Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rahu Eats the Moon

Image from:

Listen, Billy:

Once upon a time, in India, the devas (gods) waged war with the asuras (demons). The asura Rahu disguised himself as a deva and stole a bottle of amrita, the nectar of immortality. The sun and the moon witnessed the crime, and they alerted Vishnu.

Vishnu found Rahu and cut off his head, but not before Rahu had taken a mouthful of the amrita. Since the nectar touched his head and throat, Rahu’s head lived.

Rahu appealed to Brahma, arguing that the sun and moon caused him to live forever in a horrible state. Brahman agreed, and he decreed that if Rahu ever catches the sun or the moon, he can eat them as punishment.

Ever since, Rahu chases the sun and the moon across the sky. Occasionally he catches and eats one of them, causing an eclipse. Since Rahu is only a head, the sun and the moon fall out of his throat as soon as he swallows. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Unpacking the Four Aims

According to the sages, there are four purposes to consciousness—four basic driving forces possessed by all sentient beings, called purushartha: Dharma (discharge of duty), Artha (acquirement of wealth), Kama (gratification of desires), and Moksha (final emancipation). 

Taken at face value, these aims appear hedonistic: work hard, make lots of money, satisfy all desires, and attain liberation. Challenging enough, but in the grand scheme, pretty easy to do. The beauty of the Sanskrit (and an obstacle at times) is that the language is so concise that these simple definitions do not fully capture the meaning.

We need to unpack these words.

The first aim is Dharma, duty. That’s nice, Ron, but I’ve been wondering what my duty is all my life, you say. I have said this, too. For those of us who are not born into a caste system, our Duty (capital intended) is not so well defined. We like to believe that we control our own destinies. 

Dharma is not some fatalistic slacker mentality (oh it is my dharma, my dharma brought me to this, I don’t have to do anything, dharma controls all), nor is it something which needs to be discovered. Dharma includes all of the little things that make up our life. If we have a job, it is our duty to do that job well. Don’t like your job? It is still your duty to do it well. Your job provides a paycheck. That paycheck provides food, clothing, and shelter for your family. The taxes you pay fund road repair, police and fire protection, the subway. Doing your duty is as simple as showing up for work everyday and not making everyone miserable. When we do this, we work out (over time) our cosmic stuff—the effects of our previous actions.

Living in society requires us to barter to meet our needs. I do not have a garden, so I have to pay for my food. I did not build my house, so I have to pay rent. I like light when it is dark, heat when it is cold, and water to flush my toilet. All of these things cost money. I do not live in luxury, yet I still must accumulate wealth to pay for those basic things. This is Artha. Sometimes I may be blessed to have more than I need.  In this case, I can use what I have to help others.

We must unpack the word “wealth.” Monetary wealth is only one type. Humans are blessed with the opportunity to gain spiritual knowledge. One can be wealthy in Self-knowledge while being poor in green dollars. We use what we need for our own advancement, then it is our duty to share that knowledge to  help others advance on their paths. 

This is also Artha.

Many of us first heard of Kama from the Kama Sutra, and associate the word with sexual pleasure. But wait, I hear. How can kama be an aim of life when the Yama and Niyama tell us to be controlled in our passions and to be content with what we have? “Pleasure” and “passion” are tricky words—they do not necessarily have anything to do with sexual gratification. Think for a second how many people hate to do lawn work. Mowing, weeding, raking, cutting wood. For many, these acts are completed begrudgingly. For others, these acts are pleasurable. They offer an escape from work, stress, bills. The act of mowing the lawn does not change, yet an individual’s reaction to the act does.

We have in our power the ability to change any act from pain to pleasure by changing our point of view. When we chose to see obstacles as opportunities, when we see that all events are just effects of causes in our past (ie direct results of our choices somewhere along the line), when we stop seeing the world as a place of suffering and start seeing it as a laboratory for spiritual development, we cease to experience pain and begin to enjoy pleasure.

With Moksha, we ask ourselves what are we being emancipated from? We seek to be set free from our mistaken notion of independent existence. What a great thing—if we are successful, we get to get off of the wheel and become one with everything. 

Except that we don’t. Because if we truly escape the mistaken notion of independent existence, we will see all of those who are still stuck on the wheel trying in their own way to achieve the same liberation. If we truly have escaped this notion, our compassion will be so great that we will not accept the ticket off the bus until all of our brothers and sisters have gotten off first. 

