  Someone who aspires to teach carries a different burden than those whose practice is study alone.  Allow me to put some stepping stones down for you, based on my experience, so that you can keep your momentum as you move toward your goal of being a yoga teacher.

1.       If you have not done so already, cultivate your home practice.  In fact, make practicing at home the majority of your practice time.  And make seated meditation a major component of your home practice. Yes, stay connected to your teacher, AND honor your teacher through regular self-directed practice of their teachings.  A teacher cannot motivate, inspire, and instill discipline in anyone else without first learning to motivate, inspire, and instill discipline in themselves.  Your students see your practice (or lack of practice).  Show them that the science of yoga is not relegated to 1 ½ hours one night a week in a studio, or at some yoga vacationland, or in some distant cave in the mountains—it happens here and now.  Show them that a little consistent practice is more important than showing off fancy contortions in front of the class.  Fancy contortions will come and go, the working expression of every pose will change—this reality is a source of struggle with students.  Show them that you understand because you deal with this through your own practice.  Demonstrate that the discipline of practice is much much more important than being able to achieve someone else’s idea of perfection in a given asana.
2.       Read and study.  Right now go buy and read The Hatha Yoga Pradipika.  I suggest Swami Muktibodhananda’s translation.  It has wonderfully complete (and dogma free) commentary and diagrams, and interprets the text for the modern reader.  Why is this work of great importance? Because it is the basis for everything we do in Hatha Yoga (remember that Hatha Yoga is ANY yoga practice which focuses on asana and pranayama. Any brand/style you can take a class in is Hatha Yoga). It puts the practice of asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, and kriyas in their correct perspective: as a vehicle to reach Raja (Patañjali) Yoga. Your students may or may not ever aspire to do more than use asana practice to “work out,” however it is vital that as a teacher you know and understand the proper context of asana practice: a tiny part of a greater practice.  Think of it this way—you can spend lots of money and time customizing and primping your vehicle, but if you neglect driving to work, it does not do you any good in the long run.  Secondly, get yourself a copy of The Bhagavad Gita.  I recommend Swami Sivananda’s (available for free) and Eknath Easwaran’s translations.  They are free of dogma and are written for the benefit of a wide (i.e. non-Hindu) audience.  In the science of Yoga, it is the oldest source which is considered the most authoritative.  This is the oldest handbook for the practice of yoga.  Read it through once, then read it again skipping over what feels “Hindu” and concentrate on the more universal themes.  Read the Pradipika, The Yoga Sutras, The Bhagavad Gita over and over and you will see how the first leads to the second which leads to the third. If you have read these works as a part of your teacher training, pick them up again right away. Never stop studying.
3.       Always have faith in what you are doing.  There will always be obstacles in your way.  Patañjali outlines some obstacles and their manifestations.  Can we ever get to a point where there are no obstacles?  No.  It is the nature of obstacles to obstruct.  We can get to a point (I have faith this is true) where we can change our own reaction and become indifferent to both successes and obstacles.  You will have students who love you and who hate you.  You will have full rooms and empty rooms.  Make it your practice not to attach to either.  All you can do as a teacher is to give possibilities. Hopefully these possibilities are truthful examples from your own practice.  Each student will accept only the teachings they are ready to accept.  Do not ever try to understand why students come or do not come to class.  It will make you crazy.  Teach with the same enthusiasm to one as you would to a packed house. You will find total jerkballs who will become your greatest teachers, and you will find that those you thought were great teachers are ego-driven con artists.  Learn from both equally, and accept them for who they are not who you want them to be. You will have days when getting to your practice space is easy, natural, organic, and days when you need to bribe, cajole, and force yourself. Be firm and persevere in your practice no matter what stands in your way.  

Discipline leads to study which grows faith which encourages discipline…so goes the Cartesian Circle of practice.  You’ve bought the ticket, now take the ride.   

Krishna says in The Gita “Whatever a leader sets as the example, so do others follow.” (III.21) This is why it is so important that you as a teacher discipline yourself, continue to study, and cultivate your faith in the validity and correctness of the practice. Your practice is an offering, and act of adoration to your students.  Every time you practice you are helping your students to move forward in their practices, inspiring them to progress far beyond your level.  There is no element of your practice that is for your own benefit, it is all for the benefit of your current, past, and future students. This is the responsibility a teacher accepts.

When you have doubts along the way, know that you are not alone. I am there slowly carving out a path just as you are.  Know that someone with a full-time job, a family, and a side gig of teaching yoga can find a way to practice at Brahmamuhurta: rolling the beads, chanting, sitting, breathing, and doing asana.  Swami Sivananda says that “Brahmamuhurta is NOW!”—it is always the right time to practice, so get to it. There is no excuse. It can be done.  I have faith in you. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Teachings in the Modern World

All of the great teachings in the Science of Yoga would be totally worthless if they only pertained to one culture during one period of time.  Thankfully this is not so, although to make the teachings meaningful for us, right here, right now, we do need to bend our perception a bit.

