Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Of All the People I've Never Met

Of all the people I've never met, Neem Karoli Baba, Maharaj-ji, has exerted the greatest influence over my practice over the last few years.  September 11th is the 40th anniversary of Maharaj-ji's mahasamadhi, the conscious exiting of the body.
Image from http://www.kalimandir.org/shop/index.php?app=ecom&ns=prodshow&ref=PH56

Maharaj-ji never taught, yet he was a great teacher. He did not leave a volume of work, he did not say "do asana," "meditate,"or "go to a cave." He just was.  He fed those that came to him. He offered his endless love.

Without Maharaj-ji, Richard Alpert would just be a stoned out-of-work ex-Harvard professor instead of Ram Dass. Jeff Kagel would still be singing in Blue Oyster Cult, or maybe still driving a bus in New Paltz instead of singing the Name as Krishna Das.

Without Krishna Das, I would not have the mantra which begins and ends my day.  I would not have been inspired to learn the Hanuman Chalisa, nor been inspired to read The Ramayana.  I may not practice asana everyday as I once did, but I do not miss a day of reciting the Chalisa.

Maharaj-ji is said to have been an incarnation of Hanuman, the ideal devotee of Lord Rama, the physical embodiment of  love and devotion.  Like the Buddhist Bodhisattva, one who has attained enlightenment but refuses to accept it until all being have also attained it, Hanuman chooses to stay separate from Rama in order to serve.

Krishna Das recounts that Maharaj-ji would hold up one finger.  "All One." Feed everyone. Love everyone. There is no "you" and "them," no "this" or "that."  It is all One.

Maharaj-ji had a way of knowing exactly what his devotees needed in order to progress on their path, pushing buttons to help overcome anger.  Disappearing to help break the cycle of attachment. Yet his Grace kept his devotees from going too far over the edge. That Grace was always there, the devotees only needed to see it.

Somehow I am blessed to have been influenced by this man who died a year before I was born.  Entirely too many coincidences have turned me in his direction. Every time I want to turn away, want to take up jogging instead of kritan, want to drive with the top down with at least a pint of ether in the trunk, something happens that smacks me upside the head like the knowledge I should have had a V 8. And that something keeps me going.

And that something is Maharaj-ji.

Even with my limited understanding of his life, I must echoing Lord Rama in saying I can never repay what I owe that monkey.

Jai Ram!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Observe Don't Disturb

My son is very observant. He is always pointing out bugs, camouflaged animals, unusual plan-life. Observation leads to curiosity. Curiosity can lead to squished bugs, fleeing animals, and plants no longer connected to the ground. A saying I have adopted, and my son has responded well to is: Observe Don't Disturb.

We learn when we observe.  We see patterns, we gain understanding.  Things happen because that is the way they happen.  When we disturb, when we interfere, we are placing our ideas first.  This bug looks gross <squish> I want to pet that turtle <snap! ouch!> Instead of learning, disruption leads to attachment (this flower looks great on the table) and aversion (squish).

This axiom forms the cornerstone of our yogic practice.  If yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, before we can consider attempting to cease those fluctuations, we must first observe the mind and the fluctuations which occur. Once we do make it to the point of employing practices aimed at cessation of the fluctuations, we still observe.  There is an ongoing cycle: apply technique, observe results, adjust as needed, apply, observe, adjust, repeat.

Where we get into trouble is that we tend to combine observing and disturbing.  We try to DO instead of watching. We believe, quite incorrectly, that if we are not DOing something, especially some sort of active masochistic, sweaty practice that leaves us sore for days, then we are doing nothing.

Both Swamis Sivananda and Vivekananda liken the mind to a monkey, drunk and stung by a scorpion.  If you try to bring the monkey under control, it will fight you with all its might.  If you give it some space, eventually, eventually, it will settle down.

Let's take asana.  Asana is a wonderful place to start our practice.  We are forcing ourselves to pay attention to two things we do constantly: move and breathe.  We are purposefully putting ourselves in difficult situations to see how we deal with being in difficult situations.

All to often, instead of observing, we find ourselves disturbing. Does this sound familiar:  OK, legs straight, toes together, grab the big toes, wait, is my back straight? I think my greater trochanter is not internally spiraling correctly. I could do this yesterday.  Do I need to pick up milk? Why aren't my legs straight? Push a little further. OUCH! That's it! I'm (Jesusjesusjesus) DOing it!

To make matters worse, the teacher comes over in the middle of this little monologue and "adjusts" you by forcing your body to a place where is shouldn't go then tells you you're doing a good job.

Here's the truly difficult part of asana: observing.  If we could just for one minute forget all the BS that yoga teachers tell us about the proper alignment in this or that pose, that "advanced" means you have to be a puddle of sweat with a popped hamstring and a heal behind your head, and just learn to observe ourselves without judgement, our practice would become much more fruitful much more quickly.

Yes, we don't want to get hurt, so there is something (not much, but something) to be said for alignment.  We need to have our knees pointed in the same direction as our toes so we don't have to deal with the fluctuations caused by a trip to the orthopedic surgeon, but we do not need to focus on creating a 23.56479 degree medial spiral of our spleenoid process as a measure of success or failure.

Try this. During practice, notice if you are building a pose like you are building a model (set A here, rotate B, align C...) and if you are chastizing yourself for not being in a certain expression of the pose.  Notice if you fall over, are you mad, laughing, or indifferent.  Then, here's the most important part:

Go onto the next pose.

Just becoming aware of the monologue is the first step.  With no judgement.  Without trying to stop it.  In time, with continued observation, it will stop.

Observe, don't disturb.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


My four year old son asked to hear the story of Visvamitra and Vasistha. I reached for a copy of the Ramayana.  He checked me and said "I don't want you to read it, I want you to tell me by talking."  How could I argue?

