essence

Choosing "The Yum": Sat-Chit-Ananda

  As Ashtangis, I think we're missing a pretty significant tool, the tool to describe and put us in direct contact with our inner experiences.  So much of what we learn in the classroom is technique. "Lift the arm a little higher."  "Drop the chin down."  "Ekam. Inhale. Dve. Exhale.  Trini. Inhale.  Head up.  Catvari.  Jump back...Jump back, I said!!!"  This is all what needs to be done in the way of yoga. Very little is spoken about the experience of yoga within this tradition: what it is? what we're truly after? how we know when we've achieved it?  The instruction has always been, "You do!"  But what about the being?  Isn't the doing in service to the being, the subjective, inner experience?  That's why I've taken time to write this blog series.  My hunch is that without a language for the experience of yoga, we'll always be caught in the doing, and the doing, and the doing.  Frankly speaking, I see and do enough that when I come to the mat, I don't need to keep doing.  So what follows is an inquiry into the language of being.  What does that language look like and how do we use it to describe states of consciousness and where we are in reference to the direct experience of yoga.

I find that most of the descriptions of the experience of yoga or union don't fit our everyday, work-a-day-world language, and, as a result we make up the story that the the end-goal of yoga, is only for advanced practitioners, gurus, and saints.  But, in fact, most descriptions use wording that is either outdated or way, way too esoteric.  Descriptions often include words like "beatitude," "rapture," "absorption," "emptiness and fullness," or "exultation."  I've recently become acquainted with an ancient description of the qualities of this union that works for our everyday lives.  It's called Sat-Chit-Ananda.  Devorah and I will be leading a workshop in the Spring on May 11th, 12th, and 13th in Santa Cruz, CA that is all about this very topic.  We both feel strongly that the experience of yoga is something we all have access to all the time, even, in fact, in the very moment that you are reading this.  It's not something "far out" or obscure.  It's here and now, easily experienced, and not just for the advanced yogi.

Put Your Mind on "The Yum"

Sat-Chit-Ananda, as a compound, is a description of the quality of experience that's occurring when we're "in yoga" so to speak: when the mind and, ultimately, our being are directed toward and fixed in the direction of what deeply feeds us. The compound is made of three Sanskrit roots: Sat, Chit, and Ananda, each with their own meaning, but together connoting qualities of the experience of yoga.  Sat means being or existing.  Chit means to understand, comprehend, and to fix the mind.  Ananda is often translated as bliss, but the problem with that word is that it sounds somehow way too insubstantial in everyday language. Ananda isn't some rarefied experience that only mystics experience but, rather, something accessible to each of us now.  It's a normal, everyday experience.  So, I am translating it as "the yum!".  When you put all three together, what you get is the following:

A state of being in which the mind is fixed on "the yum!"

Ananda: The Resonance of Yum!

When I say "the yum" I am not pointing to pleasure.  Pleasant feelings are temporary and fleeting experiences.  They come and go. The ultimate experience of yoga doesn't come and go.  It's always present, always accessible, and here and now.  Instead, "the yum" is the profound experience that something deep inside is fed and, thus, resonates profoundly.  We all have an experience of this from time to time.  It shows up in those moments in life that are especially rich, rewarding and poignant.  "The yum" shows up in these moments and experience that remind us of our innate of love, peace, joy, and compassion.  "The yum" is another way of describing our essence, who we essentially are.

One of our students recently lamented that she was unmotivated to come to practice yoga. She was finding it rather drab.  Clearly, she was in "the yuck," so I asked her, historically speaking, what "the yum" of practice had been for her.  After a brief moment of reflection, I saw her eyes light up with mischief, and she said,"I love the play of it."  The practice had become way too serious for her, so serious that it had led her away from her essence.  One of the ways she finds it is through fun and, from what I could tell, a little mischief. So her access point to experiencing the transcendent in the practice was to reawaken the sense of frolic in her practice.

Fixing "The Yuck" In Order to Get to "The Yum"

I sometimes hear students say the following: "I don't like the way I look, and I don't feel good in my body.  I just need more discipline in my life."  That's the equivalent of what I call: following " the yuck" in order to get to "the yum."  When we do this, we attempt to put a noose around what we don't like about ourselves and suffocate it to death in hopes that an experience of the sacred and profound will magically appear.  The problem with putting effort on getting rid of, fixing, or overcoming "the yuck" is that instead of getting rid of it, we actually grow it and make it stronger.  The practice of yoga shows each of us that whatever we focus on, we grow more of.  And if our orientation is on getting rid of, destroying, overcoming, beating down, or fixing "the yuck," more often than not, we find ourselves with more and more of "the yuck" to get rid of, fix, or overcome.

