Yoga

Five Elements Series: Creating Transformational Breakthroughs

There is a pattern for the process of transformation.  There's actually a movement to transformation, and it has one of two directions.  One direction is downward.  Another goes  up.  The up direction corresponds to the fire and air elements.  The downward direction corresponds to the water and earth elements.  So if there's a particularly strong emotion or feeling state that occurs, if we will apply curiosity and attention, that feeling state will either deepen and go downward if the feelings and emotions are watery or earthy-- sadness and heaviness.  Or if it is fire and air elements, the emotions tend to erupt in anger--fire element-- or become chaotic--fire and air element. If we do not allow the feeling and emotion states to either go all the way down or all the way up, we often get stuck somewhere on the way down or on the way up.  We don't, either hit rock bottom--water and earth-- or fully express ourselves-fire and air.  So the game of applying consciousness is being with watery and earthy feeling states until we feel to the depth of our being. And it's often when we get to the depth of our core that insight emerges, and we start to rise up from the depths with qualities of the fire and air elements, enthusiasm and clarity.

The same is true of the fire and air elements.  If we'll allow ourselves to let go to the anger and frustration--not to the storyline that's associated with it--to just meet the raw emotion of it in its full expression and to allow for the full expression and movement of it, since those feeling states are all about movement, then, at some point, the intensity of the state will break and we return back to a state of clarity, insight, and wisdom.

It’s like when a child throws a tantrum and he or she expresses the emotion.  At the end the emotion has completed itself and it is a distant memory.  But when we won’t express, we live as angry, frustrated people.  We are truly more malleable than we think we are.  In so many ways, we all get fixed into one or a few elements.  The truth is that we are much more than being a bitch, or a sad, heavy person.  We have access to the full experience of life.

So this is one way to approach the experience of the elements: to simply be with them, to either allow ourselves to descend deeper and deeper into the depth of our being when we’re in water and earth elements or to allow ourselves to express and expand into the fire and air elements.  As a result of going to the depths or heights, there’s a kind of widening that occurs, called wisdom because insight naturally emerges when we will be with the full experience of life, however it is.

Balance

That’s one way of approaching the elements, either descent or ascent.  The other is to have a remedy you provide for the element, so for example: fire and water balance each other out and air and earth balance each other out.  So when we’re anxious and ungrounded, we have the possibility of creating more earth element for the excess air element.  That’s one approach.  Same thing is true if there’ excess fire element, or excess water element.  We can apply the opposite element in order to evoke a state of balance.

And there are some aspects of our lives where we need to recreate balance because we simply are unable to be with the full expression of life.  There are some experiences that we simply cannot be with.  We recreate balance when we are incapable of being with the intensity of the experience.  That’s where medicine is useful, where healers are useful.  Most alternative medicine, like those from Ayurveda or Chinese Medicine, are all designed around recreating balance.  The only problem is that their effects are temporary.  As soon as we’ve removed the medicine, we return back to a state of imbalance.  Until we learn to experience directly, we keep looking outside of ourselves.  Ultimately, the true balance occurs when we’re able to be with ‘what is.’  Until then, that’s where it can be extremely useful to have outside help.  Until we develop the skillful means to approach whatever is in our present moment experience and be with it and to allow it to completely transform us.  Ultimately, all experiences of life are about transformation.  They’re about allowing us to deepen and widen into wisdom, into insight, into Sat-Chit-Ananda.

 

An Approach to Ashtanga that Supports Aging & Fatigue

Below, is an email exchange I had with a friend in the Ashtanga community, someone who is struggling to find a way into her practice such that it supports her fatigue and depression. I share it because I have the sense that many practitioners silently struggle with these very issues, and I do not believe that the teaching community adequately speaks into these issues.  Often the instruction students receive is, “Keep practicing.  It will change.” And so many fatigued and frustrated Ashtangis, just keep doing the same practice over and over hoping for a different outcome.  Many, however, quit.  Ashtanga is a powerful practice, but there can be an ethos within the community that is unforgiving.  There isn’t a lot of space for those who need to deviate from the standard practice.  It is not uncommon for students to essentially get the message: “You either do it the way it’s taught in Mysore, or you’re not welcome in this room.” 

I share this dialogue for those people who have not been able to find the space within the world of Ashtanga to know that an Ashtanga practice does not have to look just one way and that there is a way for the practice to support you, no matter where you are in your life. 

Dear Chad,

I have had chronic fatigue for many years, and used to find my Ashtanga practice helpful with my energy levels, but lately, I’ve been struggling with the intensity of the practice and have been asking myself, “What the heck am I actually doing?” I do think the Primary Series is very detoxifying, but it wasn't until I went back on antidepressants that I had any kind of ability to maintain my practice. I have been off of them again for 1 year and want to keep it that way.

However my fatigue returns when I try to expand my practice, and my self-practice at home is never very energized.  I feel I need the energy of others in order to really push through my energy issues. And now that I’m in my mid-40’s, I’ve been asking myself, “How am I going to maintain this practice?” Lately, I am always on that line of questioning because it seems that without the pills I cannot maintain my energy, and I am committed to keeping myself off medications.

At this time the support of a community and teacher would be so helpful, but I cannot seem to find it; in fact, I have been greatly disappointed by folks within the tradition who I admire, people I thought would understand and point me in a particular direction.  They’ve neither been kind nor helpful. If you could offer me some advice on how to proceed I would be very grateful.

Thanks,

T

 

Dear T.

Many within the tradition we come from, unfortunately, promote the notion that we should be able to maintain a vigorous practice no matter what stage of development we're in, no matter how healthy or unhealthy we are.  And that's just not a viable, life-long approach to practice.  The practice that suited me in my early 20’s, for example, no longer fits for me in my 40s. A mature perspective on practice recognizes that yoga should support our health and well-being no matter where we are in life.

When I first started learning the practice, I was 19 years old, so it helped me immensely to have a place to direct all of my energies, both positive and not so positive.  Without it those anxious times might have been met with a lot more self-destructive patterns, like drinking, drugs, and self-loathing.  Having the structure to get up early each morning, to show up on that mat and practice strongly each day was the perfect solution for all that anxiety, self-doubt, and agitation that seemed to be central to my 20s and early 30’s.  But as I’ve gotten older, practicing like that zaps me.

I’ve recently stopped practicing Advanced A.  I find that it stresses me out physically and emotionally.  As I transition into my early 40’s, I notice that all of the arm balances make my neck, shoulders, and upper-back ache and tax my energy. I am at the stage of life where I want to have enough energy to give to my wife, our family, my clients, and my community, and it is a lot to manage.  At some point in the last few years I woke up to the fact that I did not want to keep giving all my energy to my practice.  I wanted my practice to be able to support me, to support my life, to support my pursuits.

And these days, I’m just starting to be okay with the fact that my practice might look different each day.  I tend to stay on the six day per week schedule, but I no longer beat myself up if I don’t get to it that often.  If I, at the very least, get on my mat four days a week, I feel like I’m on track.  After all, I’m not trying to “kill it.”  I’m not pushing into the next pose or the next series. I’m maintaining my health, vitality, and clarity to face my life.  While I practice primary and intermediate series most of those days, I may or may not complete the whole series of postures.  I usually jump back between sides, but when I don’t have the energy, I don’t push it.

I especially don’t push it when I have an injury, am sick, or don’t get enough sleep.  Melissa, my wife was up all night with the flu last week, which meant that I was up, too.  When I got on my mat the next morning, my head was spinning.  I wasn't sure if I was coming down with the flu, myself.  So after the Ashtanga Invocation, instead of starting Suryanamaskar A, all I had the energy to do was to take padmasana; do ujjayi pranayama for about 30 minutes; and then take a 45-minute savasana.  Yep, that was my practice.  And, yes, I still consider that Ashtanga Yoga. I did not, in fact, get sick.  I had eight clients that day, and had I not taken care of myself, I would have been a mess.

It is my sense that the practice continues to evolve as we get older.  When I was in Mysore in 2005, I was told that someone I was practicing with in the shala in his mid-50’s was taking anti-inflammatory drugs in order to continue practicing Advanced A and B.  His practice looked quite acrobatic for someone his age, but was that practice supporting him or was he supporting it?  What’s clear to me is that as the body evolves, so should we.

Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois’ teacher, divided yoga practice into various categories, called krama, which means a step used to achieve a particular goal.  As we get older, our orientation moves from athletic perfection (siksasana krama) to maintaining our health and preserving our youth (raksasana krama).  Eventually, our orientation moves to adhyamatya krama, or spiritual matters. (1) We tend to move our practice in this direction in the time of life we in the West tend of think of as retirement.  It occurs in our culture when we are in our 60’s or 70’s.  Our focus turns toward questions about the meaning of life. And so the orientation is less in the way of getting and staying strong and flexible in the body. I am not suggesting that it is unimportant to maintain health and vitality as we age, but that the 60’s onward are about developing wisdom, and that comes about primarily through stillness practices, like meditation. (2)

I cannot personally speak about this stage of development because I am not there. I do know several Ashtanga practitioners in their late-50’s and 60’s who do not keep the same practice they kept when they were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but they’re not very public about how their practices have changed; in fact, about a year ago, I asked an old friend who has been practicing since the 70s if he would be willing to be interviewed for this very question, but he declined.  He did not want to expose himself to criticism.  I completely understand his perspective.  When someone speaks about altering the practice to even the slightest degree, some people who have elected themselves to be the “yoga police” within the community launch in with vitriolic abuse. Nevertheless, I do sense that it would be very healing for all of us to learn how our teachers and mentors evolved their practices to account for the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes that occur with aging.

As far as I can see, T, you can take the practice we're taught and break it into component parts that support you energetically and spiritually.  Maybe one day you skip all jump-backs and jump-throughs to prevent fatigue from setting in.  Maybe on another, you practice only a few postures paying particular attention to your breath and bandhas and only go as far as you can keep your attention.  When you notice it flagging, you stop. Maybe on another day, you wake up feeling ungrounded, so you just do the standing sequence, holding each posture for 10-20 breaths.  Or maybe the mood needs lifting, so you focus on back bending, chest openers, and emphasize inhales and inhale retentions.  The variations are endless.  What’s required is the willingness to take the dive, to experiment.

Yes, it can be helpful to have a teacher who has already walked down this path, someone who can show you the way, and it can also be extremely helpful to have a place with group support where your experimentation is welcome, but there are not many Mysore rooms or teachers that are ready for a student like you, not yet, at least.  So you have to be willing to develop a home practice and then also be equally willing to take risks, read, and just keep showing up on your mat with curiosity.

In closing, I recently heard about this experiment called the Asch Paradigm where they put 10 people in a room.  9 of the people were shills.  1 was not.  They showed all 10 cards with lines of different lengths.  Two of the lines were clearly of equal length (Exhibit 1 and B) while the other two (A and C) were not.

asch_conformity

The researchers asked the nine shills to claim that two badly mismatched lines (B and C) were actually the same, and that the actual twins (Exhibit 1 and A) were total misfits. The one person who was not a shill almost always went along with the other 9 members.  Why?  When they quizzed the victims of peer pressure, it turned out that many had done far more than simply go along to get along. They had actually shaped their perceptions, not with the reality in front of them, but with the consensus of the multitude. (3)

In short, what I'm suggesting is that you're not weird or unusual in your experience of the practice.  That you're fatigued from it is pretty common.  My question to you is whether you have the guts to trust your own intuitive sense that something is off and find an approach that supports your well-being and that supports your mood.  That can be a huge challenge, especially if you're used to the support of the Mysore room to carry your practice as well as the support of a teacher and friends who share a mutual love for the system.  It's hard not only to stand on your own, but to trust your innate knowing when everyone around you is telling you that you’re crazy when, in fact, you’re not.

I hope this helps.

Chad

 

Footnotes:

(1) So for example, B.K.S. Iyengar reported that “In 1978, after my 60th birthday celebration, my guru (Sri T. Krishnamacharya) advised me to devote time to meditation and to reduce my physical strain.” (Iyengar, B.K.S., Astadala Yogamala. New Delhi: Allied Publishers Limited. 2001)

(2) I’m not suggestion just because one has reached a certain age, they should stop doing the Ashtanga series.  If someone has the inclination, time, and energy to devote to progressing through the series and they’re no longer young, by all means, I think it is important to follow that urge.  It can be incredibly life affirming to practice advanced postures and to push the limits on what’s possible in this human form.

 

Five Element Series Part 6: Fire Element

The fire element brings heat to the body-mind-spirit.  The sensations of fire range from feelings of warmth to heat of desire to lust.  This is the element of aggression, anger, tension, hostility, and rage.  It also puts us in touch with burning passion and intensity, the testosterone-driven urge to "f-ck it or kill it" and many lesser extremes, too.  In its milder forms, it shows up as the warmth and generosity we bring to our relationships.

The Horny Celibate

Some yoga and spiritual teachers, especially those that focus on transcendence from the temporal and mundane, tend to have an awkward relationship with the fire element. They discourage their students from feeding the fire element. Much of the teaching is centered around overcoming passion through suppression rather than transformation.  When anger gets suppressed, we tend to see aspirants pretending to be blissed out when, in fact, they’re really angry.  We also see people pretending to have transcended sexuality but are, in fact, what Ram Dass  calls "the horny celibate."

Part of the issue is that fiery emotions can be extremely destructive.  We all have had the experience in which someone close to us has said something to us or someone else in a moment of rage that destroyed that relationship.  Oftentimes people who kill will say, "I was in a fit of rage.  I wasn't in my right mind."  Playing with fire requires great skill, both literally and figuratively.  We tell children not to touch the fire, but we train firefighters to develop a a healthy respect for it.  Suffice to say, the fire element is scary for us all, but if we don't learn how to wield and use it, we miss out on a whole side of life, one filled with expression, warmth, passion, aliveness, sexual expression and adventure.

Saying, "Yes" but meaning, "No"

Another expression of the fire element that can be extremely useful to harness is our capacity to say, “no.”  Many of us just have the hardest time expressing anger in a clean way.  Anger is really the emotional experience that a boundary has been crossed, the boundary that marks and protects something we cherish or love deeply, whether a value, someone we love, or ourselves.  And if we learn how to handle the fire element with a degree of proficiency, we don't end up feeling ripped off or used by others.  We simply have the capacity to say, "No" and mean, "No," rather than saying, "Yes" but meaning, "No."

Present moment, firey responses that come from the ground of our being and through our center tend to be clear, succinct, and powerful.  When the energy of the fire element is sourced in the mind and is past oriented and based in resentment or future oriented and based in anticipatory fear, however, the expression tends to create more chaos. This is a sort of top down expression rather than the first, which is bottom up.  This is the kind of anger or lust sourced in fantasy, the kind we replay over and over again in our heads.  Actions that are sourced from this place often end us in a heap of trouble.  I am not suggesting that we suppress the fire element that arises like this.  Instead of reacting from a place of rumination, it can be helpful to learn to channel the energy until clarity and insight arise.  When we can learn to move the energies, they shift and awaken insight in us.

Fire in the Belly

From the yogic perspective, the fire element that is centered in the navel is called agni.  It is situated there in order to metabolize the food we eat and the experiences we have into energy and insight.  The metabolism is fueled by fire, and it's not just any fire.  It's the fire of transformation.  Our systems alchemically transform other life forms, whether in animal or vegetal forms, into the life force we use to survive.  Similarly, the fire element is the source of the various faculties we use to transform our inner experience through, staying.  In other words, we experience plenty of situations in life when we want to run, when we’re freaked out, but when we continuously observe our experiences without labeling or running, we’re harnessing an inner fire that in Sanskrit is called tapasTapas is our capacity to stay with discomfort in order to see clearly into things.