Listen Billy:

Long before the birth of Rama, Visvamitra was of the kshatriya caste, a warrior king. We know him now as a Brahmin.  Caste is not decided by birth, rather by a person's fundamental nature.  It is possible to elevate one's self, as Visvamitra did, but it is not easy.

During a tour of his kingdom, Visvamitra visited the hermitage of Vasistha. He was not yet the royal priest of Ayodhya, yet his spiritual power was well known even then.  Upon Visvamitra's arrival, Vasistha sought to provide the welcome and hospitality befitting a visit from the king. Visvamitra appreciated the gesture, however, he did not want to disturb the ashram, insisting Vasistha's desire to perform service more than fulfilled any obligation as a host.

Vasistha was not to be deterred. He reminded Visvamitra that the host who does not feed his guest is destined to dine on his own flesh in the next life.To avoid upsetting the Brahamana, Visvamitra accepted the invitation to dinner.

Vasistha called upon his cow of plenty, Sabala. The cow produced the finest foods of every variety, which was offered first to Visvamitra then to his entire entourage of thousands. Visvamitra was amazed by the power of this cow and became overcome with the desire to possess her.

"Brahmana, I will give you 100,000 of my finest cattle, along with all of the attendants necessary to care for them, in return for this one animal."

"Dear king, I appreciate your gift, but I cannot part with this cow.  This wonderful animal has assisted me with the performance of many rites which have benefited the entire world. Without her, I will not be able to continue my bound duty to serve and protect creation."

"Brahmana, as a King, the scriptures state that I should be offered the finest of everything.  It is your duty living in my kingdom to give me what I ask for."

Vasistha could not argue.  Visvamitra spoke the truth.  Although saddened, he relented and Visvamitra took possession of Sabala.

Sabala broke free and ran to Vasistha. "What wrong did I commit that you so easily send me away? How have I not served you correctly?" she asked with tears in her eyes.

"Dear Sabala, you have done no wrong.  It is a king's duty to take what he desires, using any force necessary."

"My master, it is said that a Brahmin's spiritual strength eclipses the physical and martial strength of a king."

 "I am required to exercise forgiveness and non-violence."

"All you need to do is to order me to stay, and the King will not be able to move me."


At Vasistha's word an army of thousands sprang from Sabala instantly subduing Visvamitra's party.

Visvamitra became entranced witnessing Vasistha's power.  He resolved to gain that power for himself and set upon severe ascetic practices as a means of pleasing Shiva and receiving a boon.

Through years of practice, Visvamitra mastered difficult asanas and succeeded in restraining the flow of breath for hours at a time all while focusing his thoughts on Shiva. Pleased, the god appeared before him and offered a boon.

"Great Lord, as a King I am skilled in the art of human warfare.  But I have no knowledge of the weapons used by the gods.  Grant me this knowledge."

"So be it," declared Shiva.  Instantly Visvamitra understood the weapons of the gods, knew the mantras to call them, and possessed the skill to wield them. Feeling unstoppable, he returned to Vasistha, convinced victory was already his.

Standing outside Vasistha's ashram, Visvamitra called: "Oh great Vasistha, you had bested me previously.  Through severe penance, I have become more powerful than you.  Feel my revenge."

Vasistha observed Visvamitra from the entrance to his cottage in silence, leaning on his staff.  Visvamitra called upon all of the divine weapons. The sky darkened. Visvamitra blazed like a thousand suns and all manner of arrows, maces, spears, lightening, and countless other forms of weapons sped toward Vasistha. There was a blaze as the weapons found there mark.

Then nothing happened.  Vasistha stood as before, having absorbed and dissipated all of the divine weapons.  "Great king, I bow in respect to you and the austerities you have performed.  I reject the gift of violence you have sought to bestow upon me." Vasistha returned to his ashram.

Once again Visvamitra stood in awe of the Brahmin's power.  He resolved to increase his austerities. He traveled to the Himalays and spent the entire winter submerged to his neck in an icy lake.  In the summer, he traveled to the south, passing the hottest part of the year naked in the blazing sun surrounded by bonfires.  For hundreds of years he stood on one foot, with arms upraised, chanting the names of Shiva.  Through these severe ascetic practices, his spiritual power increased.

During this time, Vasistha was appointed as the royal priest of Ayodhya by King Trishanku, a distant relative of Lord Rama. Toward the end of his reign, King Trishanku came to desire to enter heaven while in possession of his body.  He asked Vasistha to perform the necessary rites.  Vasistha replied that this is forbidden by scripture.  It is the immortal, undying soul which unifies back with the Divine, not the limited, finite vehicle of the body.

Upset that his priest would not help, he sought out Visvamitra, whose intense practice was by now well known.  The king also knew of the rivalry between the two and used this to his advantage to convince Visvamitra to perform the necessary rites.

Visvamitra  conducted the sacrifice.  King Trishanku began to rise and ascend toward Heaven.  Indra, King of Heaven, observed the fleshy body of the King approaching. Offended by the king's attempt to enter Heaven in the flesh, Indra send the king back to Earth.

Visvamitra became enraged.  If the gods would not let the king enter their Heaven, he would create one of his own.  Visvamitra exercised all of his spiritual power to bring forth a new Heaven and installed Trishanku as king of both the Earth and the new realm.

The gods quickly realized that the creation of this new Heaven disrupted the balance of the created universe.  Indra went to Visvamitra and begged him to stop.  In a moment of clarity, Visvamitra realized that his pride and anger got the better of him.  He asked Indra how he could still honor his promise to Trishanku.  Indra shrunk the new Heaven and placed it in the Southern sky.  There Trishanku still enjoys the bliss of final unification, while the rest of creation remains in balance.