I remember when I was about to graduate from college, and I was thinking about all that I had to complete in order to graduate: the papers, the exams, and the lectures.  I thought, "once I'm done with all this shit, then I will feel free."  Well, I finished the work necessary and graduated, but then I was confronted with the stark reality of what I was going to have to do to earn some money.  And, of course, I thought, "Once I have a job, then I'll be okay."  And the struggle went on and on because once I had found a paying job, it wasn't the job I wanted.  I was looking at the whole experience of life from the perspective of trying to overcome "the yuck" in order to get to "the yum."  The only problem I found was that it just led to more yuck.

What We Place Our Attention On is What We Grow in Our Lives

Trying to overcome "the yuck" in order to get to "the yum" doesn't work.  When our attention is placed on fixing what doesn't work, we get more of what doesn't work.  And if we put our attention on what feeds us deeply and profoundly, which is the ananda in sat-chit-ananda, our lives become filled with more resonance, more fulfillment, more aliveness.  Invariably those students who learn to connect with their version of "the yum" don't need to develop discipline.  When they find, what one student recently called "the bubbles in her Coke," discipline naturally shows up as a byproduct.  It's not something that they need to force or foist on themselves when they bring passion to what they do.

A Context Wide Enough to Hold the Opposites

Following our own, individual sense of what "the yum" is for us can be a subversive act.  It takes us on what the poet, Robert Frost, called "The Road Not Taken."  We often don't end up following what our parents wanted for us; what society deemed acceptable; or where we thought we would ever end up.  Often times we find ourselves walking down glorious roads and sometimes on lonely ones.  But no matter how elated or alone we are, when we follow "the yum", we realize that we have no choice, anyway.

That's why ananda or "the yum" isn't pleasure.  It's what transcends pleasure and pain.  It is a context for life that is wide enough to be able to hold opposites: pleasure and pain, good and bad, right and wrong, sthira (stable) and sukha (pleasant). When we truly follow "the yum," we know deep down that rain can come, sun can come, but we're on our path, and we wouldn't have it any other way.  What's your "yum?"

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the First part of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts!

Sharing Appreciation

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The client in my previous blog has begun asking her boyfriend to tell her that he loves her.  When she introduced this idea of requesting that he verbally appreciate her, he responded: "I'm with you, aren't I?  If I wasn't with you, I wouldn't love you.  Isn't that enough?" Let me just start by saying, "No, that's not enough."  The honest truth is that we need to know that we are cherished.  We need to know that we're treasured by those people around us.  I'm about to get a puppy, and so I've been doing all sorts of reading about how to train and interact with her. What's clear to me is that we're a whole lot like puppies.  While we don't thrive from being rewarded with kibble, we do thrive when our essence is recognized.

Open-Hearted Seeing

Our essence is who we essentially are at the depth of our being.  Merriam-Webster defines essence as " the individual, real, or ultimate nature of a thing." When we value another's essence, we're not just acknowledging the qualities of an individual that are unique to that individual, we're acknowledging who they elementally are to us in that moment.

To detect essence, requires a quality of open-hearted seeing.  We need to be able to look with appreciative eyes. Noticing essence is distinct from noticing something that that person has done or that they have.  Being appreciated for doing a job well-done feels good.  Being acknowledged for who we are essentially feels amazing!

Emotional Intelligent Behavior

So my client showed him how she wanted to be acknowledged.  So often we ask our significant others to just guess how we want it.  We ask them to be mind readers, to just know.  Most of us need to be taught this.  As advanced as our culture is scientifically, we have some catching up to do when it comes to emotional intelligent behavior.  In order to show him, she looked at him for a second or two, connected with his essence and said, "You are a deep, sensitive, and sexy man."  When she did, she said that she saw him melt, that all of his defenses came down.

Why?  Because he was seen.  When we share our appreciation for  another, we're basically saying, "I see you, and I love what I see."  So rarely do each of us have the experience of truly being seen or known.  When it happens, it's like a healing balm.  Truly being known, being seen, is what each of us longs for.

Timing is Everything

Once people learn how to acknowledge, they start to see how powerful it is.  It's powerful because it creates a sense of connectedness.  People around us feel connected to us when they know that they are seen.  And when they do, their best comes out.  But there's a timing to it. I know people who acknowledge so much that it loses its potency.

In addition, there are times when it should and should not be used.  The bottom line is that it has to come from an authentic place.  We all can sense an authentic boiling up of love, care, or affinity for another.  It's in those moments when we feel or sense that that acknowledgement can and does create connection.  When it's used in the form of manipulation, it feels saccharine and manipulative.

And there are recipients, who no matter how authentic our words of appreciation are, have a hard time receiving.  Some people just have a hard time being admired.  To receive words of appreciation are seen as prideful.  When that's the case, no matter how authentic our words, they will never land.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Each of us must develop the capacity to express our care for one another.  It has to come from an authentic place.  And, at the same time, that care must be backed with acts that represent that care.  The two have to occur, not necessarily simultaneously, but without action, words are just that, words.  When our word and action are one and the same, our expressions of love and care for one another are powerful and transformative for all to see.  The very few relationships that I've seen that express a depth of caring consistently marry both words and deeds.  At the heart of their expression is care.