Fire is also an incredibly useful tool for clearing blockages and debris in the system, called apana.  The grandfather of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya used to teach that we can use the breath to direct the cleansing nature of agni: "On inhalation the breath moves toward the belly, causing a draft that directs the flame downward, just like a fireplace: during exhalation the draft moves the flame in the opposite direction, brining with it the just burned waste matter." (Desikachar, T.K.V., The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice.  VermontInner Traditions International, 1995. Print).  Similarly, inverted postures, like sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand) help direct the agni deeper into the lower abdomen and pelvic floor.  In the inversion, the inner flame is said to be pointed upward into the lower chakras, burning away our preoccupation with fear (first chakra) and sex (second chakra).  Ultimately, all of these cleaning techniques are aimed at transmuting the lower nature of the mind so that we can experience higher states of consciousness, like love, compassion, wisdom, and insight.

Exercise

Click here to listen to Fire Element Music 1

Click here to listen to Fire Element Music 2

Diagnosing the Fire Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Fire is the element representative of the fiery nature of the body, mind, and spirit.  We feel the fire element in our bodies when we sense heat or lack there of, from fevers, to frenzies, erotic feelings to rage.  Heat has the tendency to rise up, and so it does in our bodies manifesting in burning eyes, headaches, and hypertension.   Fire element is present when we describe the things of life as: "intense," "hot," and even, "scary."

The Personality of the Fire Element

People with a lot of fire element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • Sexy
  • Passionate
  • Direct
  • Enthusiastic
  • Warm
  • Expressive
  • Active
  • Stimulating
  • Generous
  • Daring
  • Inspiring

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • Scary
  • Reckless
  • Angry
  • Edgy
  • Domineering
  • Egotistical
  • Need to be recognized and admired

Examples of people who exude the positive qualities of the fire element include: Madonna, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Courtney Love, Joan of Arc, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Basinger, Jack Nicholson,  and Vincent Cassel

What Fire Element Feels Like in the Body

Excess fire element can be subtle and so we feel:

  • fidgety
  • uneasy
  • vague anxiety
  • slightly dizzy
  • ringing in the ears
  • low grade fevers
  • night sweats
  • difficulty staying asleep

When the fire element is in full force, we can feel:

  • rage
  • throbbing headaches
  • rashes, acne and skin sores
  • high fevers and other burning sensations in the body

Deficiency of fire is the same thing as fatigue. There's no energy present for transformation of life into life.  Prana or life force is a rarefied form of fire.  Without prana life expires.  So an extreme case of deficiency of fire element is death, but, then that's true of all of the elements.  Loss of life is the extreme separation of the elements, while life is the coalescence of the elements.  Yoga is a path that teaches us how to harmonize and balancing the elements such that we live in true-bliss-consciousness (Sat-Chit-Ananda).  Nevertheless, when fire element is deficient, we feel

  • cold
  • fatigued
  • lifeless
  • unmotivated
  • disinterested
  • weak

Antidote for Excess Fire Element:

  1. Observe the fire element
  2. Express the fire element
  3. Increase water

 1. Observe the fire element.

  • The Ashtanga practice has all sorts of ways to express the fire element (see below), but just observing it can be very powerful.  By applying observation to the sensations of heat, irritability, fluster, and excitement, we simply begin a relationship with the fire element that is not based on reacting to it.  Most of us have a difficult relationship with the fire element.  Either we like to keep a lid on it, or where all about expressing it.  Very few of us have the capacity not to become bothered when we're hot.  Somehow the two go together.  All societies ask us to curb our fire element.  If we didn't we'd probably want to fuck or kill lots of people.  So, that's probably a good thing.  It helps keep societies just, safe, and sustainable.  But when the fire element is repressed, we have a tendency to go into all sorts of vices.  Examples of hot vices include internet pornography, alcoholic spirits, cocaine, coffee, cigarettes, and methamphetamine.  In a way, our addictions give us space to express our fiery nature.  The only problem with most of the vices listed above is that they burn not only us, but those around us who we effect.  And they don't transform our transmute into compassion, wisdom, or insight.  Rather, they tend to perpetuate ignorance (moha).

2.  Expressing the fire element.  If we cannot be with the fire element, it can be extremely powerful to express it.  On the other side of expression is often both grounding (earth element) and clarity (air element).  That's what catharsis is about.  In Greek, catharsis means to purify and purge.  In yoga, we say that tapas is the fire needed to burn away the impurities of the mind.  So we build tapas all sorts of ways in the practice.

  • We don't hold poses for long periods of time.  Instead, we stay moving fairly rapidly from one pose to the next, creating heat.  Maybe we stay in poses for 3-4 breaths instead of 5-10.  Active practice (as opposed to static postures), like Surya Namaskar tends to increase agni; so it can be useful to do a full-vinyasa practice rather than a half-vinyasa practice to increase the internal cleansing fires and to increase the amount of Surya Namaskar A and B that you do in the beginning of practice.
  • Both primary and intermediate series are designed as an arc of transformation:  Suryanamaskar A and B build the fire, the standing poses and most of the sitting poses keep building it up.  The intensity of the sequence peaks somewhere around navasana in primary series.  In intermediate series we experience a few peaks.  Kapotasana is the first one. Next comes titbasana. Finally, comes karandavasana.  After these peaks, the rest is a downhill arc.  By maintaining the intensity up to the peaks of the arc and coming back down on the other side, we move some of the chaotic energy of the fire element through.  In a way, we can create a cathartic experience just by following the sequence.  By the time we jump into savasana we can ground ourselves--earth element--and return to a state of clarity--air element.
  • Keeping the dristi allows us to be less reactive, less volatile.  In a lot of ways, the dristi is a form of pratyaharaPratyahara is the fifth limb of Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga.  Pratyahara is all about drawing the senses inward.  Guruji used to say that pratyahara means, "Sense control, anywhere you look, any thought that you have, any perception, it is all Atma (the Self or Soul)...When you exercise sense control you are no longer deceived by outward appearances, but perceive only Atma."  When we direct our attention to the inner fire rather than seeking retribution outside of ourselves, we start to rewire the habit patterns of mind, the samskaras.  
  • Certain asanas build a lot of heat.  About a year ago, I was involved in a research put on by Yoga Journal about the effects of yoga practice on heart rate.  We were given heart rate monitors to wear while we practiced.  As my heart rate increased, I tended to get hotter.  I found that those postures that asked me to engage my lower abdominal and pelvic muscles more intensely, increased my heart rate:  forward bends and inversions, especially.  As an experiment, try staying in paschimottanasana, sarvangasana, and sirsasana for a good 20-30 breaths.
  • Bhastrika pranayama is one of the pranayamas that Guruji historically taught in the Ashtanga Pranayama Sequence.  In bhastrika pranayama we take a vigorous exhalation and a reflexive inhalation through our nostrils.  When we exhale, we pull the lower abdomen back strongly, using both uddiyana and mula bandhas.  We do this quickly about 100 times; take a slow inhale and retain the breath somewhere between 20 and 100 seconds.  And then exhale the breath.  We repeat this process three times.   
  • Listen to hard rock, heavy metal, or rock n' roll while you practice.  This music can help really get the fires moving, excite, and enliven a dead practice.  Let the rhythm carry the movement.
  • Another way to increase the fire element is to make the ujjayi sound louder and emphasize the sound of the exhale so it sounds a bit forced.  The restriction in the back of the throat causes the lower abdominal muscles to work harder, thus stoking the internal fires.  As the exhale comes to completion, pull the lower abdomen int tightly and draw in on the whole pelvic floor, the anus, the perineum, and the genitals.  For men, an advanced form of this is to develop the capacity to draw the testicles up and into the pelvic floor and for women to develop the capacity to tone the ovaries, which is an advanced  Taoist practice, as well.

3. Increase the Water Element. Water balances fire.  If you put too much water on a fire, it stanches it out.  But if you put just the right amount, it creates warm vapors.  In other words, water and fire are constantly in a balancing act.  If our practices are all fire, we end up burning away too much.  We see this in people who've had a kundalini rising situation, in which their nervous systems got burned or fried through too much fiery practice.  The water element is all about emotions, deep, soulful emotions.  When we're in the land of the water element, tears naturally pour forth.

  • Staying in touch with our feeling nature, especially feelings of sadness, longing, and mystery can balance our fiery, hot emotions, like rage, anger or addictive sexual tendencies.  Something else that can be immensely useful is to find self compassion with mantras like those found in the Buddhist Lovingkindness (Metta) Meditations, words like the following:May I be filled with peace.May I be filled with love and compassion.

    May I be safe and protected.

  • Some food and fluids can increase fire too much, foods like sugars and sweets, alcohol, coffee, stimulants and dry, pungent, warm, and acrid spices, like chillies, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon.  Soups and stews, lots of cooked vegetables and grains, and a bit of animal protein tend to add moisture where there's too much dryness and heat.  
  • Connect to the fluidity of the vinyasa.  (See Water Element)
  • Emphasize smooth, fluid transitions between the inhale and exhale and the exhale and inhale.  (See Water Element)
  • Develop a stillness practice.  (See Water Element)

 

Five Element Series Part 7: Water Element

The Water Element

Click here to listen to Water Element Music

The water element is represented by the sacral chakra.  It is related to the genitourinary system and the adrenals.  The key issues of this chakra relate to basic emotional needs: pleasure and longing.  Because the water element represents desire, it has been located in the genital region.  It is not just about excreting water through urination, but it is also about our capacity to procreate.  In many ways, yoga is about sublimating the desire to form new life outside of ourselves through this act.  It doesn't mean yogis shouldn't have children.  It's just to say that the work of the yogi is to become 'twice born,' which means to completely cease living and responding from our conditioning, which is the same thing as samsara.  That which we become when we're no longer operating from this place is called dwija (dwi-two, ja-born).  So working with the water element is really the path of learning how to transform our longing and desire into compassion and wisdom that are characteristic of the higher chakras, those located in the heart, throat, head, and above.

Additionally, the water element represents fluid-like nature of the body, as well as its cohesiveness. The water element creates emotion and passion in our bodies.  It brings strong, watery emotions & feelings: depth, mystery, and longing. It's different from the emotions of the fire element, which are more fiery and so have to do with hot passion, rage, and excitement.  Water's emotion is more subdued and deep.  The emotion of the water element is the emotion of dreams, of the subconscious, of the mystery.  These emotions come out of nowhere and return to nowhere.  I have a client who, for example, never had a desire to have children until she was in her late thirties.  Out of nowhere she could not let go of the idea that she needed to bare a child.  This is the power of the water element.  Emotions well up from the deep subconscious.

Diagnosing the Water Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Water is the element representative of the fluid nature of the body, mind, and spirit.  It's what lubricates our joints, so when we feel like our motion is lacking in fluidity, when our bodies feel stiff and dry, we're noticing deficiency of the water element.  When our bodies feel thick, heavy, and everything we eats, sits and is slow to digest, we've got too much water element.

The Personality of the Water Element

People with a lot of water element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • Fluid
  • Deep
  • Intuitive
  • Empathic
  • Introverted
  • Soulful
  • Romantic
  • Nurturing

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • Moody
  • Prone to fantasy
  • Overly sentimental
  • Smothering
  • Impractical
  • Manic-Depressive

Examples of artists who exude or portray the positive qualities of the water element include: Joaqin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Van Gogh, Monet, Debussy

What Water Element Feels Like in the Body

Excess water element feels:

  • sentimental
  • irrational
  • filled with regret
  • sorrowful
  • heavy
  • cloudy
  • sluggish
  • heavy
  • tired
  • congested
  • aching joints
  • heavy limbs

Deficient water element feels like:

  • dry: skin, hair, nails, inner eyelids, stools
  • insomnia
  • nervy feelings of tingling and numbness in the limbs
  • weight loss
  • thirst
  • fatigue after menstruation

Antidote for Excess Water Element:

  1. Surrender to the water element
  2. Increase fire element to burn away the excess water

1. Surrender to the water:

  • Connect to the fluidity of the vinyasa.  Highlight the quality of flow within the practice such that it connects to the core of your being, to your emotions.  Allow the movements to be fluid-like, smooth, round and easy.  Movements should be both continuous and circular  This quality of movement is just the opposite of fiery  movements, which are jagged, staccato, sharp, quick, and intense.
  • The breath can be a great access point to connecting us with our watery nature.  Rather than focusing on breathing to the top of the inhale or the bottom of the inhale, we can emphasize creating smooth, fluid transitions between the inhale and exhale and the exhale and inhale.  The breath can either be shallow or deep as long as it connects us to our emotions.  Remember that emotion is just energy in motion, but if we don't access the emotions, they remain stuck within us.  Rather than resisting and, thereby, strengthening that which we resist, we can harmoniously blend with our deep, watery nature thereby connecting to our needs, fears, pains, and desires.  This allows us to become more compassionate not just with ourselves, but others, as well.
  • Sometimes the watery feelings, sensations, and emotions are so deep and so difficult to access that stillness can be a useful tool to accessing the depth of our being.  In stillness we take ourselves out of the rush of frenetic energy to be with our inner wisdom.  Stillness teaches us of the remedies of excess water element, wisdom and compassion.

2. Increase fire element to burn away the excess water (See Fire Element)

Five Element Series Part 8: Earth Element

The Earth Element

Click here to listen to Earth Element Music

The earth element is connected to the root chakra and is located in the perineum-- the region between the genitals and the anus. It's located there because it is the place where, when we're seated on the floor, we make contact with the earth.  Additionally, it is located at the base of the spinal column.  It is what the whole spinal column rests on and so is the foundation of our nervous system and, thus, represents the foundation of our being, the root of our consciousness. This chakra is related to our survival instinct and controls basic self-preservation.

Diagnosing the Earth Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Earth is the elemental representative of the solid nature and structure of the body, mind, and spirit.  We can feel the earth element in the body when we feel a sense of solidity and groundedness, along with a sense of possibility.  We tend to feel rooted with a firm foundation.  Earth element is present when we describe the things of life as: "real," "organic," "earthy," or “what you see is what you get.”

The Personality of the Earth Element

People with a lot of earth element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • honest-to-goodness
  •  what you see is what you get
  • loyal
  • steadfast
  • methodical
  • practical
  • grounded
  • reliable
  • detail-conscious
  • realist

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • excessively cautious
  • premeditative
  • conventional
  • rigid
  • predictable
  • unimaginative
  • dull
  • materialistic

Examples of people who artists who exude or portray the positive qualities of the earth element include: Tom Hanks, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Morgan Freeman, and Russell Crowe

What Earth Element Feels Like in the Body

Excess earth element feels:

  • heavy
  • stiff
  • stuck
  • tight
  • constricted
  • pessimistic
  • gloomy

Deficient earth element feels like excessive air element:

  • Worry
  • Anxiety
  • Fidgeting
  • Overly sensitive
  • Falling asleep easily but waking up a night or in the early morning
  • Stuck in our heads and out of our bodies
  • Dizziness

Antidote for Excess Earth Element:

  1. Surrender to the earth element
  2. Increase air
  3. Increase fire elements.

1. Surrender to the earth element:

  • Increase the time of savasana.  There's a propensity for a lot of us to "check out" in savasana.  Instead of falling asleep here, the game is to fall awake.  And what we're awake to here is the state of the body, being with the sensations in the body, as they are, just 'being with.'  When there's too much earth element, simply applying consciousness to the sensation of heaviness, lethargy, and fatigue, can transform and balance them.
  • Instead of doing a whole practice, let your practice just be a few postures and then surrender to them. Postures most helpful are ones that allow you to rest in them.  This is the same idea of taking long periods in savasana. You can take a restorative yoga class, or you can just choose a few postures that allow you to slow down enough to bring attention to the sensations in the body, thus, transforming them.
  • Hit the snooze button on the alarm.  Sometimes it can be extremely healing to sleep the extra few hours you would be spending at the shala practicing yoga.  I know that this is controversial, since most teachers say you should practice six days per week.  However, when you're "shoulding on yourself" and you're too fatigued to be present, you're not really practicing yoga.  You're guilting yourself and adding more karma to add to your pile of samskaras to overcome.  Additionally, we in the West already have enough guilt, responsibility and intensity in our lives.  The addition of having a practice we "have to do" is just another burden.  Sleep is necessary.  Period. 