Realizing his error, Visvamitra again adopted a severe ascetic practice.  This time he sat if silent meditation.  Hundreds of years went by and his power grew.  The gods, worried that he would once again use his power to destroy the universe, set out to divert him from his efforts.  The sent the Apsara (a nymph) Menaka to him.  Menaka bathed in a lake near Visvamita's meditative seat. Hearing the tinkling of her ankle bells, Visvamitra opened his eyes.  He became entranced, and they sported together.

One hundred years passed in the blink of an eye.  Visvamitra realized that he had fallen victim to his lust, thereby expending his spiritual merit.  He sent Menaka away and re-doubled his efforts.  Again the gods sent another Apsara, Rambha, to seduce him.  Upon sensing Rambha's presence, Visvamitra glanced at her and turned her to stone. Realizing that he was overcome by anger, he resolved to completely control his senses.

Another thousand years passed.  Visvamitra's storehouse of spiritual merit grew and eclipsed that of many of the lesser gods.  Brahma, fearing that Visvamitra's penance would disrupt the balance of the universe again, appeared before Visvamitra and granted him the status of Brahmin.  Brahma then went before Vasistha and requested that he personally visit Visvamitra and welcome him as an equal.  Vasistha did just that, and the two formed a strong friendship.

We are reminded of this story through the asanas dedicated to the two sages.  Visvamitrasana and Vasisthasana are similar, but the former is more difficult than the latter because Visvamitra had to endure severe penance to become a Brahmin, whereas Vasistha was born a Brahmin.

Vasisthtasana (lt) and Visvamitrasana (rt) by Sri Dharma Mittra. Photos publicly available on http://www.dharmayogacenter.com

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sages (I): Agastya

Stories of Saints are wound through the Ramayana. They teach us lessons, sometimes through direct revelation to the characters themselves, sometimes as examples of how to act.  They are considered to have actually existed (and the events in the Ramayana are considered to have actually taken place 80 Kalpas [80,000,000 years] ago). I cannot say that I favor one story over another, so for no other reason than this is the first one I am writing, I give you the story of Agastya Rishi.

Once upon a time, in India…well above India, atop Mount Kailash, Lord Shiva prepared to give a discourse on the Holy Vedas.  Gods, celestial beings, rakshasas, and sages made a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash for the opportunity to learn directly from Shiva himself. Since this gathering was to take place on an Earthly realm, Earthly physics and metaphysics became an issue. The combined weight of the spiritual merit  possessed by the attendees pushed the Earth off balance. To avoid disrupting the Earthly realm, Lord Shiva asked the Rishi Agastya, who carried within himself more power and merit than the whole assembly combined, to travel southward in order to re-balance the Earth. Lord Shiva sought to compensate Agastya for this service, and for missing his teaching. Shiva decreed that while residing in the South, Agastya will have the opportunity to directly serve Vishnu in his human incarnation as Rama. This service would once again bring balance to the world and save the human race from destruction.

Agastya agreed without question.

As he traveled southward, Agastya was stopped by Surya, the sun.  Surya begged Agastya for help.  Vindhya Hill, jealous of Mount Meru, the center of the universe in the Himalaya, decided to grow larger and more magnificent than its cousin. Vindhya grew to an enormous size, dwarfing Meru and blocking the path of the sun. Vindhya’s ego grew in proportion to its physical size.  He demanded that the sun revolve around him rather than revolving around Meru.  The sun refused.  Vindhya would not let Surya pass, plunging everything West of the mountain into perpetual night.

Agastya agreed without question.

Agastya came to Vindhya mountain.  The mountain was indeed impressive.  Sheer cliffs rose above the clouds and extended into the horizon.  There was no way around. 

Standing in front of the mountain with palms folded, Agastya addressed Vindhya with reverence.

“Oh mighty Vindhya, I am blessed to be in your presence. Your size and grandeur make even the mighty Himalaya appear as small and as uninteresting as a mere pebble.  I have been sent by Lord Shiva himself to travel South. I must obey the Lord, but due to your enormous size, I am unable to continue my journey. Indeed, how can a poor traveler traverse your great self when even the sun cannot pass.Please allow me passage so that I may keep my promise to the Lord.”

Vindhya could see Agastya blazing with spiritual merit and knew he spoke the truth.  Out of respect for Agastya and his mission, the mountain returned to its normal size. It spoke to Agastya:

“Great sage, I gladly allow you passage so that you may continue to do the Lord’s work.”

“I give you thanks.  Please remain this size so that I may return to the Lord when my mission has been completed.”

“So be it,” replied the mountain.

Agastya continued his journey southward. He did not return to the North, and to this day Vindhya remains bowed, awaiting Agastya's return.

In the South, Agastya came to a forest which was plagued by two rakshasa brothers, Ilval and Vapti, who were systematically killing every Brahmin (holy man).  Their method was always the same:  Ilval took the form of a Brahmin.  He approached other Brahmins, speaking in holy Sanskrit, and offer to cook a meal. The Brahmins could not refuse—it is against scripture to refuse an offering.  At Ilval’s cottage, he would cook a freshly slaughtered ram (Brahmins were not yet forbidden from eating meat at this time), who was actually Vapti in disguise.  Once the Brahmin finished his meal, Ilval called to his brother: “Vapti come out!” Resuming his natural form, Vapti tore his way out of the Brahmin, killing him.

Vapti approached Agastya with his usual ruse.  Having accepted the offer of a meal, Agastya quickly cleaned his plate. He asked for seconds, and upon finishing that plate, asked for thirds. He kept eating until nothing was left of the ram save the bones. Agastya wiped his mouth after finishing the last morsel. Ilval grinned and shouted “Vapti come out!”

Nothing happened.

