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.