2. Increase air element (see Air Element)

3. Increase fire element:  (see Fire Element)

Antidote for Deficient Earth Element:

  • Emphasize mula bandha, since the the Muladhara Chakra is the residence of the earth element.  Placing our attention here has the tendency to connect us into our physical form, which is an expression of the root element.  It also allows us to connect not only to our physical seat, but the seat of our consciousness.
  • Increase the time you spend on the exhaling compared to inhaling.  You might try at 1:2 ratio, so, for example, you might inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 10.  Or maybe that's too time consuming, so you inhale for 4 and exhale for 8.  When we increase the ratio of exhale to inhale, we have the capacity to calm our nervous system.  If, for example, you notice you're agitated, take time aside to just try the 1:2 ratio of inhale to exhale, and you'll notice that your mind will naturally find more stability.  Additionally, you'll notice that at the end of an exhale, you naturally engage mula bandha. In other words the pelvic floor natural contract; thus, exhaling is a natural way to engage mula bandha.
  • Put an exhale retention into the breath sequence.  By doing so, you will be emphasizing the exhale and its capacity to calm and stabilize the nervous system.
  • Increase the time you spend in forward bends over back bends.  Forward bends have a more sedating effect on the nervous system than backbends.  That's one reason why primary series is so powerful when us Westerners first learn it.  We're so used to being amped by life that when we take all of those forward bends, we start to find an access point toward introversion.
  • Additionally, while in forward bends we can either emphasize the extension of the spine out of the pelvic girdle or the flexion of the bend from the waste.  By emphasizing flexion rather than extension, we create more introversion.
  • The earth element is all about the parts of our lives where we're grounded, honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth, what you see is what you get.  When we're exploring the earth element in our lives, we get to notice the places in our lives where we need to "get real", places where we've been lying to ourselves, places where we could simplify.  Additionally, it can help to cut out stimulants, television, computer time, and to eat nourishing foods.

 

A Living, Breathing Practice

1462139_orig A group of friends and I have started to gather at my house monthly to take a deeper dive into Yoga than the kind we get when we go to the yoga studio or even when we do a teacher training.  The problem with teacher trainings is that there's so much to cover in terms of content, that we don't have a lot of time to linger on some of the deeper questions, like what on earth is yoga about?  Or what's yoga to me?  Or how did the ancients view yoga and spirituality?  And how does it pertain to my life?  It is my sense that we all have to ask these questions, to not just accept techniques like asanas (yoga postures) or meditation without an analytical consideration.

And because Yoga has the propensity to be embodied and non-analytical, we're not  encouraged to go here a lot.  My teacher, Pattabhi Jois,is often quoted as saying, "Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory."  How often do we hear the instruction, "Drop the the thought and return to the body," or "Your thoughts are like passing clouds.  Notice the thought, and come back to the breath."  This is really the heart of spiritual practice, just noticing.  And most practice, if it's effective, takes us out of our thinking, comparing, and analytical mind and into a more intuitive, sensing, feeling, and non-thinking place.

But that's not to say that the spiritual experience is, strictly speaking, a non-thinking experience.  Actually, there's a lot of thought, in fact, thousands of years of thought, about the spiritual life and the spiritual experience that we can draw from.  There are a ton of maps written by those who have walked the path before us that we can use to understand and make sense of our own journey.  It is not only important but should be mandatory for all of us who are deeply seeking to understand the traditions we come from.  That way we can start to contextualize them and make sense of them.  More importantly, I think it's imperative that we develop a critical eye for our spiritual practice and the teaching associated with it, so we can choose a path that takes us to where we need to go rather than where we're told we should go by a teacher, a teaching, or a community.

The Sutras Through a Critical Eye

As I was preparing for our last gathering, I came across an interesting podcast by Matthew Remski that really had me questioning how much authority I wanted to place in The Yoga Sutras as a map for my spiritual practice.  Remski points out some of Patanjali's weird views.  Examples include:

  1. The idea that Yoga is about such a complete separation of awareness (purusa) and nature (prakriti), that it veers in the direction of disembodied, spiritual bypass.  In other words, the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness (1:2) lead to a recognition that one's true identity is not this body; this entity I call me; or these relationships I surround myself with.  These are all fluctuations within awareness.  Through a gradual process of detachment, we see that these things are ephemeral, and thus, not eternal.  The awareness (purusa) that notices these things that arise, stay for awhile, and pass away is eternal, and, thus, our true identity.  Extreme form of non-attachment, like the one espoused in The Yoga Sutras, has the potential to validate the avoidance of practical challenges or difficult or painful feelings or memories.  This stark dualism, separating awareness and all the things within it tends to unground people and unseat them from their innate wisdom.
  2.  The fourth chapter, Kaivalya Pada, commonly translated as chapter on liberation is a mistranslation. Pada means subject.  Kaivalya actually means perfect isolation; thus, one of the end goals of a good yoga practitioner, according to Patanjali, is to detach so much from nature (prakriti) so as to separate from society, as a whole.  Yoga was heavily influenced by the monasticism of Buddhism and Jainism.  In fact, the ethical precepts, the yamas and the niyamas, come from the Jains who believed that separation was a necessary ideal to experience complete liberation, that to be in contact with others leaves the yogi vulnerable to the negative karma of another.  In our everyday language, this is another way of saying that liberation requires that we stay away from others so as not to pick up on their bad vibe.
  3. The book is chalk-full of  magical thinking.  For example, intense forms of absorption lead to one's capacity to fly or inhabit the body of another and make that body move.

Remski's analysis--which is brilliant by the way--forces us to look twice at this text that we yogis tend to hold with reverence.  Without a doubt, much of the instruction in The Sutras is erudite and brilliant.  Developing a capacity to practice anything with non-attachment (vairagya) (1.15) is a simple and brilliant instruction on how to learn anything.  The tools that the Sutras offer us on how to witness and what to witness are fabulous instruction for each of us who would like to develop greater capacity for objectivity.

But how far do we intend to take this process?  In its most extreme form, it could lead us away from our relationships, away from community, and either into monastic life or a cave in the Himlayas.  Or maybe what we're looking for is just an hour in the day "where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. (Campbell, Joseph; Bill Moyers (2011-05-18). The Power of Myth (p. 115). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.)

Bringing Old Texts to Life

As I said before, I'm not suggesting that we ignore the classic texts.  They're giving us hints that can help us immensely on the journey.  But if we are on the path, we have to take responsibility for our journey.  Doing so requires that we look with a critical eye.  When we accept these maps on faith we sometimes end up in places we never intended to be.   A lot of the orthodox approaches within the Buddhist and Yogic tradition posits the notion that because we're too rife with avidya (misunderstanding, misapprehension, or spiritual ignorance), we cannot possibly see what will help or hinder us on the journey.  That's why we need not question the authority of the teacher, the teaching, or the community but, instead to have faith in their innate validity.

There's a third approach to working with the teachings of a tradition. We don't take them at face value, and we don't ignore them.  Instead, we struggle with them.  We see them as texts written by human beings, like you and me, and who were writing for a particular audience living in a particular moment in history with a unique set of struggles.  And then we work with the text to separate that which is essential truth for us from that which is particular to the times and perspective of the writer.  And then we try to make sense of it for the current situation we find ourselves in.  This how a tradition becomes a living, breathing, and evolving thing.  And if you consider it, we are the critical link to the evolution of the tradition.  How each of us interprets and makes sense of any tradition determines how it will be carried forth from one generation to the next.  In short, to go through this process is to take responsibility not only for our spiritual path, but to create new maps, maps that one day will influence seekers, like us.

Creating the Space to See What We Do

IMG_1092.jpg

IMG_1092I've just returned from my first yoga practice back at the yoga studio I co-ran for six years and recently handed over to my partner.  It felt great to be back to see my friends and to be surrounded by my yoga community.  It felt equally good not to be in the role of the teacher.  I'd had so much anticipation over the last year of what that would be like, admittedly a sort of possessiveness that was difficult to give up.  But then today I got one of those clear insights that life is difficult when we hold on. It's such a fine line.  You don't want to be so loosey-goosey that you have no commitments, and yet to be committed to something out of fear of loss or the unknown is not really commitment.  It's gripping, or, as we say in yoga, attachment or ego clinging.  I keep having this overriding feeling since I've handed over my so-called authority a few weeks ago that when I am gripping that I don't, in fact, need to.  It's like this sense of let go, freedom, or ease that miraculously keeps appearing in my consciousness.

I recognize that this is a temporary experience, and so I know not to grip even on to this.  And yet it's a great lesson for me to be learning, since so much of the last six years of my life have been about a sort of gripping.  When I came home to San Francisco-- after living in India for three years and being in graduate school for four years before that-- I had this overarching sense that I needed to get my work out there.  And I did.  I really did, and I am proud of what I have created on my own and with the help of lots of other people in my life.  Along the way of "doing it," I carried a sense of anxiety, the feeling that no matter what I'd produced, it was somehow never enough.

I would not say that this sense of insufficiency is altogether gone, but, now, I have enough space within my being to notice when it's running me, along with a few other self-saboutaging voices, like the one that has something to prove to others.  In short, what I am describing is that having given my role up, I am finding more access to not being led around by my patterns.  This capacity couldn't have happened had I not had the courage to let go, not of a commitment, but of a fear.

Ashtanga Mind, Beginner's Mind

BeginnersMind2.jpg

Some of the clearest and most open people I come across within the practice of Ashtanga tend to be new students.  They're filled with the excitement and possibility that the practice engenders in them.  These newer students are ripe with what Patanjali, the author of yoga's source text, The Yoga Sutras, calls vidya. Vidya is a lot like what the Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki, called the beginner's mind. A beginner's mind is clear, open, alert, receptive and without limits. A beginner's mind isn't fixed in opinions, judgements, or beliefs.  Instead, it's like  an empty vessel for spirit to move through.  It sees from perspectives but isn't fixed in one as if it's "the right" perspective. In the beginning, the practice itself and the experience of what we discover on the mat can be exciting.  When I first began the practice, I was amazed by my capacity to respond to situations that previously might have appeared paralyzing with great calm and clarity.  Just showing up on that mat on a day-in-and-day-out basis began a clearing away of what had been blocking me for years.  I'd been living in an experience of post-traumatic stress for a few years after my brother's suicide without any effective means of working through the painful emotions.  Showing up on that mat everyday forced me to face what I'd been frightened of facing, but once I did, it somehow alleviated the suffering I'd been living with, and I was able to start to feel alive, again.  The practice gave me this direct experience that it was possible to transform avidya to vidya, by learning to be with and not be afraid of painful emotions.

Knowing and Understanding are Booby Prizes

Eventually, though, a sort of pride started to appear because I started to "know" something.  I'd learned and, thus, thought I knew that there was a process to transforming painful emotions.   Knowing anything is a booby prize within yoga.  Knowing is not what we're after.  Whatever we know creates a kind of fixity, and it removes us from the direct experience of discovery.  The experience of yoga is about evoking a profound curiosity to what is right in front of us.  We're awakening the capacity to meet mystery rather than trying to pack it neatly into a box of comprehension.

And when we've dedicated years to the practice, we can't help but understand a lot of things.  That's natural, but being an authority has the potential to steer us away from the experience we had when we first discovered the practice.  So when we start to "know more," we tend to end up boxing ourselves into fixed perspectives, beliefs, opinions, and judgements. When we already know everything there is to know about something, we end up strengthening muscles that we came to practice to let go of.

And so it's critical for all of us who stay with the practice--or any practice for that matter-- over a sustained period of time to be aware of how our approach to it is supporting our evolution or engendering structures of rigidity.  This inflexibility is a natural byproduct of anything we do repeatedly and yet is something we have to be constantly aware of so that it doesn't halt our transformation.  Below are some questions that we might employ to prevent this form of mental tightness from taking form in our practice:

  • How is my practice either growing me
  • How is it keeping me narrow?
  • Where am I caught in being right in my relationships with others?  Where have I shut down?
  • What situations in my life could use my curiosity?
  • What's the feedback the people around me are giving me on a regular basis?  What's the feedback I could take in that would benefit my evolution?

The longer we've been in any tradition the less others will question our authority.  And that can be a pitfall for any progress we hope to make on the path from avidya to vidya.  That's why it is critical for each of us to continue to seek wise counsel and to surround ourselves with people who trust enough to question us, no matter how much we know.  It's also important not to forget that whatever we know, whatever sidhis (powers) we've accrued in and through our practice, that that's not it.  What we're after is not the acquisition of more power or attainment but, instead, letting go, not grasping at anything, and opening so that we, too, can show up on the mat and into our lives as beginners do, with a mind that is limitless, boundless, and clear.

Knowing When to Let Go

rk_15.jpg

rk_15At some point, all of us face the need to evolve.  It's almost an imperative in spiritual practice that if we are to experience the aliveness of life, we must keep growing.  And sometimes that means letting go of what no longer serves us or that we serve whole heartedly.  If we don't let go, we suffer.  And yet doing so can be grueling.  I wanted to share a teaching from 'The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna' about knowing when to let go.  Ramakrishna was a 19th century, Indian mystic.

When we plant a sapling we put a fence around it so that cattle will not eat it or nobody would accidentally crush it under one's feet.  But when the plant starts growing into a large tree, the fence should be removed and taken away.  If the fence is not removed in time then it might even hinder in the growth of the tree.  The trunk of the tree may even get trapped within the fence.  Moreover, after the sapling turns into a big tree neither can cattle eat it up fully nor can people crush it under their feet accidentally.  Likewise, the tree will drop fruit that will feed the cattle and the people who once threatened its very existence.

Whenever we begin anything new, especially the discipline of spiritual practice, we need to protect the fragility of our endeavor.  When I first started my yoga practice, it took me a few years, but I had to learn the discipline needed to maintain a daily practice of yoga: going to bed early, waking early, eating properly, resting enough, getting enough mental and emotional stimulation, etc.  I needed that discipline in order to grow within my practice.  And I loved it!!!  It fed me deeply.

Spiritual Arrogance

But, after awhile, I started to feel like the fences I'd created for myself only created more rigidity.  I'd find myself judging non-practitioners as "unconscious."  The fragility I'd once felt around my practice gave way to a quality of spiritual arrogance.  A lack of curiosity is  a sure sign for each of us that either we need a new challenge or we need to find a new way into the practice we're committed to. This is where it's critical to remove the fences that once kept our fragility from being devoured.  Distinguishing when it's time to give up or alter the discipline and what exactly to give up is highly individual.  That's where having a good teacher or a community of friends on the journey with us can be extremely helpful.  What is clear, though, is that at some point aspects of the structure stop empowering transformation and, instead, only harden us.

Very few of us have the courage to let go of what no longer serves us, though.  Why?  Because our identities get wrapped up in the external recognition and kudos we receive.  These external boons can be enticing, but they can easily be traps for all of us.  When you're considered 'advanced' in a community and you're identified with your role in it, it can be a sort of identity suicide to let go.   I am not saying that we should completely stop looking to the outside for recognition.  As humans, we long for and need this recognition.  But we're all so starved for it, that we tend to forego our own authentic experience and expression of fulfillment in order to be loved, liked, wanted, admired, needed.  And then we miss the opportunity to live a rich and full life on our own terms.