He called again: “Vapti, come out!”

“Beware the strong stomach of Dharma,” said Agastaya, and he burped.

Enraged, Ilval assumed his rakshasa form and lunged at Agastya.  The sage slightly glanced at Ilval. The rakshasa burst into flames and was reduced to ashes. 
After leaving Chitrakuta, Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana traveled southward. They were directed to visit Agastya’s hermitage near modern day Nashik. The sage, understanding Rama’s true identity, welcomed the trio and prepared a feast stating “The host who does not feed his guests is destined to eat his own flesh in the next life.”  Rama sought the sage’s counsel on how to lead the life of a Brahmin.  Rama was a Kshatriya, a warrior king.  He was honoring his promise to his father to live in the forest for 14 years, yet he did not quite know how to live the life of the Brahmin class.

Agastya replied: “The duty of a Brahmin is the search for Truth.  The search for Truth is nothing more than the search for the Self. Know yourself and you have found Truth.  You already possess this knowledge, you have only forgotten it.  I cannot teach you how to find it, but I can give you the tools to find it for yourself.”  Agastya presented Rama with a bow and an inexhaustible quiver, and to Lakshmana he presented a sword.  Both weapons had been used by Vishnu in a previous battle with the rakshasas.  Tools used by warrior kings, not Brahmins.

“Perform your duty and you will find Truth.”

Rama engaged Ravana in battle on the Island of Lanka.  Rama's arrows quickly cut down Ravana's 10 heads and 20 arms. Victory was short-lived, as the heads and arms immediately grew back.  Rama's arrows continued to be true.  Arms and heads off.  Arms and heads grew back.  This fierce play repeated until both sides retired (war, although still brutal, observed strict rules 80,000,000 million years ago when this story took place).

The next morning, Rama awoke and conducted his obeisances.  Agastya appeared before Rama as he engaged in prayer.

"Rama, know that Ravana's heads and arms are extensions of his ego and greed, both of which are limitless. They cannot be defeated by brute force. The only way to conquer the darkness of ego and greed, which live in and cloud the heart, is through the light of Truth. Repeat this mantra to call upon the infinite light of the sun:
Aaditya hridaayam punyamsarva shaatru binaashanam
[For the one who keeps the Sun in the Heart, all enemies are destroyed.]

Endow your arrow with the Brahmastra, take aim at Ravana's heart of darkness, and free him from the chains of ego and greed."
Agastya's words proved true.  Ravana was defeated. Dying a warrior's death with his thoughts fully fixed on Rama, Ravana attained the highest reaches of Heaven. Brahma's boon that Ravana could not be killed by any god or celestial being held true--although not quite as he had expected.  Ravana's earthly form was destroyed, but not his spirit, which is infinite and pure.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Everything That You Need

Here is everything that you need. There is something in here that you can do everyday (and it does not have to be asana!)
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika(+/- 1350 CE): “Hatha Yoga shines forth as a stairway for those who wish to ascend to the highest stage of yoga: Raja (PataƱjali) Yoga” I.1[Hatha Yoga is nothing but a steppingstone. It is not the end goal]

The Yoga Sutras of PataƱjali: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” I.2

The Bhagavad Gita: “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you give, whatever you offer in sacrifice,  whatever austerities you perform, do so as an offering…” IX.27

The Isha Upanishad: “The Supreme is enshrined in the hearts of all. The Supreme is the ultimate Reality. Rejoice in It through renunciation (of separate existence). Covet nothing. All belongs to The Supreme” 1 ["If all of the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse of the Ishopanishad were left in the memory of the Hindus, Hinduism would live forever." M.K. Gandhi]

The Ramayana: RAMA

Asana (Postures/Physical Practice. Observe this order):
         Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation): 6/10/12 rounds as fast as you can
         Sirshasana (Headstand), or variation
         Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), or variation
         Matsyasana (Fish)
         Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend, lit. “Intense stretch of the West side of the body”)
         Bhujangasana (Cobra), or Dhanurasana (Bow)
         Ardha Matsyendrasana (Spinal Twist, lit. “Half Lord of the Fishes Twist”)
         Savasana (Corpse pose)

Kriya (Cleansing Actions):
         Agnisara: Abdominal pumping
         Nauli: Abdominal churning (substitute Uddiyana bandha)

Pranayama (Breath Control):
         Nadi Shodhana: Alternate nostril breathing. Using right hand, close right nostril with thumb. Inhale (puraka) thru left, close both and retain (kumbhaka), exhale (rechaka) through right. Inhale right, close both/retain, exhale left.  This is 1 round. Complete 6-12 rounds. Eventual ratio is 1:4:2 (puraka:kumbhaka:rechaka).

         Posture: Sit with the head, neck, and spine erect (Bhagavad Gita VI.13), equalize the incoming and outgoing breath moving through the nostrils, eyes fixed at the base of the nose (i.e. between the eyebrows). (Bhagavad Gita V.27)  Focus on any of the following (only one focal point per session):
·         Count each exhale from 1-10 (in, one; in two, etc.). If you lose your count, start at 1. Starting at 1 is more important than getting to 10
·         Name the breath SO (inhale) HAM (exhale), or IN / OUT (Soham: I am That)
·         Mentally repeat your mantra. Do not try to time it to the breath. It will find its own rhythm
         USE A TIMER! Begin practicing daily for 5 minutes. Increase slowly and gradually over time.

Most Important of All:
         It is better to do just a little practice everyday than to do a long practice once a week or once in awhile. The only wrong way to practice is to do no practice at all. I believe that you can do it!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

This I Believe

The goal of yoga, so the writings of the masters tell us, is to re-discover the one vital truth we have forgotten: there is no separate existence. We are not a small part of something bigger, but the big picture itself. We have all the answers within us already, buried, clouded. Sometimes it takes an outside force to shine a little light into the dark corners, and that light which we think is coming from outside, has also been with us all along.

