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!