Knowing When We've Deceived Ourselves

When we're attuned enough to our inner wisdom, however, we know when we're 'b.s.'-ing ourselves.  But when we're not, it can be extremely helpful to have people in our lives that offer us the space of honest communication. If  we don't have this, it can be helpful to empower our inner witnesses, the neutral part of us that is noticing all the time, noticing what we're saying, doing, and experiencing.  That part of us can notice when we're "should-ing on ourselves."  I love this expression.   When we're "should-ing," we say we do what we do not because we love it but because we "should" do it.  That's a good sign that our heart is no longer in it.

The point of all practice is to bring us to the heart of our innate wisdom.  It is not to end up more disciplined.  Paul Meuller-Ortega aptly said, "Eventually as Seekers, we must become Finders."  Knowing when you've discovered an access to your innate wisdom is not  a form of spiritual arrogance.  It's just something that's not empowered within spiritual traditions.  What is empowered is hierarchy.  Tapping into our innate wisdom does not necessarily lend one to becoming recognized in the external sense.  But that it isn't recognized by a community of seekers is not of significance.  What's important is that we not only recognize this indweller that the yogis call the purusa, but that we share it, that we have the courage to give our gift.  That's the part of Ramakrishna's story in which the tree drops fruit for everyone, even the cows and humans who previously threatened its existence.

The point of all spiritual practice is to attune us to our truth, our innate wisdom, and our joy.  This is what the yogis call, Sat-Chit-Ananda.  The point isn't to win in some hierarchical game that all traditions can't help but maintain.  The point is to find access to our inner strength, our magic, and our gifts and to trust them.  I'll end with the following quote from Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who inspired the Star Wars trilogy and who coined the term, "follow your bliss."  In this quote Campbell helps us to not mistake the trees for the forest:

What is important about a lightbulb is not the filament or the glass but the light which these bulbs are to render; and what is important about each of us is not the body and its nerves but the consciousness that shines through them.  And when one lives for that instead of the protection of the bulb, one is in Buddha consciousness. Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. 2011. The Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF)

 

The "GET OUT OF JAIL, FREE" Card

Get_out_of_Jail_Free_for_the_Win_Wallpaper_JxHy In my previous blog post, I described the fact that last Wednesday, I'd completed a project I'd co-run for the last six years, an Ashtanga Yoga program called Mission Ashtanga.  I did so in order to create the space needed to be able to spawn new projects.  I am trying out the perspective that in order for something new to enter, you have to create space for it.  They tell you that when you're dating someone who isn't quite the right fit that it's probably a good idea to let that relationship go, so the right one can enter.  Most of us are reluctant to do so because we wonder what it'd be like to be single, again. Will we feel lonely?  Who will we go to dinners with, now, or spend our weekends with?  Most of us can't imagine what the experience of life would be like if we didn't keep filling it.

Future F*cking

This morning, I feel like I am on the other side of that.  I'd had so much anticipation about what this moment would feel like.  Most of the anticipatory images that ran through my mind were pretty dark over the last few months.  Mainly they consisted of groundless feelings, the sense that all of my passion, creativity, and skill set would find no new outlets; that my urge for change would land me in a morass of deep grief; or, even worse, that I would have discovered that those urges were the result of some temporary delusion, some early hint of an impending mid-life crisis.  It's amazing how paralyzing my "future f*cker" voices can be.  On the other side of having made the leap, this morning, I don't feel any of the ways that I'd anticipated feeling. What do I feel?  Two things:

Fragile and Hopeful

I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit that this move out of something that's given me a kind of daily structure and, more importantly, an identity for the last six years of my life doesn't feel vulnerable.  Who am I if I am not co-running this project?  Once again, I can feel this propensity to want to find my identity, my sense of self in the things that I do.  This is what the source text of yoga, The Yoga Sutras, calls avidya, which is loosely translated as a form of misapprehension or delusion.  It is looking for a sense of self in things that are transitory.  Letting go like this has me recognizing how safe it feels to have a work-based identity but, ultimately, how tenuous that identity is.  As soon as the title is gone, it can feel a little like having pulled off a scab, a little raw and vulnerable.

At the same time, I have this overarching sense of possibility.  For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have this very morning to myself, to think, to write, and to create.  I am no longer bound by the routines of my previous work.  It's not that I won't be practicing yoga this morning or maintaining a quality of discipline, but that I can choose, instead, to write before practicing.  It feels almost luxurious to have this very moment to form words that frame my experience, to not be bound by the have-to's and can'ts that came with co-running Mission Ashtanga: "have-to be in bed by 9PM in order to wake at 4:30;" "can't go on vacation too much;" etc.  In removing the stricture of the structure, I can feel this deep, deep appreciation for the choice I made to let go.  I can feel space, again.  The juxtaposition of the way I felt to the way I feel, now, is pretty dramatic.  I feel like I got the "GET OUT OF JAIL FREE" card.

The Love You Take Is Equal to the Love You Make

What I will eventually be doing with that card isn't altogether clear.  I'd previously wished that I had clear plans before I left.  That way I could just end one thing and pick up another.  But I can't help but feel how important it is not to do that, not to just fill or stay in motion.  I can feel this strong urge to revel in the stillness of completion; to appreciate the bounty that Mission Ashtanga provided for me; and to feel the relief that comes now that an ending has occurred.  This moment reminds me of the lyrics of a song I love on The Beatles' Abbey Road Album, "And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make."  It feels like this is the moment to slow down enough to take in the creation, to breathe it in.  To run would be to miss this.

Living with Doubt

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There's an inner process to change.  In the outer sense, all that's required is that we leave a job; start a new relationship; tidy up our resumes; or enroll in a class.  But what gets us to the threshold of outer change is a subtle, mysterious process that requires a capacity to track our inner lives.  So much of what we read in the self-help world is the "just-do-it!" methodology.  Just go to a Landmark Forum or Tony Robbins' Unleash the Power Within, and by the end of the weekend, you'll be walking on hot coals and doing your best to get all your friends to enroll in the same program you got snookered into yourself.  While these trainings offer powerful reminders that we're much more capable than we give ourselves credit for, they tend to give lip services to but undermine our relationship to our inner lives.  Even worse, after we've shelled out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for these trainings, we're often left feeling even more stuck than when we began because on top of feeling unsure about our next steps, we, now, feel weak or inferior because taking those steps isn't as easy for us as The Landmark Forum Leader or Tony purports them to be.  Maybe that's why we sign up for the Level 2 course.  Real and substantive change doesn't happen in a weekend.  What's required aren't quick fixes, new tricks, or gimmicks.  What's needed are two things we already have: attention to our interior lives and the capacity to live with confusion.  I personally am in the middle of what I consider to be a major work transition that I think is demonstrative of this notion that substantive change is 80% an inner job/ 20% outer. About a year ago, I started to feel a dimming of interest in one of my current work projects.  I've been co-running an Ashtanga Yoga program in San Francisco with a friend of mine for five years, and I stopped feeling that magical feeling I'd previously felt about running a Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga program.  While each student always brought something new and alive to the class, I kept bumping into a kind of been-there-done-that, burned out feeling along with the sense that there was something "out there", something unclear waiting for me.  I'd had these sort of feelings before. I'd been running these programs, for a little more than fifteen years, so aversion isn't new hat.   Like all feelings, this one would previously come and go.  But in this case, these feelings were persistent.

Distinguishing Reactions from Callings

It's often hard to detect when a feeling is just a passing reaction or when it's a message from the deeper interior.  We all have periods of time when our jobs or our relationships don't satisfy us.  That's normal.  The notion that we're always supposed to be happy all the time is a myth.  Even the best of job or relationships can go stale on us or just irritate us to the core.  That's normal.  But when that difficulty is prolonged, it's often an inner message that it's time to slow down and reflect on what we're bumping into.  Often times, we get busy trying to alter our lives or situations to make our discomfort go away only to discover that we're in a new relationship or new job meeting the same feelings again.  Sometimes the message from the interior is that, in fact, it is time for a change.  Deciphering the inner codes can be quite difficult.  It can be immensely helpful to have wise counsel as well as a community of friends on the path with us that we trust enough to help us distinguish the wisdom of our inner callings from the voices that deceive us.

So I shared the experience with my coach, my wife, and my partner in the project.  I said, "Okay, I'm feeling burned out. I'm starting to wonder if co-running this program is coming to an end for me.  I want to give voice to this experience, but I don't want to make a decision. I want to wait and see if, in fact, I am done, or I am just a little burnt out.  I'd like to revisit this conversation in two months."  In the meantime, it was important for me to test my hypothesis.  Was I really done?  Or was I just experiencing a message from the interior saying, "Slow down. Stop giving your energy.  Find a new way to work."

Sure enough, after two months, the feelings had passed.  I felt reinvigorated by some responses I'd had to some blog writing I was doing about the intersections of yoga and life coaching and started to see that the project I was in was a great platform for the expression of this cross-breeding.   But then a friend contacted me and said, "I'd like to partner with you to do some coach-consulting work in corporations."  And my response was, "Yes!!! I'd love to do this!"  But with a little deeper reflection, I came to the sad conclusion that I was still teetering on burnout.  There was no way I could take on another project.  I just didn't have the energy reserves to take something like that on.  My days were too filled with teaching classes, seeing clients, and treating patients, that I couldn't possibly give this new project the attention it needed.  This recognition had me feeling extremely frustrated .  And so, here I was, once again, thinking that it was time for a change, but somehow I wasn't quite ready.

Are We Really Meaning  Making Machines?

This is where I imagine most coaches and self-help workshops would throw me off of the cliff.  They'd tell me, "Just do it!"  All change has the tendency to be dummied down by these so-called change-agent experts:

No action = No change

No change = Procrastination

Procrastination = Bad/Unhappy

Action = Good/ Happy

And while this perspective, no doubt, gets people into powerful action, it's the kind action that makes them feel cut off from their interiors, which, by the way, deliver messages slowly and subtly and require not so much boldness but softness, receptivity, and awareness to detect and decipher their messages.  Many self-help programs regard humans as machines that misinterpret everything and, thus, need reprogramming so they can function as better machines. Disregarding all of the self-help jargon I'd acquired over the years, I thankfully held off from making a decision for another few more months.  And then I had this experience that absolutely changed me forever.

The Teacher Appears When the Student is Ready

After an arduous bike ride to the top of Mt. Tamalpais, I stood on a hillock overlooking the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, The City of San Francisco, and the East Bay.  As I stood there taking in the scenery, I felt a sense of gratitude for the beauty that surrounded me, and so I started to do a little, improvised gratitude jig, somewhere between a yoga sun salutation and a dance.  As I did my gratitude dance, I started to hear a clicking noise behind me that kept the rhythm.  And when I turned around, I saw this raven standing only a few feet from me with a seed of sorts in its beak. The clicking was coming from the raven's beak making contact with the seed, and I had this clear sense that the raven was relating to my movements by keeping the rhythm.  I continued to dance my gratitude dance around the hillock.  Each movement I made to the left, the raven moved to the right.  Each movement I made to the right, the raven moved to the left.  We were in a dance together, and the raven was keeping the rhythm.  At the same time this dance was taking place, I'd had this intuitive sense that the raven had a message for me.  Who knows whether I was making it up or not, but it was a message that moved me:

"It's time to let go, to stop dancing someone else's dance, to dance you're own steps, and to trust them."

For me this was code for the fact that I'd spent the last 20 years faithfully following a tradition.  I'd been a student and teacher of a deep and old tradition of yoga, but, nevertheless, someone else's interpretation, someone else's ideas, and it was time for me to learn to trust a deeper and more personal wisdom, the one that was moving through me.  Gulp.  I'd been a student of and run these sorts of programs for so many years because they had given me access to deep teachings, the security of a teacher a community, a sort of authority to back up my own teachings, and an identity.  Now, the raven-teacher was giving me the the sage advice, "Let go!"

One might read this as a sort of self-aggrandized interpretation of an experience, a sort of glorification of narcissistic tendencies, but the inner sense of clarity the experience evoked in me was profound and true.  I realized, in that moment, that my need for change wasn't so much about leaving the program or about being burnt out.  Rather, it was about making room for something more personally truer to enter.  I realized that I had to make space for that to come about.  And for that brief moment, I felt released.  Released from the burden that by leaving, I was betraying my students, my partner, or the tradition.  It was a visceral experience, this clear sense that not only was it okay to make a change, but I was being called forth to make it.  And while I'd been preparing for this moment for the nine months of back-and-forth, the inner teacher's message had clearly arrived.

Holding the Tension

Within a week of this experience, my partner and I met.  I shared my decision, and we both wrote a public announcement about that decision.  By the way, this doing, this action required little to no effort.  Even though most self-help programs focus on action, that wasn't the challenge.  The challenge was living with the uncertainty for almost nine months.  One of my teachers used to call this form of waiting, "holding the tension."  Holding the tension is another way of saying, living with uncertainty.  It's called holding the tension because it feels uncomfortable to live between a question, to live in ambiguity. Each of us has a propensity to try to get ground underneath our feet by wanting certainty or clarity.  That's why we turn to self-help programs, gurus, yoga traditions, techniques, methods, and philosophies.  But if we're following our inner guidance, the messages come in only when we're really ready.  Sometimes we must undergo a trial by fire before the message is clear.  You can't coax the interior into a "yes or no decision" in a weekend. It is much more subtle than that.  But when the message is announced, it comes in declarative tones from that still small voice within: "Call her."  "Go to New York." "It's time." "Let go!"  And when we disregard these messages because they're inconvenient, we sometimes find ourselves in the throws of depression.

And Continuing to Live With Uncertainty

Tomorrow is the last day I will be teaching at Mission Ashtanga.  I can't say that I am not sad or even that I don't regret my decision.  I can't tell you how many times my doubting voice has entered.  Right after I made the decision to leave, I started to like teaching, again.  All of the previous feelings of burn out have completely gone away.  In fact, some aspects of my teaching, which previously had been driven by a proving energy, are gone.  I don't have to prove anything to anyone anymore.  And as that's gone away, I am just enjoying the process, which has me thinking, at moments, "Why the f-ck am I doing this?"

But I know, within a much deeper place of my being why I am doing this.  This decision is not whimsy.  I had to struggle valiantly with the decision.  I had to endure lots of back and forth while continuing to live with uncertainty.  And since that certainty came, I have to be willing to trust it in spite of the fact that I want to second-guess my decision. I get that my ride is unique to me, but I think that the essence of my experience is universal, that if we want real and substantive change, we have to be willing live for sustained periods with the discomfort of ambiguity and doubt.  In fact, one might say that most of life requires us to get accustomed to uncertainty.  The sooner we get that message, the less we'll fall prey to quick fixes and the more authentic our lives will be.

So as I enter the next step of this journey, I have some more ambiguity I have to live with:  What is my next step?  What is the deeper and more personally authentic expression I am being called forth to bring about?  To be honest, I have no f-cking clue.  I've made several stabs at it over the last few months since making my decision.  Every time I start to get something down, I feel like I am met with more confusion and uncertainty.  I've tried to put deadlines and timelines on the process.  I've spent hours trying to distill a message.  All of my efforts have been in vain.  In spite of my frustration with this process, I'm pretty clear that if I am patient and am willing to live with the uncertainty and a low-level of frustration, the next step will clarify itself.  Who knows, maybe I'll crumble and send away for Tony's Power Talk CD's.

How do we get to belief: Is it through faith or practice?