This I believe.

This belief is the foundation of my practice and my teaching—everything we do helps us to individually uncover that veiled truth. I have sought to share with my students practices that they can take home with them. The real work of my class is not during the 90 minutes per week we are together, it is during the other 9,990 minutes of the week we are apart.  The tools we work on in class are the same ones I practice, and I have faith they will yield the desired result IF practiced consistently over a long time.

I encourage you to continue to practice what you have learned, for my last day of teaching at HRY will be July 15th.

I have been blessed to serve the HRY community over the last three years, and for some of you a lot longer through other studios or in other capacities (I have worked with Molly since 2008ish through my day job as a Career Advisor). I am thankful for every one of you for graciously welcoming me into your practice and for being a part of mine.

All of my knowledge is yours. I hold nothing back.  To make sure you have everything you need, our last class together on July 15th will be a bit different.  Consider it a workshop.  Some of the items we will cover:
·         Surya Namaskar and the 6 most important poses
·         2 Kriyas (cleansing practices)
·         Nadi Shodhana Pranayama, with Bandhas
·         Focusing and cleaning the mind through sound
·         Open discussion
·         Recitation of the Hanuman Chalisa

I’m ok with this class going a bit long. Or it can be very short—I have learned there are only two things that you need: “Ra” and “Ma.” Everything else is just a function of these two syllables.

Even though I will not be on the schedule any longer, I am still with you.  Know that I am singing the Chalisa, twirling the beads, and practicing asana as the sun rises so that you are not alone in this practice.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a part of this community, and will continue to support Molly and Hudson River Yoga.

Keep practicing!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

More Than One Tool

I attended a business analysis workshop yesterday.  The facilitator introduced a topic by saying "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it is a nail."

I could not agree more.  In my experience, people (myself included) tend to rely on two tools: the hammer (to smash things into your  opinion of "place") and the machete (to cut things away that do not fit into "place").

Think about it.  How much effort and grief goes into a performance review, which tends only to assess, in numerical form, an individual's worth, or, worse yet, is used to justify a RiF.  Compare to how little time is spent actually assessing and managing talent. How rare is it to hear: "We need a person with x,y,z strengths in this area.  Joe is consistently rating high in these strengths, yet he is not performing well in his current role. Let's bring him over to this area where his documented strengths should equal higher performance and more benefit to the organization."  Usually the opposite happens: can Joe and have two openings negatively effecting business and morale.

Transfer this way of thinking to our yoga practice.  Many of us (to some extent, me included), judge our entire practice solely against  asana.  "Great job, Ron!  You must be practicing because you can get deeper into that pose.  Now try this."

The words we use to describe our yoga practice tend to be compared to asana.  "Advanced" class translates into difficult contortions. "Restorative" and "Basics" classes tend to mean "easy" poses.

If asana is the only litmus test for our practice, what happens when I twist my ankle or hurt my shoulder doing something else and can not do complex contortions?  When I age and my connective tissue does not have the same elasticity, nor my muscles the same strength, nor my matabolism the same ability to burn off cake? If I can't do full Galavasana does that mean I no longer have an advanced practice?

As we grow in our practice, it is essential to re-define our relation to the practice.  For me, I no longer practice asana every day, but I do  recite the Hanuman Chalisa every day.  That has become more important to me.  That does not mean I am lazy--unless you are looking only at my asana practice. It has allowed me to stay with the practice rather than saying "I can't do 20+ handstands anymore.  Screw this, I'm taking up running."

Growth in practice includes management of your practice.  Stop, assess, and adjust as needed.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Beginning of It All

Rama and Ravana from Sanjay Patel's Ramayana: The Divine Loophole

Listen friend:

Once upon a time, in India, there was a great war between the devas (gods) and the rakshasas (demons). The devas prayed to Vishnu, who answered their prayers and entered the fray.  The rakshasas fled Vishnu's wrath and hid in the underworld. All but Sumali.  During his wanderings on earth, he saw Kuvera, the god of wealth, flying in Pushpaka, the chariot-city.  Sumali became jealous of Kuvera. He felt that Kuvera flaunted his wealth, while the rakshasas lived a life of poverty under the Earth.

Sumali came up with a plan--he sent his daughter, Kaikasi, to seduce Kuvera's father, the sage Visrava, so that there may be a raksasa born with the same wealth as Kuvera.

Kaikasi approached Visrava with her request to become his wife.  Visrava granted this request, but since she came to him at an inauspicious time, he proclaimed that the products of their union would be hideous, cruel, flesh-eating night walkers.  Kaikasi begged for mercy.  Visrava, in his kindness, granted that although still a rakshasa, one of the children would be devoted to Dharma, and uphold religious standards.

Some time later, four children were born: Dasagriva, black as coal with ten heads and twenty arms; Kumbhakarna, who rapidly grew into a giant with a giant appetite for flesh; Surpanakha, lustful, cruel, vengeful; and Vibishana, the good demon, always focused on righteousness.

One day Kaikasi played with Dasagriva and his step-brother Kuvera flew overhead in Pushpaka chariot. Kaikasi said "See your brother, how he shows his wealth?  Obtain riches so that you can be like him."

Dasagriva resolved to have more wealth than his brother.  He began a life of strict asceticism: praying, doing penance, reciting mantra for hundreds of years.

Nothing happened.

He resolved to perform harsher penance, cutting off one of his own heads for every 1000 years the gods did not listen to him.

Every 1000 years for 9000 years Dasagriva cut off one of his heads and offered it to the the sacrificial fire. At the end of his 10,000th year of meditation, he prepared to cut off his final head.