The first step in Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras—long before “The cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” even before yama, et. al.—is II.1: “Yogic action consists of discipline, study, and faith.”  This verse directly corresponds to the Three Paths of Yoga that Krishna presents in The Bhagavad Gita: Karma (action, which encompasses discipline), Jñana (philosophical self-inquiry based upon study), and Bhakti (devotion/faith).  Patañjali’s yoga is also called Raja (royal path) because it is a combination of the paths defined by Krishna.

At one point these three actions were very literal: disciplining the body and mind through asana/pranayama/meditation practice; studying the Vedas directly with a master; and renouncing the fruit of all efforts to the Lord.  Certainly all these actions are possible today, but practical/relatable toward the vast majority of American Yogic practitioners?  Maybe not—the expression of these actions are still a bit more removed from our current cultural environment.

Let’s find something a bit more universal.  We all have to work. Most of those whom I work with (I am in Career Services in higher ed., so this is a pretty big number) want to experience some growth in their career during their working life.  Krishna places great emphasis on performance of work in The Gita: (all paraphrased and my interpretations): work without expectation of reward, do not abandon work because it is disagreeable or attach to work because it is agreeable, it is better to do your work though faulty than to do the work of another to perfection, by doing the work you are meant to do you are worshiping the creator, etc.  All of these passages illustrate the importance of engaging in work, in society.

How can we relate our work, or our attitude toward our work in the terms of Patañjali?

Discipline:  Make it a habit to do good work now.  Whatever that work may be, whenever “now” is.  One cannot grow without understanding the importance of their current work as it relates to a bigger picture.  Greatness cannot be achieved by adding together mediocre elements.  Success and excellence are not future events, they take place right here and right now.  Create this habit of thought.

Study:  We have to self-analyze—where we are v. our goals?  What skills do we need to build? To maintain?  To leave behind?  We need to build our knowledge base so we are better equipped to adapt.  Do this through talking with like minded persons (networking), observing and emulating successful people, and reading, listening, taking classes, etc. Not only does study increase our knowledge and skill; it shows us that someone else has done [fill in ‘impossible’ task], which means we can, too. Which leads into…

Faith:  We need to grow comfortable with operating on risk.  Taking a new job, buying a house, having a kid, following a spiritual practice, they are all great leaps into the unknown that we take everyday.  Sure, there are varying degrees, but leaps none the less.   We need to develop the faith that our overall purpose is correct even in the face of adversity.  Obstacles continually block our way, that will never change.  Faith allows us to adapt to circumstance and still move forward. 

Yogic practice happens outside of headstand and mantra and meditation. Your practice is not restricted to your Manduka and Lululemon.  It can be done at the office, in a tie. Playing with your kids. Letting someone else go first in line.  Do what needs to be done with discipline, study, and faith and you are practicing yoga.   

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Master's Class!?!?!?


“So Ron, I’ve heard your snide remarks about ‘masters.’ In fact, you have even written in this blog ‘If you ever encounter someone who claims to be a master, turn and run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.’ What gives you the right to teach a ‘Master’s Class???’”

Well, dear reader, let me sum it up:

Is this class claiming to turn you into a master?  NO!
Is this class claiming to be taught by a master? NO!

In this class we will practice in the way that the Masters have advised: Hatha Yoga for the purpose of Raja Yoga.

Group classes (mine included) tend to focus primarily (or exclusively) on asana, postures.  This is a great place to start, and the best place for the casual student to work.  But asanas are only the gateway, the first step.

Hatha yoga is all about manipulating energy within the body.  We start with the body because it is the most accessible and tangible place for us to start.  Raja yoga (which is truly a combination of Karma, Jñana, and Bhakti yoga) begins with the mind, which is a very, very difficult place to start.  In other ages (so we are told) humanity was more spiritually inclined, so starting with meditation, service of others, placing total faith in the Lord, and deep philosophical introspection were appropriate places to start.

Think of it this way:  If I want some toast, I plug my toaster into the wall.  Viola! Toast.  If I tried to plug that same toaster into the turbines at Hoover Dam, Viola! Explosion! There’s toast alright, for a fraction of a second before it is vaporized.  In order to utilize electricity, it has to travel through a transformer and be altered to a voltage which can be used by my small appliance.

Our minds are the bread, our bodies the toaster.  If we try to plug directly into Atman (or God or The Divine or Truth, pick what works, it’s all the same), our minds will, well, Kablammo! We need to prepare to handle the new energy.

Millions of years of teaching to draw upon and I come up with “our minds are bread” and “Kablammo!”  Told you I was no “master.”