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I just came across this TED Talk by Karen Armstrong, author on comparative religions, that I think is particularly important because it points to the difference between spiritual practice and modern, religious expressions of faith.  While this talk is about the Golden Rule--'don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to you.'-- what I found of particular interest was her commentary on the etymology of the word, belief.  We have an awkward relationship with the world, belief today.  Before reading on, consider the way this word, belief, makes you feel or what it makes you think of.

Belief, in its original, 17th century sense meant, "an intellectual ascent to a set of propositions; I commit myself, I engage myself."  In other words, trust in God was not something that one simply decided.  It was through committed action that rendered one's relationship to God.  In other words, belief was something that was discovered through practice.  It wasn't just something you just swallowed down while ignoring common sense.  You engaged in a set of disciplines on a day-in and day-out basis that gave you access to the deeper mysteries that lie at the heart of the teachings.  As Armstrong says, "Religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action. You only understand them when you put them into practice."

The source text of yoga, The Yoga Sutras, which is dated to the first century, around the time of Jesus, describes the results of all spiritual practice--higher powers, subtle states of awareness, and, clarity-- but the bulk of the text is organized around the practical application, "the doing," how we attain these experiences of yoga.   While there is a sort of worldview that The Sutras hinge on, it's never explicitly described, nor does it particularly matter whether the yogi believes in it or not.  Following the practice is enough, not because it leads one to being a good, moral yogi.  Morality--good versus bad--isn't the game of Eastern spiritual practices.  Instead, through commitment to practice, a sort of wisdom or insight is gained, the sort of insight that one can trust.  By the way, that's the same thing as belief as Merrian-Webster describes it, "a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing."

In a way, I can't help but see that our attraction to the East stems from our modern religions having lost their way.  Instead of providing us with a path, as they used to, many expressions of modern religion ask us to adhere to a comprehensive understanding of the world that divorces us from our common sense.  At one point several years ago, I tried to evoke a debate with an orthodox Jewish friend's interpretation of the Torah.  His response was that we couldn't carry on a discussion because he understood the Torah to be written by God, whereas I understood it to be written by men.  In other words, in order to carry forward a good discussion, I'd have to disbelieve what I knew to be true.  Bummer.  What makes this even more of a bummer is that modern religions sanction this sort of divide.  Some even sanctify wars.

I am not suggesting that all Eastern spiritual practice is perfect or that all religions promote xenophobia.  The problem isn't the religions, it's the people that practice them, the one's that bring a sort of rigidity and orthodoxy to them.   I've seen yoga teachers who's whole lives are dedicated to adhering to and promoting a severe approach to tradition, even when it creates injury, both to themselves and others.  These people may be adept at contorting their bodies, but they never really grow.  Practice, like religion, has the potential to be a trap, as well.

The role of discipline is to enlighten us, to awaken us to that which isn't obvious.  It's designed not to be an end unto itself but to allow us to comprehend mysteries. A mystery is a religious truth that's hidden.  It's only through practice that it becomes obvious.  Once obvious, we can trust in it.  To get there is a journey.  In a way, each of our lives is a journey that's revealing one great mystery.  And for each of us, that mystery is very individual.  To take a set of propositions on faith is a sort of bypass of that journey.  Blind faith is like claiming to know a subject we never studied before.  Our job, as I see it, is to be willing to take that journey.  It can help to have signposts of those who have come before us--whether they come from spiritual or religious traditions--to guide us on that journey.  Ultimately, though, that journey is very individual.  But if it is taken, wholeheartedly and with courage, the result is a sort of belief that is different from that of blind faith because it's the sort of thing that you know in your bones, even in those moments when you've lost your way.

Ashtang-ulous!

Earlier this week, I noticed that a bunch of my yoga friends on Facebook were commenting on some notes from a conference led by Sharath Jois.  Sharath was giving a talk partly on sirsana (headstand).  According to the notes that were so generously shared with all of us by Megan Riley, sirsana not only benefits circulation, but it "help[s] to draw our Amrita Bindu, these golden drops of nectar that, over time, fall down into our digestive fire, back to the head.  [Amrita Bindu] drops as we age, and keeping it from burning away will keep us looking youthful and bright." When I read this, my first reaction was, "Come on?  A golden nectar that keeps us looking youthful and bright?  What's this?  Sounds superstitious to me."  I could understand how a headstand could alter circulation, facilitating the return of pooled blood into the heart, but no science books that I'd come across had located or described golden drops of nectar within the head that when preserved through inversions keep us young, if not immortal, and radiant.

And yet, over the years of being a student of this tradition, I've come to realize that it might not be useful to just blatantly disregard the teaching just because it doesn't fit within my immediate understanding of reality.  I've grown so much over the years as a human being and yoga student by grappling with concepts within the tradition that initially seemed foreign, otherworldly, and, at times, magical.  When I've applied a practice of openness, curiosity, and experimentation to the teachings, I've tended to learn more and, at the same time, grow more.  This isn't always easy for me to do. In fact, this notion of Amrita Bindu is part and parcel of various aspects within the tradition that, even to this day, still trip me up.  Examples include:

  • Ashtanga comes from an ancient text, The Yoga Korunta, written by Vamana Rishi, and is 5000 years old.
  • It is 'incorrect method' to alter sequencing, modify the poses, or include props into The Practice other than adjustments.
  • Do not practice on moon days because injuries on these days take twice as long to heal.
  • When taking padmasana (lotus posture), the left leg should always be on top of the right.  This clears the liver and spleen, straightens the spinal column, and helps the aspirant to maintain strength.
  • Yoga students should eat primarily milk, ghee, and chapatis in order to develop strength because they promote a sattvic (clear) mind and strong body. Avoid eating many vegetables.  Do not eat garlic, onions, tomatoes, or any meat.
  • Drink coffee before practicing yoga because coffee is prana (life force).
  • Don’t wash or wipe your sweat off  but massage it into the body after practice in order to make the body strong and light.
  • Men and women should only have sex:1) at night 2) when the man's left nostril is open 3) when the woman is between the fourth and sixteenth days of her menstrual cycle 4) only for the sake of having children 5) only when lawfully wedded.
  • Never breathe through the mouth because it creates heart troubles.
  • When you make the Darth Vader sound associated with Ashtanga breathing--also known as ujayi pranayama, but technically within the Ashtanga tradition, the term ujayi is restricted to a form of pranayama practiced separately from asana practice-- you increase internal heat, which thins the blood and purifies it.
  • Mula bandha should not be restricted to asana (posture) practice alone but should be practiced while walking, talking, sleeping, and eating in order to maintain mind control.

Not Saying, "Yes" But Not Saying, "No," Either

On first blush, a lot of the rules mentioned above seem a little dogmatic; at times, occult; and, in almost all cases, exotic.  I want to suggest that as Western educated yogis that we both refrain from blatantly disregarding them, and at the same time, not thoughtlessly absorbing them.  Instead, I think it's important that we learn to develop the practice of applying critical thinking.

While there's no doubt that The Practice is powerfully life-changing, it does not mean that as practitioners of this method that we completely surrender our capacity to discriminate.  It's important to be able to question what we're told.  As far as I am concerned, I think it's a sign of a mature practitioner that uses her hesitancy as a tool to learn.  Without it, we run the risk of being pollyanna-ish about everything that's presented to us. If we don't simultaneously apply the qualities of openness and curiosity, however, we run the risk of never growing out of our small bubble, of being arrogant, and of being lazy.  Being stuck on being right and knowing it all is a form of laziness.  The student never has to discover her misconceptions, nor does she have to struggle to learn.

And learning is rarely a passive phenomena.  From where I stand, I can see that it would take me several lifetimes to learn all that this practice has to impart.  Guruji's knowledge was vast and his teachings, which, on the surface, sometimes seem simple, are, in fact, quite deep.  I have no doubt that to grasp the depth of the wisdom he imparted would take me many lifetimes. And because I don't come from his or Sharath's culture, I have to struggle to put their words and experience into my life and into terms that make sense for me.  I can't just take them at face value.  I have to try to make sense of them on my terms.

I think that that's part of what makes this practice so challenging for us Westerners.  Terms, concepts, and world views are, at times, diametrically different in India than they are in the West.  There's no doubt that we're all after the same things: peace, wisdom, compassion, and happiness, but how we express the path can be quite different.  What's required as Western students of this tradition is the work of bridging the cultural divide by translating The Practice into terms that are both culturally and individually relevant so that they simultaneously breathe new life into our practices and perspectives on life.

Santa Claus Isn't Coming Down the Chimney Anymore

I sometimes wish that I could just have faith in someone else's words and let that be enough.  I don't think I am alone in my longing.  Having faith doesn't necessarily come easy to a lot of us in the West.  For a lot of us, faith is like still believing in Santa Claus.  At some point we all discover that he doesn't necessarily come down the chimney, that that's just something someone told us.  And when we're old enough to discover this, it can be heartbreaking, but that experience awakens us to something else, the capacity to question what we're told.  And this questioning can be very useful in the times we're living in, especially when our advertisers or our politicians are trying to get us to buy or vote for things that don't serve us.

But at the same time, in spite of our capacity to apply critical thinking, we in the West aren't, on the whole, necessarily a happy culture.  We may be rational, but we're missing a sense of meaning, a sense of order to life.  A lot of what we face in the West is a sort of spiritual wasteland.  So when we look to lineage-based traditions from another culture, like Ashtanga, that are rooted in the wisdom of antiquity, we can't help but want to find the magic, again.

I remember when I used to think that if I did my asana practice six days a week for the rest of my life, "All was coming."  At some point along the way, though, I discovered that Santa wasn't coming down the chimney of my practice, either.  There is no doubt that the practice is an immensely helpful force in my life and has been over the last twenty years, but it's not perfect.  It has helped me overcome the trauma of my brother's suicide; it introduced me to an international family of like-minded people; and it has created a lot of meaning and order to my life.  But it doesn't and can't solve all the woes that ail me.

I completely understand the urge to want to buy the system and everything about it as perfect.  It's so tempting to  do.  And over the years, I've seen lots of my yoga friends initially do this but eventually, something snaps.  I can't tell you how many former vegetarians I've known in The Practice, or people who were incessantly talking about postures and what pose they were on in Mysore, and then, at some point, drop the thing altogether.

One friend of mine had spent a few years living and studying in Mysore.  Like me and like so many others I know, he came to Ashtanga, initially, to heal old wounds.  Early on in his studies, he spoke about, practiced, and taught Ashtanga Yoga with the fervor of a "true believer."  Every other sentence out of his mouth would be a quote from Guruji: "Slowly, slowy, you take." "In-correct!!!" "Yes, yes, you come!"  Eventually, this parroting became a little creepy to me, and I kind of wanted to tell him to cut the crap, but eventually, he got injured.  And while he struggled to continue to practice and teach, at some point the message and the method stopped making sense to him. His conscience would no longer allow him to teach or practice what he eventually saw as "a bunch of bullshit."  This is just one story of many more stories I could recount of friends who started gung-ho, but eventually recognizing that something was askew.

Having Faith in Skepticism

From my perspective, what was askew was not necessarily the teaching, but that my friend didn't maintain his healthy skepticism. When we surrender our capacity to discriminate, we actually  end up suppressing a significant part of our identities, something that we need in order to both get through life, but also to maintain our sanity within the confines of groupthink. In short, it's really a significantly important part of The Practice to question and struggle with the discrepancies between what's taught and what we, in fact, experience.  One of my favorite quotes on this matter comes from one of the most renowned Indian yoga gurus in history, Siddhattha Gotama Buddha.  He said,

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations."

To me, the Buddha is saying that part of our job as yogis on the path is to use the practice as the vehicle to work with the teachings.  We don't just buy whatever we're told.  We use our practice as the testing grounds to experiment with the hypotheses presented to us.

Making Sense of Apparent Nonsense

If we're truly on the path, not only do we not have the luxury of taking things at face value, but we also don't get to blatantly put everything that doesn't fit into our worldview into the categories, "false," "wrong," or "superstitious." A former student of ours used to come to samasthiti (even standing posture) each morning to chant the opening prayer, but he refused to join in with the other voices.  When I asked him why he didn't, he said indignantly, "I am not a Hindu. I don't want to say something that I don't believe in."  So I decided to share an English translation of the prayer with him.

When I asked him what he thought of the opening prayer after reading the translation, he said, "Yeah, like I said, I don't want to chant a Hindu prayer."  So instead of leaving it there, I suggested that we go over the translation of the prayer together.  Instead of leaving the prayer in the category of "someone else's sentiments," I wanted him to see where, in fact, the words might actually mean something to him.

So we spoke about the first verse of the invocation, which is about having gratitude for the teacher that helps us overcome samsara.  Samsara is often translated as conditioned existence.  It's this idea that we keep being reborn from one lifetime to the next until we've conquered our misapprehension.  Once we've done so, we've attained suahavabodhe (happiness in the purity of mind). He liked the idea of overcoming delusion and uncovering happiness, but he couldn't get his head around reincarnation.

So, I suggested that he not get stuck on lifetimes, either before or after his current life, but that he see that within this very lifetime he was in, he'd already experienced numerous iterations of himself.  While something of him had always remained the same, he'd also been a child, a teenager, and a young adult.  As a result of these changes, he'd experienced several lifetimes within this very lifetime, and he was bound to experience more.  He liked that notion that within the various stages of life he had left, that he could intend to overcome the delusions of samsara.

He had a hard time with the notion of bowing down to a guru, though.  "I don't want to give anyone else that much power."  So I suggested a few other ways of holding this notion of the guru, either the guru could be an inner part of his psyche that was innately wise, resourceful, and powerful.  I also suggested that the practice, itself could be seen as the guru, that through the practice, itself, confusions, doubts, and suffering could be overcome.  "Yes, he said, that's true.  I feel so much calmer on the days I practice.  It's on these days that I make better decisions.  Yeah, the practice is my guru!"

That was the first verse.

When we took on the second verse, he had a lot more difficulty.  The second verse of the Ashtanga invocation is about prostrating to the author of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, and visualizing him as a serpent with a thousand heads with arms holding a conch, a wheel, and a sword.  On first blush, he said, "This reminds me of pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses with multiple arms.  I am spiritual, but I am not religious, and I don't want to pray to a god, certainly not someone else's."

I explained that the verse is an homage to the author of The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, and is suggesting that the philosophical backdrop of The Practice rests in The Sutras.  Patanjali is mythologically considered to be a serpent that serves as the asana (seat or yoga posture) of Vishnu, the god of infinity.  As the serpent, he's holding a conch, a wheel, and a weapon or sword.  The conch is symbolic of the music of the cosmos that calls yogis to live noble lives; the wheel represents the wheel of dharma, or the order of life (as opposed to the randomness); the weapon or sword represents the power of discriminating good from bad, right from wrong, and truth from fiction.

I suggested that he hold the image of the serpent with multiple arms as representative of various values.  First, that our practice is rooted in a system of thought that is deep, profound, and life enhancing, that it's not just another form of calisthenics or aerobics.  Second, the symbol of Patanjali as a serpent that acts as the seat of Vishnu might mean that by sitting or abiding in the wisdom of this philosophy, that we have access to our infinite nature. The symbols that the serpent holds call us forth to make life enhancing choices, ones that are noble, moral, and truthful.

My student liked my translation, but to him the Hindu iconography was just "too Indian."  And, he didn't, in fact, know anything about Patanjali.  He'd heard of The Yoga Sutras, but hadn't read them or studied them, so he couldn't see the significance of venerating someone or the words of someone that didn't mean anything to him.  So, he agreed to chant the first verse of the invocation and refrain from speaking the second verse.  As far as I was concerned, I could completely appreciate his decision.  I also asked him if he'd be up to studying the Yoga Sutras, which he said he'd consider.  I appreciated that he'd walked through this process with me.  He didn't just throw the whole thing out as, "Hindu mumbo-jumbo."  He actually did the work.  And in doing so, he could start to chant the first verse of the invocation without feeling like a fake.

