Creating the Space to See What We Do

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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

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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

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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.

How to Make Profound, Lasting Change

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When we lose a job, get a bad review, experience burn out, or our heart is broken, we often can’t help but experience a sense of groundlessness and paralysis. We struggle with meaning and end up feeling stuck.  Who am I, now?  How do I recover from the sense of frustration, overwhelm, or loss?  In this post, I am going to suggest that what stops us is not the situations themselves.  It’s never fun to lose a job or have our hearts broken, but there’s no inherent meaning in these losses.  In other words, the circumstances of our lives don’t make us unhappy.  Rather, our experience of them depends entirely on the meaning we bring to them.  Some perspectives empower us when faced with even the most difficult of situations and some render us incapacitated.  How we hold the circumstances of our lives can either grow us or take us down.

Part 1: Uncover your interpretations of the situations you find ourselves in.

Rarely do we relate to our actual experiences. Instead, we relate to the meaning we make of our experiences and the emotional charge we feel about the experience.

If we observe ourselves over a few days, we’ll notice an automatic, unconscious propensity to see that we’re always adding meaning to the experiences of our lives.  We have the tendency to fit each experience that shows up into an ongoing story we have about our lives and who we are.  In fact, rarely do we regard ourselves in relationship to the immediate circumstances we find ourselves in.  Instead of relating directly to our experiences, we often just relate to our beliefs, opinions, and judgments about the experiences.  And so when things fall apart, and we lose meaning in life, it can be incredibly helpful to reassess how we make meaning of our lives.

A 48-year old client, Mary, had been driven her whole life to make it big in the corporate world.  A year ago she arrived at my office and declared: “I am totally burnt out and am just going through the motions of my life.”  She didn’t sleep well; she’d gained ten pounds over the last few years; and her relationship with her girlfriend was suffering from her tendency to what she called “workaholic tendencies.”  She’d been to a psychologist already, and while that work had clued her into why she felt stuck, it still didn’t propel the change she desperately needed.

When I asked Mary why she didn’t leave or alter her situation in her job, she responded that to do so felt like torture.  Mary’s sense of purpose in life, up until that moment, revolved entirely around her work.  Her sense of self and the qualities of her relationships went down when her work went down.  Likewise, they went up when her work went well, not to mention the fact that she’d spent her whole life working her way to the top.  Now that she’d finally made it to the “big time,” she couldn’t help but look around and scratch her head, asking, “Is this as good as it gets.”  Her health and her personal relationships were suffering, and she found her colleagues, in fact, intolerable.

While Mary felt that to make a change would put her family in financial jeopardy, she knew, rationally speaking, that they’d do fine if she took a pay cut.  She, like most of my clients use the “financial card,” as an excuse not to make a change.  But when she looked closely, she was really afraid to upset her relationship with her girlfriend. As a child, her alcoholic mother had been inconsistent, sometimes present and sometimes altogether absent. When we looked at her “life’s story” it was obvious that she’d done everything in her power to give herself the security and safety that her mother constantly took away from her.  She’d lived her life in service to accruing professional accolades so she wouldn’t feel the way she felt as a little girl, scared and destitute.

Part 2: Meet the feelings you’re avoiding.

To make profound, lasting change not only must we uncover the background stories that help us make meaning of our experiences, but we also must meet the nervous system’s response to the experiences.  Embedded within each of our narratives is a statement like, “I never want to feel "x" again.”  "X" might be loneliness, sadness, anger or fear.  The narratives that live in the subtle background of our lives help us not only to succeed but also to avoid certain feelings.  If we’re ever going to really transform, we have to be willing to meet the feelings we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. In Mary’s case, her workaholism protected her from the fear of being destitute. As Mary examined her life’s narrative and discovered her propensity to be risk averse, she started to confront bodily feelings of terror: fluttering feelings in the chest, queasiness in the stomach, and a knot in the throat.