Think of those great souls who have walked the earth: Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Yogananda, Ramakrishna, the Buddha. All of those beings did not need to take a human body any longer. They have worked out all of their cosmic stuff and earned their escape. But they chose to come back to help the rest of us. They were doing their duty as liberated beings, they acquired and shared spiritual wealth, they were happy in the face of suffering, and through these acts, they continued to remain free.

Through conscious pursuit of the Four Aims, we enter into a circle of remembrance. We are already liberated; we have only forgotten. Life becomes the opportunity to re-discover what we actually are.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Way of Things

A man approached King Rama. The man's son had died in a terrible accident. If the king is ruling correctly and upholding moral codes, the man argued, then a child should not die before his parents. He accused Rama of not upholding Dharma, thereby causing, indirectly, the death of the man's child.

Rama sought the council of his ministers. It was discovered that that a member of the servant class had been practicing tapas, ascetic practices for self-realization. Rama's chief minister, Vasishtha, explained:
"The world cycle consists of four ages [yugas]. In the First age, the Golden Age of Satya Yuga, virtue reigns and there is no vice. Only the priest-caste [Brahmin]is allowed to practice tapas. This age lasts for 1,728,000 years. In the Second age, the Silver Age of Treta Yuga, there is 75% virtue and 25% vice. The warrior-caste [Kshatriya] is allowed to practice tapas along with the Brahmins. This age lasts for 1,296,000 years. In the Third age, The Bronze Age of Dvarpa Yuga, there is 50% virtue and 50% vice. The merchant-caste [Vaishya] is permitted to practice tapas along with the Kshatriyas and the Brahmins. This age lasts for 864,000 years. In the Fourth age, the Iron Age of Kali Yuga, there is only 25% virtue and 75% vice. In this age even the servant-caste [Shudra] are allowed to practice tapas. This age lasts for 432,000 years. At the end of Kali Yuga, the world is reborn into a new Satya Yuga. When Dharma is followed, things happen as they should.

O Rama, we are in the second age of the world. It has been found that a Shudra has been practicing tapas. This digression from the natural order has resulted in the death of a child before his parents."

Upon hearing this, Rama immediately ordered the offender to be put to death. The king must act for the good of the people and at all times maintain the order of Dharma. Even if this means doing something that is an apparent violation of moral codes.  Rama's act reset the wheel of Dharma.*

We are now in the Fourth Age, a time when vice triumphs over virtue. A time when bad things happen to good people. A time when the villain wins. A time when all our cosmic IOU's are due.

Do not despair.  It is the way of things.

If we look at existence from this cyclical point of view, there is no evil. No ultimate adversary lurks in the shadows to corrupt our fragile souls.

Everything is a result of an action from some other point in time.

In this Kali Yuga, the collective we are working through a whole lot of stuff from the course of many, many lifetimes.

The good news is this: all of our collective work now, at a time when even the lowest on the totem pole are allowed access to the highest knowledge of self-realization, will turn the wheel back to the Golden Age.
The decline is slow, but the ascent is rapid.

On those days when the cross-hairs seem trained on your back, when the chains of effort have zapped all of your strength, when the gift of crazy is being shared with abundance, when the scissors of "I need this NOW!" threaten to snip last thread of patience and human decency in your body, remember that pushing to do one conscious breath, to say one Aum, to let one person go first, or even to strike one awkward Warrior I helps to clear out our stuff from the past and to move the world that much closer to the Golden Age.
All the "pain" and "stress" which plague our daily lives are gifts.  Without them, most of us would need to wait another 4,320,000 years or so (the length of one full cycle of the world) before we have the opportunity to practice again. The good news is that we can all practice without upsetting the way of things.

*Story adapted from:
Pattanaik, Devdutt. Indian Mythology. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003. Print.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hanuman Jayanti

April 15th is an action-packed day: taxes are due, there is a lunar eclipse, and it is the birthday of Hanuman, the living embodiment of devotion.  I can't fit taxes into the story of Hanuman, but there is a connection between Hanuman and an eclipse.  One that my son has been requesting to hear for several days.

Listen Billy...

Once upon a time, in India, Vayu, the god of the wind, had an affair with Anjana, a beautiful monkey.  The product of their union was a son, a white monkey: Anjaneya (lit. "Son of Anjana).

The baby monkey cried out in hunger.  Anjana left him to find food.  Since Anjaneya was the son of a god, he grew to full size almost immediately. He looked up at the sun and thought it was a big, ripe, tasty mango.  Endowed with divine powers, he lept toward the sun. Vayu surrounded  him with a cool breeze so he would not be burnt up.