For many of us, we need to do this.  It's important to parse out what is, in fact, meant by the teachings.  We need them translated in terms that make sense to our lives. It isn't in anyway shameful to not understand the teachings.  It's only shameful to simply pass them off as nonsense without making any effort, without seeking to meet the essence of the teachings and to allow them to grow us.

I realize that the list that I made at the beginning of this blog is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we as Western Ashtanga yogis must struggle with if we are to continue to use our discriminative minds within The Practice.  It takes a sort of courage to give up the magical notion that Ashtanga is some divine sequence of movements and postures passed down to us from time immemorial by a saintly being who lived in a time and a place when everything and everyone was perfect and wise.  That'd be nice if that were the case, but it's unlikely that that's true.  But that doesn't mean that The Practice is all hooey, either.  It just means that we get to and, in fact, have to do our work, including practice and study, to find a way in that makes sense and, at the same time makes our lives and the lives of those around us better.

The Power of 1%

I prostrate before the sage Patanjali who has thousands of radiant, white heads (as the divine serpent, Ananta) and who has, as far as his arms, assumed the form of a man holding a conch shell (divine sound), a wheel (discus of light or infinite time) and a sword (discrimination) OM

Most of us come to Yoga looking for something. Initially we come to get in shape or to calm down.  With time, however, we start to experience something blossoming within us that is powerful and we start to wonder what it is all about.  That’s where studying texts can often come in handy.  Unfortunately, Yoga philosophy is given tacit mention in many Yoga rooms around the world. Classes, teachers, and methods are often so preoccupied with teaching physical techniques that the deeper philosophy of Yoga often gets sidelined. My teacher often used to say:  “Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.”  What he was implying was that you could read all sorts of books about Yoga, but until you actually put it into practice, you could not know what Yoga was.  Unfortunately my teacher’s statement has been taken too literally in most Ashtanga schools.  Instead, mastery of asanas has become overemphasized.  Not many teachers encourage us to stop and ask ourselves what Yoga is all about.

Translations that Don't Make Sense

Admittedly, I fell into the same trap.  Up until a few years ago, I ignored those peers of mine who raved about studying Yoga philosophy.  I stuck hard to my 99% practice and gave little to no thought to that 1% theory.  I was too busy trying to perform advanced asana sequences to have time for high philosophy. To me it seemed like my friends interested in sutras and Sanskrit were all too proud of their knowledge.  I never knew much about Yoga philosophy beside the bits and pieces I would hear from teachers or need to parrot off in Yoga classes, like the names of the eight limbs of Yoga.

One thing always sort of plagued me about Yoga philosophy.  It was the definition of Yoga I'd heard from my first teacher:

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind stuff.

That definition is one of many interpretations of the second verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yoga’s seminal text.[1] The problem I had with the above translation was that in the many years I had been practicing yoga, I had never achieved an ounce of the definition. No matter how far I had advanced in my asana practice, I never stopped thinking altogether.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get rid of that little voice inside that yammers away at me.

I used to test myself to see how long I could go without thinking a thought.  As soon as the test began, I had already failed.  It was like trying not to think of the pink elephant in the room.  Using this interpretation as a benchmark for my success on the path of Yoga doomed me to utter failure, so I simply chose to ignore it and keep plugging away at my practice in hopes that one day, maybe in a very advanced posture, I would get it.

The Importance of Translation that Do

Only a few years ago, I found an access to Yoga philosophy.  As I was preparing for a workshop, I ran across a translation of The Yoga Sutras that not only seemed somewhat manageable for me to achieve, but it illuminated a vision of the practice that reached far beyond the mat and into my life.  It came from T.K.V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice (Inner Traditions; Revised Edition. March 1, 1999).  Desikachar interpreted the second verse of The Yoga Sutras as: “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.”  In other words, Yoga is the ability to concentrate.

What a relief!  Instead of ceasing to think, Desikachar's definition of Yoga was something I knew.  Granted, it wasn't always easy to focus for a sustained period of time, but it was possible and something I was familiar with.  I'd had the experience of being focused on something before.  I hadn't had the experience in which I stopped thinking altogether.  But I’d had the experience in which ancillary thoughts sort of diminished the more I focused on one thing. In short, Desikachar's interpretation personally helped me find a human, down-to-earth way of relating to the philosophy of The Practice.

A Definition of Yoga That's Wide Enough to Include All of Life

What also fascinated me was that this translation did not say, “Yoga means doing a yoga posture with mastery."  In fact, I’ve never come across a translation of The Sutras that says this.  The Sutras, in fact, say very little about yoga postures. Instead, it said that Yoga is concentrating on an object. The object could be anything. One could perform Yoga on something as simple as the breath, a sound, or an image.  The object could be a concept, like love, change, or life.

It is so easy to get stuck in the perspective that one life exists in Yoga class and another exists while having a drink with a friend, behind the desk at work, or while taking out the trash.  According to this definition, they are all opportunities to achieve Yoga.  We misunderstand when we think that we are better yogis if we can teach a Yoga class or perform advanced asanas.  If that were the case, then all Yoga gurus would be great circus performers.  How come we do not tend to consider mechanics, musicians, or designers yogis?  By this definition, the work they do, if concentrated, is, indeed, Yoga.

Seeing Things As They Are, Not As We Hope, Wish, or Imagine

What is the benefit of concentration, anyway?  The next two verses of The Yoga Sutras clarify this. Once we have achieved concentration on a particular object, we come to know the object as it is.  When we don’t concentrate, when we are not really present with what we're doing, we see what we want to see, hope to see, or think we should see.  In the end, we don't really see.  We project something from our imagination, and as a result misinterpret what we see.

Romantic relationships are a great and probably the most challenging example of this.  The moment of falling in love is a beautiful experience. All too often the experience causes us to imagine that our beloved is the answer to all our suffering.  Such a projection is disastrous for any relationship.  It puts undo pressure on the other and the relationship.  But if we stay present to what the true experience is and not the Cinderella story, falling in love can be extremely transformative.

The point of practice is to get the hang of seeing clearly.  If we narrow the definition of Yoga to a set of exercises that when achieved masterfully will somehow bring about tranquility, we totally miss the point.  The exercises practiced on the mat are simply metaphors for our lives.  We come to the mat to develop the skill of seeing, feeling, and sensing ourselves from moment-to-moment, breath-to-breath, vinyasa-to-vinyasa, asana-to-asana.  We’re often confronted by the fact that we’re stiffer than we were the day before.  That’s a great opportunity to just see this without guilt, fear, or judgment. Using our practice as a discipline for getting the hang of things as they are on a bodily, kinesthetic level can have vast ramifications throughout our lives.

Certainly, asanas practiced with the correct attitude can teach us a lot about ourselves; however, if we do not find an access to the rich philosophical framework on which the practice rests, we risk getting caught in learning a bunch of circus tricks that only prevent us from seeing things as they are.  One of the reasons we come to the mat is to learn how to wake up.  Source texts are an integral part of that awakening process.  They must speak to us, though, on our terms so that we can derive meaning that makes sense in our own lives.  Sometimes we have to struggle with those texts in order to get at that meaning.  But once we do, getting on the mat has the potential to be an enlightening experience.



[1] Essentially The Yoga Sutras are an ancient practitioner’s manual for Yoga practice and philosophy.  They were written as a grouping of 195 brief statements, or sutras, that express a principal.  The brevity of the each sutra, lends it to being interpreted in a wide variety of ways.

 

The Missing Ingredient

Most people approach spiritual practices the same way they do everything else in their lives; they wait and hope that one day it will all turn out. "If I can just hold a headstand for three minutes then…” or, “If I am really consistent then…” or, “If I just lose 5 pounds, then…” Rarely do we stop to recognize that on the other side of accomplishment and of doing that we often find ourselves in the same place.  We might be a little stronger, more disciplined, or thinner, but who we are hasn’t fundamentally shifted.  And yet we’ve all been told that spiritual practices like yoga can offer a transformative shift in our experience of our relationship to others, our worlds, and ourselves.  What’s the missing ingredient that can create that metamorphosis?

We won’t find that extra bit in a different practice, a better teacher, or the more so-called ‘traditional’ approach.  All of these are the trappings of form.  What we are after is something that is beyond form.  We are after a shift in our being that creates certain qualities, like openness, wisdom, loving kindness, authenticity.  These are ways of being in the world, but access to them seems mysterious and elusive.  And yet, to one degree or another, this is what draws us to spiritual practice.

We do it in the hopes that ‘one-day’ it will all turn out.  Consider that it already has turned out.  You are sitting down reading this. You have a computer, or you have the time to ponder such things.  You even have time for spiritual practice, for contemplating what it is to be a human.  You are in the top 99.99999% of the population in terms of survival.  At this very moment, most people in the world are struggling to get their very survival needs met, while you read this.  And if you stop to consider that, indeed, it has turned out, you may wonder why you still feel that fundamental angst, that uncomfortable feeling that propels you toward the ‘things’-- like the new car, the latest hairstyle, or even the spiritual practice--that hopefully will remove the discomfort that something isn’t quite right in our world, the feeling that something is missing.

Doing It Correctly Doesn't Necessarily Make You Happier

The missing ingredient is that we have thrown the cart before the horse.  In other words we hope that if we do a particular spiritual practice, that it will result in a shift in consciousness.  However, the doing of spiritual practice, does not result in a shift in consciousness.  We also hope that having certain things will result in a sense of satisfaction.  Doing and having, however, do not beget being. Being is a choice we make that informs what we do.  In other words:  be first, do second.

We’ve all been sold the line that if we do a particular job for a certain amount of time, and earn a certain income, that at the end of the day, we get to be happy.  We all know, however, that that isn’t necessarily the case.  Hard work and having money do not necessarily result in peace, happiness, or wholeness.  I am not suggesting that they take away these qualities.  They simply do not create these qualities.  Human happiness does not increase a whole lot as wealth increases.  In other words, wealth and happiness are not a corollary.

Spiritual practice is all about having a say about our lives.  But you and I do not have a whole lot of say about what we do or have in our lives.  We have some say, but not a lot.  We can try to get that job or earn that income, but there are a myriad of factors that can get in the way. While we may not have a lot of say about what we do or what we have, we are always at choice—whether we wish to acknowledge it or not-- about who we are being.  I am not suggesting that we have a say about our moods, which are also the circumstances of our lives.  Moods are not an aspect of being.  They are what we notice when we will be.  Being is almost like a perspective or an ever-shifting set of perspectives that either give us power or undermine us.  And here is where we are at choice in the matter.

Choosing What Empowers

We can choose ways of being each moment.  We don’t need to perform outlandish postures or learn spiritual practices from a guru in India in order to choose being.  I am not suggesting that we do away with spiritual practice or great teachers.  Both are useful ingredients in the meal of transformation, but they aren’t the secret ingredients.  The secret ingredient is being, and it is the recognition that we are at choice with who we are being on a moment-to-moment basis.

So, instead of starting our spiritual practice from the perspective that we hope to get something out of it, why not start it from a particular way of being or perspective, one that empowers us in our relationship with ourselves, our community, and our world?  Most importantly, why not start practice from ways of being that give us a sense of resourcefulness, authenticity, wholeness, ways like aliveness, wisdom, compassion, love, power, etc.?

That way our spiritual practice becomes an expression of that way(s) of being, like a dance that expresses grace.  The grace is already there within the dancer.  Otherwise the dancer wouldn’t know how to express it.  It isn’t as if she hopes to experience it after she has done the dance. And her years of practice, development, and technique that the dancer brings to the expression of grace adds depth and nuance to the expression of grace.

So when we start practice from the place that we are this quality or this way of being, the various aspects of spiritual practice—like the breath, the posture, and the attention--naturally coalesce together in order to express it.  Spiritual practice then transforms from a game of waiting and hoping that one day if I practice for many, may years or many, many lifetimes, I will do it in just the right manner.  And when I do, I will find my happiness, my peace, and my completion.

The transformation occurs in the recognition that we have access to our wholeness all the time, including, now.    Spiritual practice then becomes the time and space where we consciously honor, reside in, and express that knowing.  We don’t do it in order to squeeze wholeness from it.  Unfortunately, that is not what practice provides.  It is simply choreographed dance without emotion or expression. And it is up to us to fill it in so that it can become an expression of what is already and always present, true, and accessible.

The Practice You Can't See on the Outside

What I am describing is truly the inner practice within the practice.  This is something that cannot be seen by the teacher or by an audience.  In yoga, in particular, it is what is at the heart of the practice.  Often times teachers will say, “Yoga is what you cannot see from the outside.”  And then they will point to things like the breath and bandhas.  But the being part of yoga predicates how we breathe, how we engage the bandhas.  Too often, we all get caught in the act of wanting to do it right, to look good on the outside, to impress either our teacher or those around us.

Admittedly, I believe I spent maybe more than half of my life in the practice of yoga, hoping to impress others.  I knew deep down inside that this was a no-no, but I couldn’t help it because I didn’t really understand where else to put my attention.  I’d spent years studying with well-known teachers and life-long practitioners who imparted a certain “way” to practice yoga.  Some emphasized the breath.  Others emphasized alignment.  Often I experienced an amalgamation of both with the addition of some other techniques.  At some point, I started to recognize that all I knew about yoga was what my teachers wanted for me.  I had to make the pose look a particular way if I was going to do it ‘traditionally’ or ‘correctly.’  At some point, I began to experiment outside the boundaries my teachers described.

What I came to realize was that, indeed, the boundaries my teachers created were artificial.  It’s my sense that yoga postures, like the ones we practice in yoga studios throughout the world, are not timeless or eternal.  In all likelihood, they are an amalgamation of a variety of movements designed to support health and spiritual insight.  The postures themselves are like empty vessels.  The attitude we bring to these postures is what gives them their mythical, eternal quality.  If we were to perform these postures at a circus, they’d have no more affect on the psyche than jumping rope or a run through the park.  No doubt, they’d increase endorphins and work out some of the kinks in the body.  The mythical quality is the attitude or the being that we bring to it.

Setting Intentions

What I began to notice a few years ago was that a lot of the attitude that I brought to my practice was the attitude of ‘doing it right.’  That attitude left me practicing from the outside in.  I was always noticing whether my limbs where aligned, whether the movement was graceful or not, whether my breath appeared smooth and fluid.  The result is that I had a practice that might have impressed a few people but left me wondering why I got more good from a sitting meditation than I did from yogic postures.  I always appreciated the feeling of ease that yoga practice left in my body and being, but I couldn’t get at the meditative aspects of yoga.

So I started setting an intention before I practiced each day.  I would set intentions, like “harmony,” “gratitude,” “ease,” “intensity,” and “power.”  What I came to discover was that the techniques I’d spent so many years hoping to master, like the bandhas, were my tools.  I could use them in service to the intention. I started to use the various tools we learn in yoga practice--including alignment, ujayi pranayama, mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, hasta bandha, pada bandha, etc—in service to the intention and not the other way around.  What I found, for example was that the breath altered significantly when my intention was “grace” versus when my intention was “sass.”

Yes, I do sometimes practice with sass.  It is my sense, now, that the practice is an opportunity for me to express the infinite possibility that I am as a human being.  I liken it to a painting.  If I want to paint a blue mood or a tone, I am going to use one particular set of paints versus a tone that is dynamic will use a different set of paints.  Each of the tools we learn can be used in service to the expression of the painting. However, if we get stuck thinking that there is only one ‘correct’ way of painting, one proper, one traditional way, we miss the opportunity that yoga has to offer us.  And often, we will get stuck trying to fit ourselves into a box that doesn’t fit us.  And we will often get stuck practicing from the outside in.