Brahma appeared before him and held his sword.

"Your intense single-pointed focus has gained my attention, and I cannot bear the violence you commit against your own body. Ask for a boon and it shall be yours."

Dasagriva needed no time to think.  The boon he would ask for occupied his entire focus for 9000 years:
"No god or celestial being shall be able to kill me."

"It is so," declared Brahma.  "Your brothers have also earned great merit through their co-penance. Ask me for a boon."

Before Kumbakarna, the giant, could speak, the goddess of speech, Saraswati, entered his mouth and spoke for him: "I hate this wretched world.  Let me sleep for 6 months for every day that I am awake."

"It is so," granted Brahma.  Kumbakarna immediately fell asleep.  Saraswati's trick saved all of the living beings in the world from ending up in Kumbakarna's belly.

Brahma turned to Vibishana, the good demon.

"Grandfather, may I always remember the Lord and uphold Dharma."

"It is so."

With Brahma's book, Dasagriva took himself to be invincible. His ten heads held ten inflated egos, and he went on a rampage subjugating all of the gods who were now powerless against him.  The rakshasas, no longer afraid of the gods, returned from the underworld and fought at Dasagriva's side.  Fearless, the night-walkers gorged themselves on flesh.

Dasagriva and his demon army attacked Indra and the gods in the heavens.  With Brahma's boon as his shield and terrible weapons in his twenty hands, Dasagriva easily defeated the gods. For all of the slaughter and cruelty he committed, Dasagriva earned the name Ravana, "He who makes the universe scream."

Satisfied that he now ruled heaven and Earth, Ravana set out to conquer the realm of Death and even Shiva himself.

But that tale is for another night.

(Adapted with devotion and love from William Buck's, Krishna Dharma's, and Sanjay Patel's retellings of Valmiki's Ramayana)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Other Picture

"The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close-up." ~ Chuck Palahniuk Lullaby
We are faced with a Catch-22 in our yoga practice: do we look at the big picture or the little picture?

The goal of our practice is to be able to see all the pictures at once, something that we are not currently equipped to do.  The yogis even tell us so: we can't see everything until we become united with God.  See Arjuna being granted divine sight by Krishna to see His actual form.  Arjuna begged for the vision to stop because he could not handle it.

If we look at the big picture, full-blown enlightenment, joining our small part to the something bigger, realizing that all is one, we face the danger of becoming apathetic.

"It will all work out in the end."

"God will provide."

We can forget that there is actual work to do.  That God created this challenge, this job, penicillin, to provide us with the means to gradually develop the capacity for final union. Being unprepared and trying to plug into God is like plugging our toaster directly into the Hoover Dam.  Your bread will toast alright, into millions of tiny fried atom. Instantly.  Then what good are they?

If we focus on the details, the position and rotation of our spleen in relation to the spiral of our plantar tendon, moving .04 degrees medial, then we run the risk of forgetting why we are doing what we do.

We are kept in the physical realm.

Meat puppets.

Both pictures contain the others. Every strand of our DNA contains the code to the total us.  The total us is the sum total of our building blocks. All too often, we select to focus on one instead of the other.

Luckily, the yogis prescribe a cure for this: Do Something.

Whatever that something is, do a lot of it.

For a long time.

Gradually, like a series of Grandfather clocks placed against the same wall, the big and little pictures will sync up.

Do Warrior 1.  Sing. Breathe. Sit. Forget that there is a picture to look at. Do that thing until you forget that you are doing that thing. Then do it some more.

And someday, like one of those Magic Eye posters from the 90's, clarity will pop out from the clutter.

And we will see both pictures at once, all of the time.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Yoga-gogy / Yoga-cation

Pedagogy is not a word that we associate with yoga classes.  We use the word in higher-ed like the Smurfs use smurf—as the answer to both what we do and the reason we do it. But, like inconceivable, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Pedagogy is the art and science of teaching.  From the Greek pedagogos, slave who takes children to school (Merriam Webster online).  Technically pedagogy refers to teaching children, not adults.  We’ll forgive correct usage in favor of common usage here.

We go to a yoga class, implying there is some sort of education happening. Both students and teachers should know the objective of the class.  Patanjali defines yoga as “The cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” (PYS I.2)  For a class to be called yoga, it must specifically involve an investigation into:

1.       The mind

2.       Its fluctuations

3.       Methods leading to the cessation of these fluctuations.

A class which does not involve all three of these items can be safely laid aside as choreographed stretching.

Yoga classes are primarily focused on asana, to a much less extent pranayama, to even less of an extent concentration (dharana).  Asana is a great investigative tool when used correctly.  The role of the teacher is to present the physical movements as a microcosm for the movements of the mind. If we can apply attention and focus to make our bodies move in ways we don’t normally move, we can develop the same attention and focus to observe the mind and stem its movements.

The physical movements of the body are the means, not the end. When the teacher teaches asana from this perspective, then they are teaching yoga.

We have the teachings which are valid, and (presumably) a teacher who knows what they are talking about.  The last element needed in the triad which, like the legs of a milk stool, supports education is the student.

The student has a much harder job than the teacher—the teacher presents possibilities, the student must accept, internalize, and apply these possibilities on their own.  

Education in any form is not a concierge service. 

The money paid for a yoga class, like tuition, is not a tip.

Quality educators and quality facilities carry a price tag. As well they should. Do you really want discount teachers and discount facilities?

The teacher can do their best to present the teachings in an engaging manner, but if the student is not ready or willing to receive them, no amount of interaction, attention, bells or whistles is going to make any difference.  As teachers, we should not dumb down the material so everyone can get it.  We need to continue to present the teachings as they are.  When the student is ready to receive, they will.

That logic may not make sense from a business point of view, which screams get as many people through the door as possible.