The asura Rahu, basically a huge head driven about on a chariot pulled by black horses, had received a boon from Brahma that he could eat the sun and the moon at regular intervals (thus causing solar and lunar eclipses). This was day he was to feast on the sun. Rahu's chariot sped toward the sun on a crash course with Anjaneya.  Anjaneya saw Rahu as another piece of fruit.  It did not look as appetizing as bright yellow mango, so Anjaneya pushed Rahu aside and continued his flight toward the sun.

Rahu ran to Indra to complain. "It is the time for my dinner as ordained by Brahma.  Another Rahu is trying to eat my rightful food!"

Indra threw a thunderbolt, striking Anjaneya and sending him back to Earth.  The blow broke his jaw (hanu in Sanskrit) and disfigured him (man, meaning disfigured), hence Anjaneya is known as Hanuman. Vayu went to his son and revived him. Angry at Indra, Vayu punished all of creation by stopping the movement of the air. The creatures of the Earth began to suffocate. Brahma himself went to appease Vayu and to beg him to allow breath back into the Earth.  Brahma granted Hanuman the boon of longevity.  Indra granted him the boon of invulnerability. Shiva gave him the power to change size and shape at will.

Pleased, Vayu once again allowed the air to move.  The creatures of Earth could breathe once more.

If you are able to stay up to watch Rahu eat the moon tonight, keep an eye out for a flying monkey who may have mistaken the moon for a snack.

Bolo Bajarangabali Hanuman Kee Jai!
(Sing of victory to Hanuman, the strong one (bali) whose limbs (anga) are as hard as a thunderbolt (bajra))

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Sense of Urgency--The Need for Creating a Home Practice

“Practice and Detachment are the means to still the fluctuations of the mind…And this practice will become firmly rooted when it is cultivated skillfully and continuously for a long time”
~Yoga Sutras of Patañjali I.12,14

This is a picture of a clock in the kitchen of The French Laundry, one of the top restaurants in the world. (Caveat and apologies-I pulled this image from Google and do not have photo credit info). Every time someone in that kitchen looks at the clock, they are reminded that time is valuable.

Swami Sivananda writes anecdotally that he has known some students who focus totally on asana practice and neglect meditation, saying they will do that when they are older. Swami S. chastises this attitude and encourages students not to wait because there is no guarantee that tomorrow will come.

How many times have you approached your practice and said “I don’t feel like it today, I’ll do it tomorrow?” How many times have you thought “Well, I really should practice,” or “I wish I had practiced?” 

I have been there, too. 

I can say with complete honesty that there are days I did not practice and wished I had, but I have never once come away from practicing thinking “Boy I wish I hadn’t practiced today.”

We have a very short time to do a very large amount of work.  In a restaurant kitchen, especially a 3* Michelin kitchen like the French Laundry, there is so much work to be done.  Perfection is a requirement, not an option, and the guests are waiting.  Every dish must be executed with speed, precision, and finesse. We need to cultivate this mindset with our yogic practices as well.  The main difference though: Cooks know what time service starts. The deadline is well defined.  In yoga, we do not know when ‘time’s up,’ so we need to take advantage of every opportunity to build our practice.

We can make great strides by cultivating a home practice.  A little bit every day will move us much farther along than practicing a lot one day a week, or practicing a lot during one week of yoga vacation then not doing anything for weeks.

Practicing at home, on your own, with no teacher watching or motivating you is the single best thing you can do for your practice.  A little movement—no need to try handstand lotus, Sun Salutations are quick and easy—and a little sitting still; that’s all you need to start with.

I have a great idea.  Why not come to my workshop on Saturday, March 8th and learn how to create a home practice?  We’ll talk, we’ll do, and I’ll make sure you have a nice little tool to take home with you.

How do I know my method works?  Because I do it. I have been practicing at home, near daily, for about 10 years.  The method I’m presenting is what I do, only shorter—this is only a starting point, a seed which will grow with time.   No untested theory, no flavor of the month sequencing, no blind retelling of a celebri-yogi’s dvd.  This workshop is based in my own direct experience which has been cultivated and has evolved over time. My sincere hope is that by creating a habit, you will find enjoyment and the motivation to make this practice a part of your life.

Do not wait! Start to build your home practice today!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ravana Encounters Shiva

In honor of Shivaratri, a story from The Ramayana:

Listen Billy:

Once upon a time, in India...

Fresh off his victory over Indra, Ravana’s ten heads could barely contain his ego. “If heaven crumbled beneath my fists, I can easily destroy the god of destruction,” he reasoned. He headed directly toward Mount Kailash convinced he could best Shiva.

