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.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I Can Do That! Hanuman Jayanthi 2013

From Sanjay Patel's Ramayana: Divine Loophole. Chronicle  2010
Buy and read this beautiful book!
Happy Birthday to Hanuman, the white monkey, son of the god of the Wind, the 11th incarnation of Shiva, the breath of Rama.

Seriously, you have to love a tradition that places such reverence upon a flying monkey--they know how to do worship right!

Hanuman appears in The Ramayana as an exemplar of how a devotee should act.  All of his actions are done in faith and service of the Lord.  As a divine being, when young, Hanuman used his powers to annoy some meditating sages (he was a good little monkey, but always very curious...). So they placed a curse on him that he would not remember his powers until someone reminded him.

Even without his powers, he still acted in faith.  When reminded, nothing was impossible for him. Jump across the ocean (twice)?  No problem.  Carry a mountain in the palm of his hand?  I'll take two, they are small.  But this was all done in service, never to egotistically display his power.

When Rama asked "How did you cross the ocean?" Hanuman did not say "I'm the son of the wind, I am powerful!"  No.  He only said "By the power of Your name alone was I able to cross the ocean."

Hanuman as the embodiment of faith is very dear to me because I have very little faith.  I say "Goddamn" often, very rarely "God Bless." I am not often accused of looking on the bright side of things.

Over the last few years, reciting the Hanuman Chalisa has become the most important part of my practice.  The Chalisa is a recent prayer to Hanuman written in +/- the mid 1500's ("recent" being a relative term, when one thinks in terms of millions of lifetimes, 600 years is but a drop in the bucket).  The poem is meant to remind Hanuman of his powers, so that he can never forget.  It concludes by asking Hanuman (and the faith he represents) to dwell in our heart.

I don't say the Chalisa to praise Hanuman.  What does a divine being need praise from me for?  I say it as a reminder to myself.  If Hanuman can do the impossible, through faith alone, then I can remind myself the I can do that too.

Even if for only 7 minutes twice a day when I am saying the Chalisa the world does not feel so heavy, the swine aren't closing in, I'm not saying "Goddamn," then that is 14 more minutes of peace in my day I did not have before I learned this poem.

Having an ideal to work towards, even with a long, long, long way to go to reach it, gives me the strength to make it through.

Want to learn more about Hanuman?  Have a listen to these two songs by MC Yogi, and you will find your self saying "God bless that monkey he made my day, God bless everybody, peace and namaste" right along with me.

Friday, April 19, 2013

For Ramnavami 2013: How Poetry Came to the World

Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram

On Saturday, April 20th, 2013 the birthday of Lord Rama is celebrated as the festival Ramnavami.  In the past, I have presented some stories about Rama and summarized the epic tale of his life, The Ramayana. Today I would like to spin a yarn about how this epic came to be.  It is the story of how the gift of poetry was given to humanity.

So with great reverence to Valmiki, William Buck (who wrote my  favorite retelling of the story), and the spirit of the tale, my version of how poetry came to the world:
Once upon a time, in India…

There lived a lowly thief, a highwayman, named Ratnakara.  I guess with a name like ‘Ratnakara’ your career options are pretty limited; certainly does not sound like the name of a pillar of the community.  One day he spied a lone traveler walking down the road.  Thinking this was easy pickings, Ratnakara stopped the traveler and demanded all his money and possessions.

Unbeknownst to Ratnakara, the traveler was the divine sage Narada. Narada was not scared or surprised by Ratnakara’s threats, nor did he respond in his usual manner (Narada reportedly was, shall we politely say, um, someone who makes Gordon Ramsey look like the world’s best boss).  Instead, he said very kindly to the thief:

“I have the power to give you anything that you want.  I can make plants bloom in winter and lakes freeze in summer. I can turn the sky green and the grass blue. Indeed the gods themselves jump to do my bidding when I am happy and hide in fear when I am angry.  Creating piles of wealth is a simple parlor trick for me. But first you must answer for me two questions.  Tell me, why is it you steal?”
Ratnakara’s bravado had disappeared. He stood hypnotized before the sage. “I steal to provide for my family,” he mumbled.
“Will your family accept their share of all the negative merit you have accrued from this life of crime?  If so, I will turn this very ground into gold for you.”
“I don’t know,” stammered Ratankara.
“Well go ask them.  I will wait right here.”

Without any conscious thought about his actions, Ratnakara walked to his home. Upon opening the door he was greeted by his family “Father, husband, have you brought us food?”
Ratnakara surveyed his wife and children. “I have been taking from others to provide for you. Will you accept the punishments I will receive in this life and the next for stealing?”
“Oh father, do not tease us with this philosophical talk. We do not care about the next life, we are hungry now. Give us food now!”