Practice as Art

While I am describing the inner expressing the outer, I am not denigrating the importance of learning technique.  We all need to learn technique.  If you’re a piano player, it’s critical to learn the scales.  And if you want to be a great piano player, you need to continue to play the scales.  But if you want to be a virtuoso, you don’t play the scales exclusively.  And you don’t just play the music on the score the way you’d play the scales. You play with your heart and soul.  The same is true of yoga practice.  Breath, bandhas, drishti, alignment are all forms of the scales we play.  A master doesn’t just repeat the technique over and over in hopes that he will get to the heart of the matter.  A master moves from his or her heart or soul.

The problem with thinking of practice from the perspective of a pianist or a dancer is that these art forms are external expressions. They are designed to please an audience.  In the practice of yoga, we often turn our teacher or other practitioners in the yoga room into our audience.  However, if the practice will have transformative affects on our being, we must become the audience.  We must learn how to direct our awareness inward toward our intention, toward the expression of the intention, and to continue to shift and adjust technique so that the intention is expressed to ourselves, not anyone else.  I recognize that this is a very different experience of yoga because we are all so used to receiving correction and attention from a teacher.  In the beginning such correction and attention is critical to learning the basics.  Eventually, it becomes a hindrance because it directs our minds outside of ourselves.

I speak about the intention or the being that we bring to each practice.  However, intention can have much more far reaching affects.  We can set intentions for our year, for a relationship, for the work we do, and really for our lives. Our practice can be used as an opportunity to develop those intentions. It can become a sort of laboratory in which we explore them, tease them out a little further, and develop some muscle of awareness around those intentions.  Most importantly, a yoga practice can be the place in which we learn to embody those intentions.  This is what is unique about yoga postures.  They are an embodied expression of our being.  They ground out the experience of an idea or a notion into form. They help us to actualize what is simply an idea or an intention in physical form.  Once embodied, we have a much clearer, intuitive sense of how to actualize them in our relationships, our work life, our health, our home life, etc.

Exercise for Setting Intentions

Peak moments can be very instructive.  Often in moments when we experience the fullness of life, we're connected to a way of being in the world, one that is authentic, present, and resonant.  If we can start our practice focused on a particular being that evokes one or more of these qualities, our practices will start to sing. So in this exercise, I am going to ask you to draw your mind back to a peak moment in which you felt authentic, present, and/or resonantly alive.

  1. Conjure up a memory or two where you feel one of these three qualities: a)authentic/honest/real b) present/conscious/awake c)alive/connected/expressed
  2. See if you can see what was going on at that moment that makes that moment so significant.  Notice who was present; what was happening; and how were you feeling in that moment.
  3. If you feel authentic, present, and/or alive, notice who were being in that moment.  What perspective were you in?  What did you see, believe, or think about the situation you were in in that moment?
  4. Note with pen and paper who you were BEING in that moment?  Possible ways of being, include:  joyful, centered, clear, playful, sexy, alive, connected, loving, passionate, driven, focused, detail oriented, peaceful.  In fact, there are a myriad of ways of being.
  5. When you go on the mat tomorrow, connect with that way of being before each Sun Salutation.  Notice how it affects the way you move and what you focus on as you go through your A's and B's.
  6. It may also be helpful to have your teacher or a friend give you some outside feedback about the way your movement appears, both connected to an intention and without an intention.  You'll find that to an outside observer the distinction is often subtle but clear, nevertheless.

 

Serving Our Students

Yoga teachers constantly must ask themselves how the practices they teach serve and support their students and the lives they lead today.  So much of what we see in the marketplace of Yoga is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.  This is really a shame.  Yoga was not  intended to be taught in classrooms to large swathes of people sweating and grooving to the latest hits.  I am not saying that there is anything particularly wrong with de-stressing or feeling good.  These are definite side effects of doing Yoga, but if we stop there, our students will never get to experience the promise of Yoga’s complete transformation. The way we discover whether a practice serves and supports our students is to first maintain our own personal practice.  Simply put, we must practice what we preach. Yoga learned in teachers’ trainings does not replace that which is cultivated in self-study and on the mat.  When we put our time into something, we begin to know it.  It’s only through understanding something in our own body, mind, and spirit that we have the ability to impart something of its flavor and nature.

Likewise, done with heartfelt yearning for personal transformation, our practice can teach us who we are: our strengths, our biases, and the things that fluster our beings.  Without taking steps on the path of self-discovery teachers run the risk of manipulating their students; of creating messes in the classroom; or of being taken advantage of.  All of these experiences are natural for a young teacher, however, if they go undetected below the radar of our awareness, they take over, leaving our students lead in wayward directions.

A similar trap many young teachers fall into is teaching a standardized approach to Yoga.  The young teacher fails to recognize that each of her students is unique.  Some are relatively more flexible than others.  Many come to class with acute and chronic injuries that must be tended to.  In general, each body is peculiar.  Likewise, the stages of life our students are in need to be recognized.  A teenager or someone in her early twenties, for example, might benefit from an active and dynamic practice to mimic that stage of development.  Likewise, as our students age, household and career responsibilities may preclude them from vigorous practices.  Aging students might benefit from a more static, less active approach to postures and increased focus on the internal aspects of Yoga: breath, meditation, and study.

A great teacher not only recognizes the impact of age and the capacities of her students, but she will also recognize the effect of the seasons on her students’ beings.  Winter, for example, is a time of hibernation.  Forward bends, long exhales, long holds in postures, and slow transitions from one posture to the next tend to bring forth an introverted state of mind.  We might choose to emphasize these aspects in order to help our students harmonize with the season.  Or, if we notice that a particular student experiences depression at this season, we might reverse the tendency and emphasize the opposite: backbends, longer inhales than exhales, and a more staccato transition from one asana to the next.  In order to find out what is absolutely appropriate for our students, a great teacher will recognize her students as individuals.

The spirit of an individual can only be discovered in a one-to-one relationship of student to teacher.  This is a relationship that develops over weeks, months, and years.  When a teacher can watch a student over a great span of time, she has the ability to recognize when to push, when to hold back, when to cradle and support, and when to take away.  This is a dialogue that takes place over time.  And the dialogue is not geared solely around postures and practices.  These merely serve as the medium through which some of the dialogue takes place. The relationship is a human one-to-one relationship[1].

Some teachers are particularly gifted at recognizing and working with the spirit of a student and understanding his or her needs, while others are particularly fixated on the dogma of their respective lineage or tradition.  Tradition provides us with insight and guidelines, but the past has no monopoly on wisdom. Practices and beliefs that were applicable only a few hundred years ago might no longer hold sway in the lives of students today.  What applied to young forest dwelling, sexually abstinent, Indian boys and men one hundred years ago may not apply in the same way today.  We have been influenced by the internet, the nuclear bomb, Starbucks, and global warming.   The challenge for most teachers is not to throw the whole thing out, to just turn the music on full blast in order to teach “Hot Sexy Yoga.”  Likewise, because something has been done in a certain fashion for hundreds, if not thousands of years, does not make it divinely inspired.

This point is illustrated by an old, Indian story about a man who owned a precious gem that he kept hidden in his closet.  Toward the end of his life, he gave the gem to his son and told him to wear it daily and pass it on to his oldest child.  Being an obedient son, he did as he was told and handed it on to his son.  The son, wanting to honor his grandfather, decided to bury it in the backyard and marked the spot with a stone so future generations would be able to honor their ancestors.  When he grew old, he showed his son the spot.  When that son grew old, he forgot what was buried there. He had never seen the gem, but he told his daughter to mark the spot with a stone because it was very important.  She did as she was told.  Her daughter and her grandson and her great-grandson and so on and so forth for countless generations also added stones.  After a time, an enormous pile had accumulated, and no one knew there was a gem buried underneath.

A great teacher must have enough of a discerning mind to recognize what is dogma and what is essence.  She should take tradition seriously enough to challenge it, wrestle with it, and help it evolve. To do so it helps to steep oneself in the tradition from which she teaches.  It is critical to understand the sources of our teaching, to comprehend the spirit of the tradition, and to differentiate dogma from truth, cultural biases from fundamental truths.  Without this foundation we flounder between self-doubt and hubris.

Also, if we stop only at the doorway of our tradition without understanding or respect for other traditions, we can become chauvinistic and small-minded.  Different methodologies and vantage points can enhance our teachings incredibly. The Ashtanga system, from which I teach, does not emphasize anatomical alignment, but I have found that some of the methods espoused by Iyengar Yoga teachers can both prevent and treat repetitive strain injuries that come about in the classroom.  We live in a time when we have access to a myriad of ideas.  The point is not to close them out and pretend that they do not exist.  This is an oversimplified method to dealing with the complexity of life today.  Likewise, if we merge it all, we run the risk of watering something down to the point where the essence of age-old traditions is lost.

Each of us who practices and teaches Yoga today has the responsibility to bring it forth from the past and make it as true and applicable today as it was hundreds, if not, thousands of years ago.  To do so, it is important to have a healthy respect for the traditions from which they spring, but if we stop there and don’t make the practices applicable for our students and the lives they lead, Yoga will not survive.  And if we turn it into another form of calisthenics with a pseudo-spiritual overlay, Yoga will become just another sport or feel-good activity.  Our role as teachers is not just to disseminate directions, but we are the current lineage holders, to one degree or another.  We cannot take this challenge lightly. Each of us must struggle to bring forth a Yoga that not only is applicable for our students today, but that will set the stage for their students tomorrow.


[1] The most accessible method of finding one to one relations is a Mysore-style Ashtanga class or through private yoga instruction.  Mysore-style classes are unique within the Ashtanga Yoga tradition. Each student receives individual instruction, practices at their own pace, and develops a practice that suits his or her own needs. The teacher's role is that of facilitator, helping each student via verbal and physical adjustments. The Mysore approach allows the student the benefit of an individually-adapted practice while benefiting from the energy and support of the group setting.

 

Five Element Series Part 5: Air Element

The air element is the source of all mobility. It feels light and clear.  It is the place of spirit and of spirituality, the place where the yogis and saints reach for.  It is also the place of unconditional love, unconditional compassion, unconditional friendliness, equanimity, and well-being.   It is the place we get to when we can finally take a breath of fresh air.  It can feel like coming out of hibernation to something fresh, clean, bright, and alive.  It is also the place of humor because humor acts like a breath of fresh air within the space or ether.  People who know how to move space, know how to breathe light and life into it.

Exercise

In a moment, I am going to ask you to stand up and away from your computer.  You're going to click on this link: Air Element Music.  Allow your body to move to the sounds that you hear while simultaneously noticing what you feel.

What did you notice in your body?  What was the movement like? This is the air element, mobile, cool, subtle, flowing, of a higher plane of consciousness.

Diagnosing the Air Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Air is the element representative of the movement, change, and shifting we experience in our body, mind, and spirit.  We feel the air element in our bodies when we sense things moving.  The air element has multiple directions. In hatha yoga, we're primarily concerned with the ascending quality of the air element in the upper body that allows us to breathe and expand, called prana vayu and the descending quality, apana vayu, that allows us to root and stabilize.   The air element is present when we describe the things of life as: "buoyant," "uplifting," "inspiring," and "exhilarating."

The Personality of the Fire Element

People with a lot of air element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • Funny
  • Light
  • Mentally Agile
  • Intellectual
  • Logical
  • Objective
  • Spiritual
  • Godly

 

 

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • Unemotional
  • Heady
  • Impractical
  • Ungrounded
  • Untrustworthy
  • Ditzy
  • Floaty

Examples of people who exude the positive qualities of the fire element include: Shirley MacLean,  Lucille Ball, Goldie Hawn, Chris Rock, Bob Marley, Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, George Harrison, Joan Baez, Spok (Star Trek), Richard Freeman.

What Air Element Feels Like in the Body: Deficiency and Excess

A deficiency of air element produces sluggishness and dullness in the body. When the air element is deficient, we tend to feel like everything is stagnant, stuck, and not moving.  This lack of movement can be extremely frustrating, so we also feel gloomy and experience frequent mood swings and irritability, sometimes even chronic depression.  Because things aren't moving properly and are staying stuck, we also experience pain in the body.  Either the pain moves from place to place or, if the air element is really deficient, the pain can be boring, fixed, and stabbing.

When the air element is deficient, we feel:

  • pain that moves from place to place
  • mental depression
  • gloomy feelings
  • frequent mood swings
  • frequent sighing

When the air element is extremely deficient we can feel:

  • pain that is fixed in location
  • pain that is boring and stabbing
  • abdominal masses that do no move
  • chronic depression

When the air element is excessive, we experience a quality of nervousness, hyper-excitability, and agitation in our bodies.  It's like our nervous system is always turned on.  In those moments, when the air element is excessive, we can feel ungrounded, nervous, agitated, and sometimes even frightened.

When the air element is in excess, we feel:

  • dizziness
  • fidgeting
  • uneasiness
  • vague anxiety
  • twitching
  • spasming
  • tremors

Antidote for Deficient Air Element in Yoga Practice

  1. Increase the ratio of inhale to exhale in ujayi pranayama as well and/or take an inhale retention.  Inhalations are expansive, while exhalations create contraction.  Air element is all about expansion, movement, and mobility.  Creating space through breath increases the air element and gets things moving, again.
  2. Emphasize sukha over sthira, the pleasant nature of the asana over its firmness.  Patanjali describes two qualities of asanas in 2.46 of The Yoga Sutras: sthira sukham asanam.  Sthira means firm, fixed, or steady.  Sukham is happiness and delight.  In Ashtanga, we tend to emphasize the firmness of the posture through contracting various muscles within it. So, for example, in forward bends, we tend to contract the biceps, the quadriceps, and the pelvic floor (mula bandha).  By deemphasizing the engagement of these muscles, we back off of postures, creating more space and spaciousness within them.
  3. Find a fluidity of movement, both in and out of the poses that feels light, buoyant, and airy.  Try a full-vinyasa practice.
  4. Emphasize uddiyana bandha, which means upward flying.  It tends to send the life force (prana) upward, creating a sense of buoyancy within the movement.
  5. Increase the amount of time spent in backbends.  Backbends expand and open the fronts of the chest and increase our lung capacity. Backbends that increase the air element include: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel Pose), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), Dhanurasana (bow pose),  Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose).
  6. While in forward bends, emphasize lengthening of the spine out of the pelvic girdle...
  7. ...rather than contracting and laying down on the outstretched leg(s).  Lengthening the spine out of the pelvic girdle creates a quality of openness, extroversion and expansion, while contracting tends to do just the opposite.
  8. Put yourself in contact with people, places, and things that revive and inspire you.  It can help to have books by your mat that you can return to that remind you of what's encouraging, positive and uplifting.  It can also help to keep a journal there, too, so you can write down any insights that inspire you as your practicing.
  9. It can be helpful to reduce certain foods that obstruct movement, foods high in saturated fats (lard, mammal meats, cream, cheese, and eggs), hydrogenated and poor quality fats (such as shortening, margarine, refined and rancid oils), excess nuts and seeds, chemicals in food and water, prescription drugs, all intoxicants, and highly processed, refined foods.  And, instead, increase foods and spices which stimulate movement:
  • beets
  • strawberry
  • peach
  • cherry
  • vegetables of the Brassica genus: cabbage, turnip root, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussel sprouts
  • mustard greens
  • turmeric
  • basil
  • cardamom
  • cumin
  • fennel
  • ginger
  • rosemary
  • mint