Approaching Mount Kailash, Ravana’s progress was impeded by a huge wall. Ravana stopped, confused.

A voice boomed like thunder. “No one is allowed on Mount Kailash while Lord Shiva sports with Parvati.”

Ravana’s ten heads scanned ten directions for the owner of the voice. Looking up, he saw the face of a bull poking through the clouds. The obstacle was not a wall, but Shiva’s bull, Nandin.

“Indra and the gods in heaven cower at my shadow. They run in fear at the sound of my voice. You are nothing but a steak waiting to be cooked for my dinner. Move before I call for my cook.”

Nandin scowled. “I could impale you on my horn and parade your dripping body through the streets of Lanka as easily as I swish flies with my tail. But Grandfather’s boon must prove true.” Nandin’s face twisted, contorted, blurred, then reformed as the face of a monkey. “Animals with faces like mine will mark your downfall.”

Ravana’s left eye and left arm throbbed. If he could not go up the mountain to Shiva, perhaps he could bring Shiva down the mountain.

“I will see you on my table, steak.” Ten heads spat at Nandin.
Ravana dug his twenty hands into the ground at the base of Mount Kailash. With little effort, he lifted the mountain over his ten heads and began to shake it.

At the summit of the mountain, Parvati held Shiva, shaking with fear. The great god Shiva smiled. He knew just who was responsible for this interruption, and he knew that he could not prove Brahma’s boon untrue.
But he could still teach Ravana some manners.

Shiva pressed his big toe ever so slightly into the ground, forcing the entire mountain back into place. Ravana was trapped. His immeasurable strength was nothing compared to Shiva’s.

Ravana knew he could not just wait until Shiva got bored and decided to do something else. The Lord of Meditation knew patience. The Lord of Meditation was also the Lord of Destruction. With Shiva pissed off and patient, Ravana was going nowhere for a very long time.

Shiva gets pissed off very easily, yet his mood can be changed very easily. Shiva appreciates a good song.
Ten heads hold a huge ego, which is bad, but they can sing a beautiful chorus. No one knows what song Ravana sang. If I was telling the story, and I am, I would say that he sang my favorite song about Shiva:
Hara Hara Mahadeva Shambho, Kashi Vishvanatha Gange.”

After a hundred years of hearing this song beautifully repeated, Shiva’s anger subsided enough for him to lift his toe, freeing Ravana. Ravana quickly beat feet.

Back in Lanka, considering himself safely out of Shiva’s earshot, Ravana declared (quietly, because he did not really believe he was out of earshot) that he faced Shiva and Shiva did not kill him, so Ravana must have won. His ten heads told this story to each other so many times that Ravana believed it. Satisfied that he bested the God of Destruction, Ravana considered himself the undisputed lord of the world.

While Ravana sang under Mount Kailash, the gods approached Vishnu.

“Brahma refuses to change his boon,” they whined, rubbing their bruised bodies. “You must do something.”
Vishnu thought. He knew Brahma’s boon protected Ravana against death from gods and celestials, but he did not ask for protection from humans and animals.

“Fear not. I have remembered what Ravana has forgotten. I will assume a human form, taking on all the limitations of the flesh. I must also assume the limitations of the human mind, forgetting my divine essence. I have put into motion a plan that will cause the destruction of the rakshasa Ravana.”

Vishnu disappeared from heaven and appeared in the womb of Kausala as the seed that would grow into Rama. The rest of the gods, not wanting to be left out of the fun, disappeared from heaven and appeared as seeds in the wombs of millions of monkeys and bears.

Back on Mount Kailash, Shiva sat in meditation, focusing on the one sound. That sound was RAMA. Like the Cheshire Cat, Shiva’s form faded away.

In Kishkindhya, a little monkey was born, the product of the union of Vayu, god of the wind, and Anjana, a beautiful monkey. Instead of crying, the baby monkey took his first breath on Earth and said RAMA.
Arunachala Hill--considered to be an earthly incarnation of Lord Shiva

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Once Apana Time

My son recently began taking karate, which is great because I have been learning, through osmosis, the forms and the Japanese vocabulary as he learns them.  I have the utmost respect for the teachers, the assistants, and the dojo. 

During class, the teacher often asks the kids “What is the purpose of Karate?”  The answer the teacher is looking for is “Self-defense.” 

The real answer is “To prepare the mind for enlightenment.”