Hatha Yoga begins with asana to make the body healthy (toaster can’t operate correctly with frayed wires and faulty circuits) and to build energy within the body.  Pranayama (breath regulation) is practiced to clear the channels through which that energy will flow.  Mudras are then practiced to channel the energy and create specific attitudes within the mind.  Bandhas are practiced to move energy and ensure it does not escape.  Finally we focus and listen (nada); when we hear the ‘unstruck sound’ energy has risen from our lowest facilities to the highest, and we are ready for meditation.

Asana-Pranayama-Mudra-Bandha-Nada.  That is how we will practice.

But wait! There’s more!

The practice of Hatha Yoga readies the mind for study (one of the 3 actions of Raja Yoga—practice/study/faith). Having prepared the body and mind, we will turn our focus to The Bhagavad Gita, the Eighteenth Teaching “The Yoga of Freedom and Renunciation.”  This is the final chapter of The Gita which summarizes nicely all of the teachings within the work.  We begin with the grossest form (the body) so that we can practice the more subtle aspects (as taught in The Gita).

That’s it. No complex contortions.  No alternate names (I was born Ron and will stay Ron. Although Sri Tabbouleh Babaganoush Mahadas has a nice ring to it!  I am joking.  When you look at me like that I am joking). Just practice.  A complete practice as prescribed by the Masters.

You won’t walk out a master.  You won’t call me a master.  You WILL have more tools to move your own practice forward.  After all, the only thing separating us from the masters is that we have forgotten that we already are masters. Our continued practice helps us to remember, bit by bit.

Can you dig it?  I know you can.  See you Saturday.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Real Saints

“To all the mothers and sisters and wives and friends, I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”
~ Adam Yauch

Swami Satchidananda shared a story about a question he received from a student.  It was posted through the daily FB feed some time ago and apologize that I cannot find the link to share.  I’ll do my best to retell.

The student, a mother of 3 small children, wrote to Swami Satchidananda to seek guidance.  She was so busy taking care of her family that she did not have time to do her daily practice and worship.  Swami Satchidananda  replied that taking care of her family IS worship—an act of selfless service and devotion.  His advice was to worship, clothe, and bathe her children as if she were worshiping, clothing, and bathing the Lord.  Which is to say, continue to do exactly what she has been doing all along.

I am proud to say that my wife is a much better yogi than I can ever hope to be, raising our son and keeping the house and me in good working order. She works in true service, and I am grateful.

There is no need to travel to far off lands in search of spiritual teachers.  Look to your wife, to your mother.  These are the saints we should emulate.

Happy Mother’s Day!

In gratitude.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Do It As An Offering

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!
~The Bhagavad Gita IX.27. Sivananda, Tr.

Leave off the “unto Me” part for now and focus on “Whatever thou doest…do it as an offering.”

Our practice becomes an offering when we do two things:
First, we must accept and perform our practice as it is, with good intention.  We are not out to compete or reach some level of perceived “perfection” attained or defined by another.  We do the practice that we have right now, with full knowledge and belief that our practice is the best it can be at that instant. It is not done with a sense of obligation; it is done as an act of adoration. When a child creates a painting, we do not judge it against the technical skill of a Van Gough.  Rather we adore the love and effort which went into it.  And we display it in the place of highest honor for all to see.  As Gandhi said: “Full effort is full victory.” 

Secondly, we must practice without expectation of reward.  We practice because it needs to be done, not to become more shapely, more relaxed, or as “good” as that person.  This is incredibly difficult for any of us who practice Hatha Yoga and own a mirror.  We can see the results of our practice (and the results of not practicing) and become very caught up in the image looking back at us.  We must overcome this attachment to the body. Quite difficult!

For some time I have been working on incorporating mantra into my asana practice.  Try inhaling “Om” and exhaling “Om.”  Or the Jivamukti method of inhale “let” exhale “go.” (I personally inhale “Ra” and exhale “ma” because that has meaning to me.) Try this with EVERY breath.  It is hard. Concentrating on the mantra helps to shift the focus away from just the physical position of the asana.  Yes, I want to do (and you to do) the poses safely, however judging our expression of an asana against someone else’s criteria is not the purpose of asana practice.  And it is downright dangerous. Concentrating on mantra makes the mantra the most important element, and interestingly enough, the body does what it needs to do better because it is not confused by all that judgment.

How do I do samasthithi? I breathe Ra [in] ma [out].
How do I do a handstand? I breathe Ra [in] ma [out].
What happens when I fall out of handstand? I breathe Ra [in] ma [out].

My practice is not the pose, it is breathe Ra [in] ma [out]. 

Then the poses become an offering: the best poses you can do at that moment done without expectation of reward.  Then they are truly a manifestation of an act of adoration, not an exercise.