The Basics: How to Share Appreciation

  1. Start to pay attention to those moments when you sense love, care, or affinity for another.  That's often the best time to acknowledge them.  If you're not habituated to noticing this sense of love and care, make that your practice for a week.  Notice each time it arises.
  2. Once you notice it, give expression to the feeling.  You might say, "I feel love for you," or "You make me feel warm inside," or "My life feels whole with you in it," or "I really appreciate the joy you bring to my life."
  3. Next, take a moment to look in the direction of the person.  When you look, you're looking with a different set of eyes.  You might say that these are the eyes of appreciation.  You want to notice, in the moment, what you deeply and profoundly appreciate about the other person.  Remember, it's just a moment.  Don't take too long.  Essence is obvious.  If you keep looking for something, you will totally miss the mark.
  4. Next, offer your appreciation in a "You are..." statement. For example, "You are a bright light who brings warmth wherever you go,"  or "You are deep soul," or "You are gorgeous." Because essence has a poetic quality, metaphor can be a powerful form of acknowledgement.
  5. Once you've offered a "You are..." statement, don't keep talking.  Pause and notice how your words landed.  Were they received?  Were they blocked or deflected?  And if they landed, notice what's present between you and the person your acknowledging.  Is there more love and affinity?

 

Ashtanga Yoga: The Tradition and The Dogma

A few days ago, while a student was coming up from backbends, I noticed that she was breathless and grimacing.  I asked her what was up.  She said that her previous Ashtanga teacher encouraged her to move through the series of movements quickly.  She described how the rapid movement agitated her. Dropping into a backbend and coming back to standing is traditionally taught: exhale go down, inhale come up, and the movement is repeated three times with no pauses in between. As a teacher of this tradition, I was immediately stuck with a quandary.  Do I ask her to keep the traditional vinyasa count, thus, honoring the tradition but compromising her well-being, or do I offer her an alternative route? This is a classic situation that comes up in practice, both as a student of the tradition and as a teacher.  Do I uphold the tradition or honor the well-being of my student?  I think it’s obvious that my students’ well-being has to come first over the tradition, but in honoring the tradition, it can become a very slippery slope between letting go completely and gripping with a quality of rigidity.  In many ways, as a teacher and practitioner in and from The West, the dance of honoring tradition and the individual, at the same time, can be a challenging one.  How do we not lose the essence of the tradition and, at the same time, fit the practice to the individual?

'Correct Method' / 'Incorrect Method'

I, personally, have struggled with this question for quite some time, probably since the first day I showed up in Mysore in 1993 and discovered that in order to bind my legs in a lotus posture (padmasasna), I had to dislocate the meniscus.  Each time I believe I have struck the perfect balance, I find that I have either become too rigid in a particular situation or way too ‘wishy-washy.’  Admittedly, I err on the side of ‘wishy-washy.’  Something about my personal makeup hates imposing right and wrong on my students.  And so much of following the tradition is about right and wrong.  There’s a right way to do the sequence and there’s a wrong way.  Throughout the years of being a student of Pattabhi Jois’, I heard the words “correct method” and “incorrect method.”

Yoga That Transcends Duality

And somehow, in my mind, a good and powerful system of yoga should and must transcend all duality.  Yoga is, after all, about the union of those opposing forces, masculine and feminine, right and wrong, evil and righteous.  In the language of The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we’re balancing and harmonizing the solar and lunar energies within the left and right tubes or nadis of the subtle body that feed the energy vortexes, called chakras, in order to evoke or stimulate the sushumna, the central channel within the subtle body of the spinal column.  This is an energetic code for the experience of the transcendental experience that occurs when masculine and feminine, right and wrong, good and bad have been harmonized.  It’s a way of saying that a deeper, wider, and more profound reality exists beyond the bounds of duality.  In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that posture should be “steady and comfortable.” (2:46) “It results with relaxation of effort and the meeting with the infinite.”

Fighting through a posture just because the tradition demands us to do it in a particular way takes us further and further away from the essence of yoga.  And I think that this is where, as teachers and practitioners of any system that comes from a different culture--whether it is yoga or Zen— we need to maintain a critical eye.  It doesn’t behoove us or our students to fall into the trap of saying, “because that’s just the way it is.”  It’s simply the way it is as determined by the elite within the system that we’re in, whether it is the charismatic teacher or the agreement of the masses within the system.