Now I understand that when teaching kids to punch and kick, it is good to emphasize that the techniques are for defense, not attack.  No one wants to see a bunch of Cobra Kai’s running around the playground.  I also understand that mention of “enlightenment” is not necessarily good for business—as it is so readily confused with religion.

"Enlightenment" is defined as the realization that there is no independent existence--or, more bluntly, "Enlightenment" is the act of shutting the heck up for a minute and realizing that I am not the center of the universe. 

I find the connections between the martial arts and yoga fascinating.  At their core, all of these systems seek to create discipline in the body which helps to still the mind to prepare it for meditation.  The forms in the martial arts create a healthy body, and they create an attention to movement. Like asana, when doing a sequence, the goal is to still the thinking mind and act from awareness.  How useless the thinking mind is in a sparring match!  “He’s going to punch with his left, so I will block with my…” KNOCKOUT!  Observation, anticipation, action without internal commentary are all cultivated through these practices.

In yoga, we use asana as a mechanical means to cleans the body and unite apana, the normal downward flow of energy, with prana, the  normal upward flow of energy, in samana, the navel region. This is why in some systems there is great emphasis on mula and uddiyana bandhas—these reverse the normal downward flow of energy and unite prana and apana respectively.  We concentrate on the navel center, the manipura chakra, which stimulates the digestive fire and generates heat to burn away impurities in the body. This is the same as the Dan Tien in Chinese and the Hara in Japanese.

The connection between yoga and the marital arts can be traced to one person: Bodhidharma.  Bodhidharma was an Indian Buddhist monk who arrived at Shaolin Monastery somewhere around 523-527 AD.  He found the monks were too physically weak (read: fat and lazy) to keep up with their meditation practices. He taught them a series of external and internal exercises that were very closely related to yogic asana in order to create the physical and mental strength needed to practice meditation.  From these exercises the various systems of Kung Fu and Qi Gong developed. Bodhidharma is known as the first Zen patriarch. Zen teaches that enlightenment can happen in a flash while the practitioner is still in possession of the body.

Yogic sages also recognized that physical practices are a necessary step to prepare the mind for meditation.  The process of Hatha Yoga has only one purpose—to ready the mind for Raja Yoga (meditation) by mechanically manipulating the energy within the body.

Even more interesting is that both yogic and Buddhist practices set the ultimate goal not as achieving enlightenment, the total realization that there is no independent existence, but on renouncing even enlightenment until all other beings achieve it first.

Karate, Kung Fu, Yoga and the other systems are acts of service.  The practitioner does great service by passing on what they have learned so that it may help another progress on their path. Krishna states in The Bhagavad Gita “Even a little practice will protect you from the greatest fear [that is, the fear that there is nothing more, nothing beyond the impermanent world]” (II.40)

“Protect you…” I guess “Self-defense” is the right answer after all. 

I hope the teachers don’t mind when my son gives this long version as his answer.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

He's Back!

The Mighty Mighty BossTones "He's Back" (and "Simmer Down")

So I've been away for awhile.  I can make up excuses about being busy (I truly hate that word--we are all busy) or explain that writing a book, teaching 2 writing classes in addition to a full-time job, and taking a temporary elevated position in addition to those things take up a lot of time.

But the truth of the matter is I've just been away.

Now I'm back.

The first thing I did go get back was to return to a very demanding asana practice.  Rajas (intensity) to overcome the overwhelming state of tamas (inertia) that I have been in for the last several months.

You want to know something?  I forgot how much fun yoga can be.

Not just jumping around and contorting through the Primary Series, although it IS nice to feel strong again after 15 or so jumps to handstand, but the whole thing:  chanting, japa, asana, pranayama, meditation.  It feels good to sing with joy again.

Even though I did get away from asana  practice, I remained diligent with chanting and japa.  They were lacking in bhava (faith), I will not hide that.  Yet I still did them.  I listened and sang along to kirtan on the way to and from work.  

Without those things, I would have imploded.  

I had to confront myself and come to terms that "life" and "stuff" changed, and that I was refusing to change with it, refusing to adapt to circumstances as they were.

Once I did, the light came back.  The desire to practice again with joy returned.

I truly understood how valuable some practice, in my case japa and chanting, is, even if it is only mechanical. Practice will get you through whatever "it" is that closes in from time to time.

My offering to you: March 8th, 4-6 PM at Hudson River Yoga, "Creating a Home Practice."  I know this method works because it formed the basis for what got me out of my funk.  It created the foundation that allowed me to re-discover my love for the science of Yoga.  I will provide you with all the tools you need to create a solid, consistent home practice.

It is good to be back.

रमा रमा रमा