This part of the journey can be very uncomfortable and equally counterintuitive. Each of us spends a whole lifetime avoiding these feelings.  Turning around and looking at them can be like turning around and facing the demon we swore off almost a lifetime ago.  It takes incredible courage, even-mindedness, tenacity and compassion to ride the waves of emotional pain.  And to do so can feel like this:

Heavy-heartedness… irritation in the chest… boredom… really heavy heartedness… tightness in the ribs…. burning rage…heat in the face…tight throat… boredom… fatigue… numbness… impatience and boredom…. nothing… nothing…nothing…hurt

Often times my clients will ask, “Why would I want to be with this shit?”  Often my response is that to meet it is to transform it.  To avoid it is to let it rule you.”  If we don’t meet the body’s response, we miss a deep learning that our suffering has to show us. So as Mary met the fluttering, queasiness, and knots in one of our meetings, her “fear of change” lost its hold on her.

Part 3: Reinterpret the experience in such a way that it leaves you powerful.

At that point, she was no longer afraid to feel her terror.  She could see that she didn’t need to be a workaholic her whole life in order to avoid “ending up broke, homeless, and alone.”  Instead, she was at choice to create a new narrative, one that created possibility and that empowered her.  When Mary tapped into the wiser and more intuitive parts of her being she could see that instead of her burn out being an obstacle, that it could be seen as an omen for change.  “I could work less, maybe even go to yoga class, and have time to eat a meal with Donna [her girlfriend].” Instead of creating less safety, this crossroads might give her an opportunity to explore a new way of being in the world, one in which work wasn’t the only focus, but, instead, included family and intimacy.

Part 4: Make the insight real through action that leads to specific and measurable outcomes.

All it takes is a moment to see our situations in a light that renders us free, powerful, or expressed.  But to make the changes necessary to fulfill this recognition a clear set of goals accompanied by practice. Once Mary committed to a change in her work, she started to look for new work opportunities, both within her corporation and outside.  She made a point of meeting colleagues within her network.  It took time and a lot of what I call “t.s.o.-ing”—trying shit out--to stumble upon an opportunity that excited her and gave her the flexibility she needed.  She knew that she’d have to surrender some of the clout of her previous job, and so she also established some practices that made this transition easier on her nervous system.

Part 5: Practice mind-body techniques that support the nervous system and facilitate the change.

Mary and I co-created a morning ritual.  Each morning she did some movement, whether it was yoga I taught her or taking a walk with her girlfriend.  I also taught her a few simple meditations, which she could practice for 5-15 minutes.  Finally she wrote in her journal on an inquiry I’d assign her each week. An inquiry is an open-ended question that can be answered from many different sides that gives new insights each way we look at it. One inquiry that uncovered a landmine of insight for her was, “What must I drop in order to gain something new?”  This question helped her discover the confidence that she wasn’t just dropping off altogether but that her change would put her in touch with something new.

Slowly, over a six-month period, Mary discovered the right fit she’d been looking for in a new company. To an outsider, that move might have been seen as a demotion, but to her the move enhanced the quality of her life immensely.  She worked less; had more time to explore new ways of relating and playing with her girlfriend; and found time for herself.  Essentially, this move provided the breathing room Mary needed to replenish the well that had dried up inside of her.

Exercise

  1. Very briefly, write an account of your life and conclude with the situation you currently find yourself in.  Keep the writing to a minimum of one page.
  2. Reread your brief account once.
  3. Notice how your life’s story influences the current circumstances you’re in.  Does  it empower or disempower your circumstances?
  4. Review your brief account, again, this time, reading your account out loud.
  5. Notice how it makes you feel in your head, throat, heart, belly, and genitals once you’ve completed the account.  Do you notice any emotion, sensation, or charge in these areas of the body?
  6. If you notice that you do, read the account out loud, once again.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until any feeling of constraint has altogether gone away.
  8. Notice if there’s a new meaning you start to derive from the circumstances you find yourself in accompanied by new possibilities for yourself and your life.
  9. Write them down on a piece of paper.
  10. Hire a coach. A coach will hold you accountable to making the changes in life you sense you need to make.  Don’t bother trying to do this part alone.  Creating something new can be incredibly daunting.  A good coach is really a skilled change agent.  He or she will collaborate with you in designing practices that will make the process of change easier, fun, and intelligent, too.