From my point of view, I would rather provide one willing person with a quality yoga-cation than lead a room full of bodies through some choreographed stretches.

From a pedagogical point of view, we, as teachers, will best serve our students' educations by being diligent students ourselves: increasing our knowledge and implementing the teachings through our own continuing practice. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Side Effects II: Doing the Unthinkable

We all have our little bit of crazy.  Mine is OCD about time.  Lateness, even the thought of being late, leads to an adverse physical reaction--agitation, increased heart rate, quickening breath.  I remember it starting in 2nd grade.  At 3 (or whatever time dismissal was) each class would line up to get on the buses. If it flipped 2:45 an we weren't already cleaned up, I fell to pieces.

I suppose I could go all psychobable and try to dissect what circumstances drove me to that state at such a young age.  But I am not going to  pin it on any outside force.  It is what it is.

How did I cope?  I never did. I worked for years in professional kitchens. 15 minutes early is 15 minutes late. I did not acquire a "kitchen mentality." I flourished in these jobs because the mentality was already there.

Last week I did something unthinkable for a time OCD person like myself--I over slept.

Frequent readers may remember that I get up for practice at Brahamamuhurta--the Hour of God 0400. I could write out the breakdown of my practice to nearly the minute--finishing The Chalisa? 0432. Savasana? 0527.

Imagine my surprise when my wife woke me up at 5:30.

Guess what?  The world did not end because I got an extra 1.5 hrs. of sleep.

The funny thing is that I did it to myself.  I have 2 alarms, the coffee maker which wakes me up when it starts, and the alarm on my phone set for 5 minutes later.

I set up the coffee maker.  I set the delay start.  I never turned it on.

I woke up in the night and realized I left my phone in another room.  I got it and placed it on my dresser.  I never turned the alarm on.

And yet, water is still wet.  The sky is still up.

Imagine my surprise to discover that I didn't really think twice about 'missing' a practice session.  I did not even feel very rushed, having to do my morning out of order.

I credit consistent practice for this. Without consistent practice, the whole day would have been shot from the get-go. But that practice, over time, gradually is making me a little more flexible. A little more ok with my neurosis.

Don't get me wrong, I still have 2 alarms set. But if I happen to get a little more sleep, well that is ok too.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Side Effects

One of the nice side effects of my yoga practice is that it has helped to cure my insomnia.  By getting up at 4 AM I am, in essence, messing with my circadian rhythms before they mess with me. I am man down by 10 PM if not earlier.  This is exactly what Swami Sivananda prescribes for sleeping: in bed by 10, up at 4.

I still have vivid dreams about zombies, things coming to get me that are lurking just outside the door, outside and cabinet doors that will not stay shut, papers due for books I haven’t read. 

But, you see, I used to dream about these things when I was awake.

It all started when I was 3.  My bladder woke me up. I rolled over and saw a monster at my door.  Logic says it was my mom or dad, they were backlit, and my eyes had not adjusted so I saw the outline of a black figure.  I never slept well after that. 

Logic means squat to a 3 year old.

Somewhere along the way I read about a certain type of demon that appears before sleeping children. I was old enough to know that was not true.  At least during the day.

The house we lived in when I was in college was very nice, but I did not sleep a wink there.  I could not fall asleep in my room.  The physical space creeped me out.The same feeling of being in a nightmare while wide awake.

I needed sleep, so I drank. A lot.

I used to have reoccurring dreams about the house I grew up in.  It was on a dirt road off of a dirt road. The kind of location where movies whose 6th installments are named “So-and-so Returns” are set.  The dream starts off normally enough, then I can’t lock the door.  Or I close the door then turn around to find it opened again.  And there is something in the woods.  The last time I dreamed about the house I actually saw what was outside the window.  I will never go back to those woods.

I would come out of these nightmares hyper-aware.  The knowing that something is over there, around the corner, outside, in the shadow above my head remained at the same intensity. I was up for the rest of the night.

I used to dream that I woke up facing the wall (I always go to sleep facing the door of the room, never with my back exposed). Every time I tried to turn myself around and get out of bed, the room would revolve and I remained facing the wall. I screamed myself awake.

Thankfully this pattern that has plagued me for 35+ years has diminished.  Going to bed tired is one element. Japa of mantra before bed and immediately upon waking is another. I have had nightmares that have been turned around because I start shouting mantra in my dream.  The pattern did not change in an instant; gradually, every so gradually things changed.

Yoga is “The cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” (PYS I.2) The effects of practicing yoga take longer to realize and are much more subtle than the effects of practicing postures alone. Postures will give you nice shoulders and a shapely bum, but a sustained yoga practice will re-wire your very being. I have experienced it in a very real and practical way.

It is nice not to be scared to go to sleep anymore. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Good Book

For 20 some years, the phrase "pray incessantly" has been in my head.  Since I first read Franny and Zoey (number 1 on my top 10 books of all time). Zoey references 1Thessalonians 5.17, where Timothy instructs "Pray continually." He also instructs "Always be joyful...give thanks for whatever happens; for this is what God wills for you." (5.16,18). Salinger wants you to look this up.

Until very recently, I considered prayer to be begging.


For intercession.

For material gain.

To make right some dumb ass decision or other. (Fight Club is #3)

Through my practice, I have discovered that prayer is none of these things.  It is much more  simple:

It is an act of adoration.

The beauty of prayer is that it does not have to be formal. Or done at a certain time.  It can be done all of the time.  The beauty of prayer is that you do not have to have any faith to do it.  From Swami Sivananda:

"The name of God chanted in any way, correctly or incorrectly, knowingly or unknowingly, carefully or carelessly will give the desired result." (Swami Sivananda, Easy Steps to Yoga p.6).