Antidote for Excess Air Element in Yoga Practice

  1. Emphasize grounding by keeping the awareness at the mula dhara chakra and performing mula bandha, since the muladhara chakra is the residence of the earth element.  Placing our attention here has the tendency to root us.  It also allows us to connect to our physical seat, which grounds and centers us.
  2. In standing poses, place the awareness at the soles of the feet by grounding the base of the big toe, the base of the small toe and the inner and outer edges of the heel.  This grounding is called pada bandha and creates stability in the body and mind.
  3. In arm balances, chaturanga dandasana, jump backs, jump throughs, and any time you have your hands on the floor, place the awareness at the contact the four corners of the hand—the bases of the index and small fingers, the base of the thumb, as well as the heel of the palm—make with the ground.
  4. Increase the ratio of exhaling compared to inhaling.  Try a 1:2 ratio; so, for example, you might inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 10.  Or maybe that's too time consuming, so you inhale for 4 and exhale for 8.  When we increase the ratio of exhale to inhale, we have the capacity to calm our nervous system.  If, for example, you notice you're agitated, take time aside from your asana practice to just try the 1:2 ratio of inhale to exhale, and you'll notice that your mind will naturally find more stability.  Additionally, you'll notice that at the end of an exhalation, you naturally engage mula bandha. In other words the pelvic floor naturally contracts; thus, exhaling is a natural way to engage mula bandha.
  5. Put an exhale retention into the breath sequence.  By doing so, you will be emphasizing the exhalation and its capacity to calm and stabilize the nervous system.
  6. Increase the time you spend in forward bends over back bends.  Forward bends have a more sedating effect on the nervous system than backbends.  That's one reason why primary series is so powerful when us Westerners first learn it.  We're so used to being amped up that when we take all of those forward bends, we start to find an access point toward introversion.
  7. Aasnas that decrease the air element include: Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose), Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C, & D (Wide-Legged Forward Bend), Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Marichyasana A & B (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi), Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
  8. While in forward bends emphasize the bend at the waist rather than the extension  out  of the pelvic girdle. By emphasizing flexion rather than extension, we create more introversion, grounding and sedation.
  9. In forward bends, bring some awareness and a slight increase in effort on the exhalation and relax on the inhalation.
  10. Do less asanas.  Excessive movement can agitate the air element more.  Don’t feel obligated to do the complete series of postures you've been taught each.  Know when enough is enough.  It might be beneficial not to jump back or jump through between asanas or sides of asanas.
  11. When we're hyper-exitable with excess air element, it can be helpful to get out of our heads, to get into our bodies, and to create some action rather than analysis.
  12. It can help to decrease the time we spend in front of the computer and television; and to eat nourishing foods, especially root vegetables and whole grains.
  13. Foods which treat excess air element include:
  • millet
  • barley
  • tofu
  • most beans: black, mung, and kidney
  • watermelon and other melons
  • seaweeds
  • algae: spiraluna, chlorella
  • eggs
  • cheese
  • warm milk

Avoid

  • coffee
  • alcohol
  • chocolate
  • sugar

 

Five Elements Series Part 4: The Ether Element and Curiosity

Ether is the space from which our consciousness arises.  It, in fact, has no form.  Its essence is emptiness.  And so it is the space that all the elements arise and pass away in.  Because ether has no qualities, it also represents emptiness or the void we all experience at moments and is filled, not through more activity but by quiet and retreat.  For many of us, our yoga practice is the place we go to in order to continue to empty out so that we can connect with the space of the ether element.

Ether is also the element that represents the mind.  After all, the mind has no form and cannot be contained, seen, or experienced on a sensual level.  Thoughts and emotions ride on the substratum of ether element.  Our capacity to experience the qualities of the four other elements is entirely dependent on what we do with our minds and, ultimately, with the ether element.  If we direct our minds, then we are harnessing the power of the ether element.  If we allow the mind to move in a willy-nilly fashion, we have no access to the other elements.

Noticing What Is

The ether element is the same thing as chit.  Essentially, chit is noticing what is.  It’s a kind of looking, listening, feeling, tasting, touching, and intuiting that allows us to see into things but is not obstructed by stories, dramas, or any interpretation whatsoever.  It’s really just noticing what is.  The action of chit, as described in The Yoga Sutras is an active form of observation without interpretation.  When we really get to know things without immediately jumping to conclusions, when we can just notice, we come to know them as they are.

Curiosity

Before we can ever really direct our mind or give space to anything, we have to be curious. Curiosity is a quality of being that is open, available, and full of wonder. It does not assume anything, nor is it attached to anything. It’s free, open, and innocent. It does not needing to make anything happen.

Do you remember what it was like to be a three year old? Three year olds walk around amazed at what’s in front of them. They never stop and think they've got it all figured out.  Once they're done taken a toy apart, they're off to find out something else. A three-year old's curiosity can be an amazing starting ground to approach the practice of yoga.  Without it, our practices become stagnant, rote, and monotonous.

Most of us initially start our yoga practice filled with curiosity.  We start enthralled by what our practice awakens in us. Then we start to think we know something about it.  We have it pegged, labeled, and understood.  We start to think we know how this posture is and how to approach it. We begin interacting with the practice based on history. Then we start to get bored with our practice.  Something that was once super-exciting becomes boring and predictable. What happened?  We stopped being curious. By taking our practices for granted, we numb out to the subtle shifts and changes that are constantly happening in our practices.  We assume we know.

When was the last time you were in wonder about your practice?  When was the last time you experienced something you’ve done a million times, like a posture or a drishti, and were shattered, literally torn apart by it?  That’s where curiosity is born. How do we show up on the mat everyday, curious about something new and wonderful, either in yourself or in the way a movement feels?  When we turn up the volume on our curiosity within our practice, not with the story or the circumstances, but the inner truth of our practice, our ability to apply the ether element grows and expands exponentially.

Exercise #1

As an exercise for acquainting yourself with the ether element, stop reading for a second, close your eyes, and simply listen to the music on this link, noticing what you feel in your body.

While this music is a bit dark and mysterious, which has a mood, just the act of listening has a quality of expansiveness.  That's the quality of ether or space element. The ether element is said to open in the ears.  So we learn about the ether element when, in yoga, pranayama, or meditation practice, we direct our attention to the sound of the breath, to listen both to the gross sounds and the subtle ones.

Exercise #2

Next time you find yourself in a crowded space, spend a few minutes walking around that space.  Spend the first few minutes trying to avoid others.  Notice what that's like.  Next, spend a few minutes stepping into the empty space.  If you try the latter, you'll notice how much the space will open up for you.  We tend to spend our lives defensively avoiding whatever it is that comes at us.  If, instead, we can learn to step into the empty space, into ether element, possibilities begin to open for us.

Exercise #3

Take a field trip to a few venues, like a library, a hotel lobby, the waiting area in an emergency room,  or an airport bar. Notice the way the space feels is it: angry, frustrated, joyful, board, at peace, anxious? What else you notice about the environment? What is the buzz in the space? Notice where the energy is in the room and how it shifts as people arrive or depart. Write down your impressions. Then try listening with your eyes closed. Notice how that changes things?

Exercise #4

While you're in your yoga practice, notice the spaces in the practice:

  • the space between the inhale and exhale, the exhale and the inhale
  • the space that is created in the body after you come out of a posture
  • the various spaces where you practice and how the spaces effect your practice.
  • the space between the feet and hands as they touch the floor
  • the space behind you, to your sides, and in front of you

Notice how placing your attention on the space alters your experience of your practice?  How does it change things?  How does it open things up?  What is newly open to you as you place your awareness on these places.

Five Element Series

This is one part in a nine-part series that explores the five elements and its application to yoga practice. Be sure to check out the other posts!

 

 

Five Elements Series Part 3: The Five Elements in History

Many societies and cultures previously embraced the five elements as a mode or model of categorizing what they saw, both out in the world and within their own psyches.  They named their experiences of life in terms related to nature. This helped to understand them, to make sense of them, and to heal imbalances and effect change: medically, psychically, relationally, and architecturally.  In fact, all aspects of life were subject to the categorization of and the harmonization with the elements. The elemental worldview, which saw humanity as an expression of nature, primarily came from the East, although, we do see elemental aspects in Ancient Greek medicine, with its four humors: blood, the air element; phlegm, water element; yellow bile, fire element; and black bile, earth element. But there is some speculation that even the Greeks were influenced by India, possibly as a result of the intellectual trade that took place after Alexander the Great conquered portions of it in the third century, B.C.E.

The Worldview of Domination

The Judeo-Christian perspective that has been passed on to us from the Middle East, on the other hand, saw man at the center of the cosmos.  His role was to conquer and subdue nature.  This perspective lives on today as modern science continues to ‘fight disease’ and ambitious investors attempt ‘make a killing’ in the stock market.  We don’t always realize it, but our perspectives have been heavily influenced by the Genesis story in which God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." (Genesis 1:26, New International Version, 1984)  Placing man at the center of the cosmos created an ethos of dominance rather than harmonization.

The Worldview of Harmonization

 

Asian classical cultures did not see themselves as rulers of the earth but, instead, considered themselves members. Disease and strife were representative of the disharmony they’d unknowingly created with nature.  It was their role, as humans, to continuously put themselves in accord with nature, to attune to it, to learn how to flow with and manipulate the elements in order to maintain a sense of harmony.

India and the Five Elements

The five element theory that comes from India is rooted in, Samkhya Philosophy, which is considered to be the antecedent of the Classical Yoga expounded by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras.  In Samkhya, the five elements are represented by the first five chakras: earth, the first chakra; water the second; fire, the third; air, the fourth; and ether, the fifth.  The elements represent the constituent parts and qualities that make up the prakriti (nature). They are considered the most basic building blocks, much like atoms, that make up the world of matter.

The basic theme of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is on how to work with the mind as a way to experience the ultimate nature.  Patanjali saw the elements as the basic building blocks that constituted various qualities (gunas) of the mind.  So when the mind was satvic, or clear and lucid, ether and air elements predominated.  When the mind was agitated, or rajasic, the fire element predominated.  A tamasic, or inert, mind corresponded to  to the earth and water elements. The work of Patanjali's yoga was (and still is) to see through the transitory qualities of form, both gross and subtle.  As a result of this discrimination (viveka), the yogi saw that which was ultimate and beyond matter, namely the purusa or pure spirit.

 

The purusa is different from the Western concept of the spirit, since there is no form or substance to the purusa. In the West, we tend to think of the spirit or soul as having some subtle or etheric form. From the standpoint of Samkhya Philosophy, nothing can actually be said about this ultimate reality, except in terms of what it is not. It has no qualities, no matter, and no motion.  It is timeless, so it was never born, nor does it ever die.  It isn't affected by moods, thoughts, or sensations.  It is often described as a mirror that reflects nothing or a seer who sees nothing.  The perfect knowledge of the yogi is the identification with the ultimate nature (purusa) rather than the relative nature (prakriti) comprised of the five elements.

So the yogi meditated on the various sensations in the form of the elements as a tool to experience the eternal and absolute as opposed to the temporal and relative.  If the yogi could recognize that temperature was sourced by the fire element, mass by the earth element, cohesion by the water element, and movement by the air element, he or she would cease to cling or avoid whatever arose and, ultimately, see through the veil of illusion of matter (maya) and into the ultimate reality.

Five Element Series

This is one part in a nine-part series that explores the five elements and its application to yoga practice. Be sure to check out the other posts!

  • Part 1—Intro
  • Part 2—Getting Unstuck
  • Part 3—The Five Elements in History
  • Part 4—The Ether Element
  • Part 5—The Air Element
  • Part 6—The Fire Element
  • Part 7—The Water Element
  • Part 8—The Earth Element
  • Part 9-Transformational Breakthroughs

Five Elements Series Part 2: Getting Unstuck

We all face discomfort on the mat, whether in the body, emotionally, or in the mind.  As soon as we have the sense that something is askew, we can’t help but say, "I don't like this feeling.” Or, “I don't want to have this feeling.”  And it is so subtle when it happens.  It is usually just a split second.  There's a very subtle part of our awareness that is constantly asking, "Is this pleasure?  Or is this discomfort?"  And if it's discomfort, then we immediately need to do something about it.  The time between noticing pleasure and discomfort is so subtle and elusive that we are rarely responsive.  Mainly we are reactive to these sensations, especially those that do not feel good. There's a saying in yoga that suffering can be the doorway to wisdom.  And so our discomfort, pain, hurt, and, even anger can be used as an access point into truth.  If we will stay with the experience--not necessarily the thoughts about the experience, but the direct experience of what's occurring--then what tends to unfold is deeper insight and learning.  But the lessons won't emerge until we apply a quality of curiosity and presence to whatever is arising, from moment to moment.

Getting Unstuck

And I say, moment-to-moment, because what happens is that all experience is constantly in a flux.  It's constantly changing. There isn't one fixed experience we have.  While some feeling states last for extended periods of time, if we apply consciousness, we'll notice that they're constantly shifting.  That is, they're not fixed.  Even in this moment, what you felt 30 seconds ago doesn't correspond to what's occurring, now. And so by being in the now, we end up noticing a constant flux, a constant change. Applying this quality of present moment consciousness unsticks us.  What keeps us stuck is that we identify ourselves in fixed modes, like "I am an intense person;" or "I'm a Capricorn;" or "I'm a materialist;" or "I am a vegetarian."

When we begin to notice the qualities of the five elements that arise in the body and throughout our experience of life, we start to develop the visceral experience that nothing we experience out in the world is, in fact, is fixed, static, or eternal.  So, for example, we may experience a lot of fire in one moment.  In that moment we might feel anger, frustration, and warm, hot, or burning sensations in the body.  Many of us have a hard time being with these feelings.  They're uncomfortable.  But if we apply a quality of curiosity to them, if we stay with our experience long enough without looking to express or repress the feelings that come up, we'll notice them morph into another element.  Maybe we'll experience some water element; we may be become sad, weepy, heavy, and maybe even tearful.  It isn't that the elements follow an orderliness, but they do shift from moment-to-moment.

Asmita

The elemental approach is useful in that when we get a feeling we are either uncomfortable with or simply cannot be with, we can disentangle ourselves from the "I don't want" response, which leads to more "I don't want."  Patanjali's notion of asmita, which is commonly translated as ego, is really an excessive sense of I or me.  Two things comprise this false and excessive sense of I or me: the parts that cling to pleasure (raga) and the parts that avoid pain or discomfort (dvesa).  Instead of being led around by the asmita, the five elements give a different lens to simply see what it is that we experience. While all personal experience can never be truly objective, the elements do give a quality of neutrality.  As a result, they take us out of the propensity to think that whatever we are experiencing is either right or wrong.  They take us out of the land of raga, dvesa, and asmmita and, instead, put us in touch with curiosity, openness, and discrimation (viveka).

So when we're awake to our discomfort, instead of seeking solutions, we can immediately start to ask, "What am I feeling here?" "Where is it?" "Is there a metaphor in nature I might use to describe it? Is it hot or cold? Heavy or light? Moving or fixed?  Wet or dry?" "What is the primary element here?" "Are there any other elements present?"  And then we can stay with the feelings as they shift by asking, "What am I noticing, now?"  And then after a few moments, we can ask the same question, "What's happening, now?"  Throughout the process if we remain open and curious to whatever shows up, we can begin to unravel and awaken to a deeper experience of wisdom.

Five Element Series

This is one part in a nine-part series that explores the five elements and its application to yoga practice. Be sure to check out the other posts!

  • Part 1—Intro
  • Part 2—Getting Unstuck
  • Part 3—The Five Elements in History
  • Part 4—The Ether Element
  • Part 5—The Air Element
  • Part 6—The Fire Element
  • Part 7—The Water Element
  • Part 8—The Earth Element
  • Part 9-Transformational Breakthroughs