Ratnakara stood once again before Narada.  He fell at the sage’s feet.
“They do not care.  They only want for themselves.  They do not care what happens in the future.”  Ratnakara sobbed. “Oh glorious sage, teach me how to break from this life of theft and violence.  I am you pupil!”

“Well said, my son. Salvation is only one word away.  That word is ‘death.’ Meditate on that one word alone and you will be saved.”
“Death death death…” Ratnakara mumbled.  He sat up and focused his entire mind on repeating that one word.  “Death death death….” Ratnakara became still. The world disappeared.  The one thing that remained was the word “death.”  He became so still that the ants on the ground beneath him thought he was just another rock and they built their anthill (valmiki in Sanskrit) over the top of him.

Here is where English fails us.  Not just because of my horrible grasp of the language, but because of the perfection of the Sanskrit and the imperfection of English.  I mentioned that the word for death is mara, which is composed of two syllables, ma (म) and ra (रा). When it is said over and over, you get:
ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma….
 म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा 
Go ahead, say it out loud.

                By shifting the focus slightly (and the stress—our habits in English cause us to stress the first syllable, but Sanskrit does not have this problem), you get:
ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma ra ma…
रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म रा म

The word for “death” (mara) is really nothing more than the name of an incarnation of the Divine (Rama).  Our good friend Narada knew that he could never convince such a corrupt individual to say the name of the Divine, so he gave him a focal point that was much more applicable. Narada also knew that the name of the Divine, said correctly or incorrectly, knowingly or unknowingly, with feeling or without feeling, will give the correct result. Through billions and billions of repetitions, the one-time scoundrel purified his soul.

Some time later (years, eons, lifetimes, who can say?) Narada whispered into Ratnakara’s ear that it was time to wake up.  Regaining his consciousness, he emerged  from the anthill cocoon. What had been a deserted back road had transformed to a hermitage.  The power of the repetition of the divine name Rama sanctified the area.  The person who was the criminal Ratnakara rejoined the world as the sage Valmiki.

Valmiki went to the river to wash the dust and ants from himself.  He began splashing water on himself when he became distracted by the beautiful mating song of two birds on a nearby tree.  As he watched and listened, a hunter’s arrow pierced and killed the male bird.  His mate’s song instantly turned from one of joy to one of lament.  Valmiki saw the hunter emerge from the bushes.  Without any though, Valmiki uttered a curse upon the hunter.  

मां निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः। यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम्॥'
mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhāṁ tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ
yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam(1)
You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity
For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting(2)
( 1 Sacred-Texts.com IAST encoded transliteration modified from original source to accurately reflect sandhi rules.
2 Buck, William and van Nooten, B. A. Ramayana. 2000, page 7)

 The curse came out in perfect metered verse.  It was the first time language had been spoken in this way by a man.

The hunter’s heart immediately exploded.

Valmiki contemplated what he had done.  Brahma, the god of creation, saw the whole thing. He appeared before Valmiki.

“Valmiki, you have work to do.  You have uttered the first poetry of man.  You will use this gift to give mankind the story of Lord Rama, whose exiled wife, the sinless Sita, now approaches the hermitage.  I give you the gift of divine sight.  Every aspect of Rama’s life, past, present, and future will be revealed to you as if you were there.  Look—“ he motioned to the water cupped in Valmiki’s hands.

In that water Valmiki saw the comings and goings of Rama.  In his mind the story was expressed in verse, and the world’s first epic poem was composed.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Practice for Boston

My prayers go out to those who were effected by the act of terrorism at the Boston Marathon.

The goal of terrorism is to change the way we go about our daily lives. It wants us to live in fear of "What if..."  It want us to be angry to the point of prejudice against a group (religion, nationality, race, etc.) so that violence and suspicion are perpetuated.

When we give in to fear and anger, terrorism has won.

When we focus and speculate on who and why,  rather than on supporting the people effected, terrorism has won.

One of the best ways that those of us with a yoga practice can offer support to the people of Boston is by continuing our practice.

Our practice helps us to recognize when we are veering into thoughts of fear and anger, and gives us the tools to change those thought patterns.

We quiet fear and anger by focusing on compassion and love.

Just as Pattabhi Jois showed his love for the people of NYC when he held practice as scheduled in Manhattan on 12 September 2001, let's show our love and compassion for the people of Boston by continuing our practice.

Boston needs our love and compassion, not our fear and anger. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

We're All Faking It

There is a beautiful passage in Krishna Das’Chants of a Lifetime that I am most certainly going to butcher by relying on memory.  Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji) said (quoting liberally): “Keep saying your lying Ram Ram, your false Ram Ram.  Because one day you will say it right just once and you will be saved.”