Prayer, true prayer, adoration, can begin as a purely mechanical action. You just train yourself to say it. Repeatedly..  It can be any Name.  The Rig Veda says "Truth is one, the wise call it by many names."  If the Divine is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, then the Divine created a multitude of ways of worship that are all equally valid.  (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas #4)

But you just can't say "Steve." Or "Sally." (Moby Dick #10).  Established prayers work best because the name, meter, words were developed to create certain vibrations.  The beauty of Sanskrit is the perfection of the sounds and the ability to create specific vibrations attuned to the Divine.

The significance of Gen. 1.3 is not "Let there be light."  It is "God said." (Dune #9).

I don't know when I replaced the focus on ujjayi breathing in asana with focusing on Ra (inhale) and Ma (exhale) (Ramayana #2).That is how I learned to make asana an act of prayer rather than just stretching. It is also when I knew the Ashtanga system was no longer right for me.

I forget to pray most of the time, usually during the main part of the day when I get caught up in work and it feels like there are unknown forces acting against me (anything by H.P. Lovecraft #5). I am still in the mechanical phase, having to remind myself to say the words over and over.  But I remember to say them when I wake up and before going to bed. Even when I forget, it is still in my mind somewhere, like a light across the bay that is always calling. (The Great Gatsby #6).

Praying incessantly is a good book. It doesn't matter if you are reading it, can analyze the symbolism, or even remember all of the characters. It matters that it is sitting on the shelf, there when you want to read it. It matters that flipping through the pages and reading one sentence is enough to snap you out of the funk you are in that moment. It matters that I can't choose #s 7 and 8 because they are all good books.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Art of Not Adjusting

A lot of money can be spent on (and made from) learning (and teaching) how to adjust students in yoga asana.  This topic comprises a large amount of time in teacher trainings and is covered extensively in workshops and books.  Often these adjustments are taught as ways to guide the student to go “further into the pose,” to do the pose more “correctly,” or even to <blurg> “MASTER” / become “MORE ADVANCED” in the pose.

I want my students to do asana safely and to challenge themselves, however, I do not like to give many adjustments in my classes. I am not afraid to adjust; I do not doubt my ability to safely adjust. Not adjusting is a conscious decision I have made which is in line with my teaching philosophy:

The student learns best when they figure it out for themselves.

In the traditional guru-student relationship, the guru will instruct and admonish, but they do not magically bestow enlightenment on the student. They provide tools, support, and opportunities for success, yet the student maintains sole responsibility for putting those items into practice.

My thoughts on this topic are largely influenced by two things. The first is that I have a rigorous, disciplined home practice. I have not been to a yoga class in nearly 4 years.  This opportunity to practice under no immediate supervision has required me to learn pay more attention to where my body is in space and to self-recognize the differences between lazy/just right/too far and stay where you are/it’s time to go to the next step.  Such awareness is lessened when you put your practice in the hands of another—you feel, consciously or sub-consciously, that the teacher is looking out for you.

The second influence is comprised of the horrible adjustments I have been given by experienced, Yoga Journal featured teachers, who wrenched my body in to their interpretation of the pose.   The last classes I went to were at a conference at The Omega Institute.  I was adjusted in the same pose (Gomukasana, with the right arm up) by two different teachers. The first guided me to where my arm could go, and talked me through what was happening (Sri Dharma Mittra).  The other came up behind me and torqued my arm violently to where he thought it should be(shall remain nameless).  Very easy to see who taught for the student, and who taught for themselves. [On a side note, when I took a class at the later teacher’s center, I was violently adjusted several times in class by a different teacher. Unfortunate, in my opinion, that senior teachers who fanatically preach non-violence toward animals teach such violent techniques of adjustment to be used on humans.] 

Every asana has a multitude of expressions and substitutions. The preparation for any pose equals the pose itself.   Each student needs to figure out for themselves where their expression of the pose is today.   

Again, guidance so that the pose is done safely, good.
Forcing students into your idea of what the pose is, bad.

Letting someone put your body in a place where you cannot get to yourself is not a progression is your practice. Progression in practice is taking control of your own practice. 

Passivity and complacency, bad.
Persistence and analysis, good.

I seek to guide with fairly light adjustments, hinting at the direction of movement so the student can begin to learn where they are in space.  An example: In paschomottanasa, a rounded back is fairly common—my back rounds as well.  One adjustment is to lay on the student’s back, even putting your feet on the wall to apply your full body weight onto the student.  Yes, the student will fold.  They will also hurt tomorrow. In the lower back.  In the hamstrings.  And when you go away, the student will spring back into the shape they were previously.

Compare with having the students enter the pose with bent legs, keeping torso to thighs, and gradually straightening the legs.  When torso comes away from thigh, stop.  Now I can, with only two fingers, guide the student’s shoulders away from their ears; then, with light touch on either side of the spine (again with only 2 fingers),from hips to shoulders, encourage the student to straighten their spine. Now the student knows how to enter the pose safely, identify where they can work, and understands that the movement is primarily forward not downward. They can progress deeper into the pose at their own pace, yet still maintain the sensation of "working" in the pose without having to match exactly what the more flexible teacher can do.

As a teacher, lessening the amount of adjustments you do helps the students to learn more.  Again, offer correction so they are not injuring themselves, yet let them work in the pose.  Instead of adjusting every pose, guide them through example. Tell them what you want them to do, offering different places to work along the way so all levels can find some expression.  Show them (yes, this means you yourself have to have practiced what you are teaching).  Let them do.  Let them work. Let them be challenged.  Let them know they are in charge of their education.

Let the student know this is their practice.

This is teaching to the top of the class, setting the benchmark that the students’ are in charge of their own education.  You, the teacher, are there as a guide; the students are there to practice.