What Are We Really Afraid Of?

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IMG_1083Franklin Roosevelt said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  If I'm really honest with myself, the only thing that holds me back is my fear.  When I think of somewhat risky things that might enliven my life, often the first thing that comes over me are subtle bodily warnings with anticipatory images, either of failure or mediocrity.   So much of what stops me and my clients from risk-taking, trying out something new or making  creative mistakes is a fear of something unknown. My friend and coaching peer, Peter Bostelmann, and I were discussing this very topic over lunch today.  I was describing this urge to take on a new project, one that would challenge me to give my gifts and, at the same time, would be an expression of what I sense my life purpose is all about.  As I attempted to share the details of that project, being the good listener that he is, he noticed that I was holding back, even being a bit shy about it.  When we looked closely together, I could see that much of what held me back was a part of me I'd rejected, a younger part of me that felt  ashamed for wanting to share myself for fear of being dismissed or disregarded as frivolous.

He helped me identify that part of me that doesn't want to feel old childhood feelings again.  That fear of really taking a risk and following my heart, he posited, might just be the avoidance of feeling those feelings again.  I believe what he's saying is true. When I look at different aspects of my childhood, I can see that a lot of what stops me is that I was either taught or I decided that certain parts of me were whole and others were broken, incomplete, or misaligned.  A lot of the work I've done, either in coaching, in therapy, on the yoga mat, or on the meditation cushion has been in service to healing those parts that feel fragmented.  And yet, I also recognize that not everything gets healed and even when there is some healing, those fears that stop us are still present.  Why?

Morbidity

Maybe our fear isn't run exclusively by our avoidance of certain past experiences and wounds.  Maybe, in addition, what stops us is our inability to anticipate our future.  All that we're capable of knowing with certainty is that we will die, that at some point we will have to say goodbye to our loved ones, let go of all that we have created, and surrender to the great mystery called death.  I wonder if what's stopping me isn't just that my dad didn't tuck me in one night when I was seven years old.  I know that had an impact on me.  But maybe what stops me is that I know that one day it will all go.

I've been facing that recognition more and more, the idea that at some point we all are forced to let go of what we love.  As I continue to open my heart ever more to my wife, Melissa, I keep running painfully into the fear, that at some point either she will die or I will die.  It's a horribly morbid thought, but one can't help but notice it when intimate ties grow stronger.  I wonder if that's what makes vulnerability so challenging with those we are most intimately connected to, like our significant others, our parents, and our siblings.  We rarely consciously face the thought that eventually we will have to say, "Goodbye,"  but I wonder whether somewhere in the back of our minds, we sense or even premeditate that loss and, as a result, guard our hearts, so we won't have to face the intensity of the pain once it actually occurs.

Hindsight and Foresight

Does our aversion to past experiences create this low-grade, unknown fear? Or do we fear and thus protect ourselves from the fact that some day it will all go?  Either way, we, unlike any other species in the world are cursed and/or blessed with hindsight and foresight.  These two perspectives do funny things to our nervous systems.  They're not always the most empowering.  In fact, they're often paralyzing.  Is it my past that's holding me back?  Is it my fear of eventual success, failure, or mediocrity and eventual death that stops me from taking the great leap into the unknown?

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter.  All that matters is that I find the place inside that doesn't fear the fear and, at the same time, hold a healthy regard for it, too.  I suppose that's the learning in all of this meandering for me.  That's where I have to look.  Courage, then, is the willingness not to take on the anticipated journey all at once but to just take the step that's presented here and now, the one that's right in front of me, the one that I fear but also the one I know is where I am called.

SF Street Coaches Featured in Leiweb an Italian Periodical

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Below, you will find a translation of an article about San Francisco Street Coaches in an Italian online journal called Leiweb.  The original Italian version is written by journalist, Anna Volpicelli.