We are all faking it with our practice.  How do I know that?  Well, we are all still here. The purpose of Hatha Yoga is, through mechanical means, to manipulate the energies within the body thereby awaking Kundalini energy, sending it up the Sushumna Nadi to the Sahasrara Chakra and plugging us directly into God (nirvikalpa or nirbija Samadhi).  The energy manipulation is Hatha, the plugging into God is Raja.  Same goal, different means, as Karma, Bhakti, and Jñana yogas.

So, if I am doing my Hatha practice correctly, the second I hit Vira I (or any pose, or any pranayama technique for that matter) perfectly, Kundalini will rise, I will mainline to God and be done with the body. Imagine the paperwork that would cause if all the students in all the yoga classes did one pose correctly and gave up their now unnecessary bodies!  Side note for those that want to argue that they have felt their Kundalini rising—hyperventilation from shortened breathing while circling arms above the head for 45 minutes is not Kundalini rising, it is oxygen deprivation.

Likewise, if I perfectly understood even one passage of The Gita, said “Ram Ram” with my full being, or acted with absolutely no attachment to the results of that action, just one time, mind you, BAM! Off to nirvikalpa Samadhi I would go.

But I know I am faking it. 

I am sure I would have no use for MS Word if I was doing the real thing, and I am still typing.

Faking it, as they say, is the way to make it.

Without faking, without trying, without Vira I with crooked hips, croaking through “Ram Ram,” looking at every word in order in The Gita and being helplessly confused, and helping someone out but still feeling a little bad about it, we would never have the opportunity to do it right once.

Giving up = no chance whatsoever.

So we will continue to work on the mat, sing off key Sanskrit and Hindi, puzzle out multi-millennia old verses, grumble while doing a good deed.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll do it right one time.

Maybe is what keeps me going.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Brother Elbow and Getting Back To It

Once upon a time, I was introduced to a book by Dr. Peter Elbow called Writing Without Teachers (the professor who assigned this book affectionately referred to the author as “Brother Elbow,” and the name stuck with me).  I revisited this book a couple of years ago when I had the opportunity to write my own book.  You see, I discovered that I did not have an adult writing process.  The model I used in college—start drinking in the afternoon, sleep for a couple hours, get up, write paper, stumble to class and hand in—did not seem like a viable option at this stage of my career.

Dr. Elbow encourages the use of freewriting, writing for a set amount of time everyday.  The final product does not matter, doing the practice is the importance. So I started this blog as a practice.

As you may have notice, I fell off writing. The project was done, so I stopped practicing.

Now I come back to the practice of writing once again.

This idea of practice—do it every day—is no different of an exercise than our asana practice.  The quality does not matter, per se, the repetition does.  But we are not off the hook yet.  Doing the practice alone is not the end.  We need to reflect, reassess, revise, redraft periodically.  Dr. Elbow calls this process “growing” and “cooking.”  A perfect model for a washed up cook like me. “Growing” is the repetition, the doing it, the putting pen to paper (hopefully some continue to use pen and paper); “cooking” is the transformative process of taking the raw materials and turning them in to something someone may like to read.

I began cooking my yoga practice a few weeks back.  I had grown a bit bored with my asana practice and was pushing really hard to grow my meditative practice.  Then I hit an experience I had read about. The state of sattva (lightness, clarity, calmness) that one experiences as they progress in meditation is very close to the state of tamas (inertia).  The opposites are actually very, very close.  I had crossed (I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt that I made it to the sattvic state) from calmness right over to inertia, experiencing lethargy, apathy, and ennui rather than evenness and I’m-ok-you’re-ok’edness. 

The solution?A healthy dose of rajas (activity).  So I delved into a new style of practice creating more of a balance between activity and stillness. It seems to be going well so far.

How do I know?  Well an opportunity came to my attention that gave me a reason to pick back up with my writing practice. 

What happens on the mat does not (and should not) stay on the mat.  The results of practice are not always increased physical flexibility and strength, but the ability to be flexible in other areas and to build strength of purpose.

While I’m on the writing/yoga crossover trip, I’ll share another tidbit that helped me back into writing as a practice.  Once again, this comes from a book that was gathering dust for many years.  Gail Sher wrote One Continuous Mistake  (Penguine / Arkana 1999) applying her Buddhist practice to her writing (wouldn’t you know she also founded a bakery).  She developed “The Four Noble Truths for Writers”:
1.       Writers write
2.       Writing is a process
3.       You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process
4.       If writing is a practice, the only way to fail is not to write

With all things, success comes from following the simple rule oft quoted by PattabhiJois “Do your practice, and all is coming.”