From left to right: Chad, Melissa and Michael on Castro Street
In times of crisis, it is good to return to ourselves, rediscover our passions and find a way to put them into practice. This is the three musketeers mission of peace. Chad, Melissa and Michael, all professional life coaches, have decided to spread their art on the streets of San Francisco free of charge. A project that they've dubbed San Francisco Street Coaches finds them  on Friday afternoons somewhere between the bars of Market, Castro, Dolores Park or 18th Street, stopping passers-by asking, "What is your passion?"  The trio were inspired by a video posted on Youtube by Sivani Mair, a life coach and professional communicator. In the video Mair wanders the streets of London offering street coaching sessions. "When I saw her," said Chad, "I thought about the great opportunity we have here in San Francisco.  As coaches, simply by asking powerful questions and listening with care, we might be able to support people in finding access to their inner wisdom." The project has been well received by students, retirees, women and men.  The therapeutic energy and compassion that these three musketeers emanates draws both amusement and amazement from almost everyone.

 

 

Small talk in Dolores Park

SF Street Coaches Featured in Leiweb an Italian Periodical

SF-Street-Coaching-3-660x854.jpg
Below, you will find a translation of an article about San Francisco Street Coaches in an Italian online journal called Leiweb.  The original Italian version is written by journalist, Anna Volpicelli.

From left to right: Chad, Melissa and Michael on Castro Street
In times of crisis, it is good to return to ourselves, rediscover our passions and find a way to put them into practice. This is the three musketeers mission of peace. Chad, Melissa and Michael, all professional life coaches, have decided to spread their art on the streets of San Francisco free of charge. A project that they've dubbed San Francisco Street Coaches finds them  on Friday afternoons somewhere between the bars of Market, Castro, Dolores Park or 18th Street, stopping passers-by asking, "What is your passion?"  The trio were inspired by a video posted on Youtube by Sivani Mair, a life coach and professional communicator. In the video Mair wanders the streets of London offering street coaching sessions. "When I saw her," said Chad, "I thought about the great opportunity we have here in San Francisco.  As coaches, simply by asking powerful questions and listening with care, we might be able to support people in finding access to their inner wisdom." The project has been well received by students, retirees, women and men.  The therapeutic energy and compassion that these three musketeers emanates draws both amusement and amazement from almost everyone.

 

 

Small talk in Dolores Park

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Staying Open is a Choice No Matter the Circumstance

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A few weeks ago one of my most favorite aunts passed away.  Jeannde was one of those very special souls who embraced life with joy, openness, and wonder no matter the circumstances.  She had a way of bringing light wherever she went.  Melissa, my wife, and I had the gift to say goodbye to her a few days before her passing. The evening when we walked into her room, I could feel a profound peace, beauty, and light.  At the time, she was in limbo, not quite in this life but not quite in another.  She wasn't scared but, in fact, at peace.  She was clearly in a lot of bodily discomfort, but her spirit was palpably in total acceptance.  We managed to exchange a few powerful words, letting each other know how much we meant to one another; saying, "I love you"; and then, eventually, saying, "Goodbye."

I left that night with a deep peace that still reverberates in my heart as I write this two-weeks later.  Jeannde showed me that it is possible to continue to stay curious, not only in the twilight years but even up to the moment of death.  I always like to tell others that at the ripe age of 87, she was coming to my yoga classes, bending, twisting, and breathing, just like every other 20/30/40-something student in the room. I once told her that a few of my students were inspired by her presence in the room.  She couldn't understand why.  Age meant nothing to her except for the fact that her body was quite a bit less responsive than it had been in her younger years as a dancer.

I share Jeannde's story here because she taught me that circumstances don't make the light dim within us.  At each threshold, no matter what we face, we are at choice to stay open.  And it is a choice.  Literally, on her deathbed, on the threshold of the great unknown, in agonizing physical discomfort, she was sharing her heart, expressing her love, and accepting the calling that it was time for her to go.  Not only did the circumstances she was in not dim her.  They only seemed to add to her luminescence and magical capacity to stay in awe.

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