Drawing the Line: Tradition vs. Individual Needs

But here’s where the dance gets interesting.  Where do we draw the line between honoring the system our teacher shares with us and yet remain flexible enough to honor our individuality?  I remember having this same conversation with an Orthodox Jew over a meal many years ago.  I asked her why she followed all 613 commandments with such stringency.  Her deadpan response was: “What am I going to do, follow 400 and then drop the other 213?  That’s a slippery slope.  Who am I decide?  That’s in Ha Shem’s [trans. The Name, which is code for God] hands.”     If we were to follow the Ashtanga tradition with the same stringency, then  men could only have sex during the nighttime. Not only that, if “the breath is felt to be moving through the surya nadi [the right nostril], then that is to be regarded as the daytime, and during that period, copulation and the like are not to occur.” (p. 10, Yoga Mala, P. Jois)

Yoga Practice As a Metaphor

The problem, as I see it, is that we’re facing the issue of a literal reading, as opposed to a metaphorical reading of “the practice.” Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, says that myth and the ritual that accompanies it: “ denotes something transcendent…so that you always feel accord with the universal being.”  Myth uses metaphor to denote one kind of object or idea but used in place of another to suggest a likeness. When we fall into the trap of reading myth or ritual and its accompanying symbols literally, we miss the deeper, wider, and higher spiritual implications that they have the potential to put us in touch with.  All ritual--including the practice of Ashtanga Yoga with its precise vinyasas, victorious breathing (ujayi), internal locks (bandhas), and gazing points (dristis)—are pointing to an inner experience, to fields of consciousness that reflect our inner most being.  However, in the practice of Ashtanga, we often mistake the literal for the metaphorical; the form for the formless; the act for the way of being that that act is pointing to.

When I reflect on almost twenty years of practice, it seems to me that there have been periods of time when I’ve gotten stuck in the literal. I have, at times, been lured by the trajectory of progressing from the primary series, to intermediate, and then, eventually to the advanced series. Early on as a neophyte practitioner, I’d even hoped that as I advanced along the series, somehow life would take on a new shine, that samadhi was right around the corner.  But this approach led to nothing more than physical feats that contortionists from Cirque du Soleil do much better than I ever could.

The Trap of Focusing on 'Correct Method' and 'Incorrect Method'

Really, what I discovered was that “correct method” and “incorrect method” really missed the point and only calcified and petrified aspects of my psyche that needed the light of consciousness.  After all, as a young man of nineteen years old, I came to the practice with the hopes of being more connected to something greater, to overcome feelings of smallness, fear, and grief.  But as I progressed along the path laid out for me, instead of becoming more spacious, more connected, my orientation became focused on doing it “correctly.”  I got stuck in a myopic vision of the path of yoga being about attainment of some image of perfection.  In essence, my practice became another place where I had to struggle.

Oh, and what a mistake that was because it lead me away from the essence of the practice.  I mistook the tools at my disposal--like the postures (asanas) or the internal locks (bandhas)--as the path.  In other words, instead of using these points of focus as metaphors that pointed to more profound states of consciousness, I read them literally and used them to be “good,” so that my teachers and the community of yogis would recognize and like me. In addition, my practice, at times, became purely physical.

What Mula Bandha Can Show Us

If, for example, I performed the root lock (mula bandha) throughout the practice, I told myself that I would be able to jump back and jump through with greater ease. Indeed, the engagement of the core muscles does increase strength and agility.  But that literal reading kept that act of yoga simply a bodily feat.  Mula bandha, can also be read metaphorically.  Its magic isn’t just in the physical mastery of it.  Its magic also lies in where it points consciousness. Given that it is at the base of the body, it points us in the direction of the earth, the part of us that is earth element.  Engaging mula bandha might remind the yogi to be connected to the earth no matter how contorted life becomes.  In addition, mula bandha might encourage us that while consciousness has a propensity to disconnect, that the path of the yogi is to stay in form, to use the body as a tool to experience both inner and outer fields of consciousness.  Mula bandha itself might be a meditation into the root of our being, who we are at the most base level: the part of us that is simply a tube eating, digesting, and defecating.

The essence of what I am saying is that as teachers and practitioners of this method, when we get too literal with the practice, we miss the deeper inquiry that the practice offers us.  If it becomes about progressing along the series, doing it “correctly”, only doing it the way it’s done in Mysore, etc. then the depth and breadth that is the promise of yoga might never be tasted or known.  Honestly, having been down that road, I can say with certainty, there is no pot of gold at the end of the primary, intermediate or advanced series, nor is there any great boon from doing it “correctly” or even “traditionally.”

Why Do You Practice?

I like what Cambell says about what we’re after in life.  “People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” (Campbell, J, The Power of Myth, 1998, episode 2, chapter 4, PBS television series, Mystic Fire Video) Some may dispute this, but I, personally, sense that the essence of practice is to access this aliveness.  Nobody and no system has a better clue about how to do that than we, personally.  It helps to try out lots of different tools and stick to the systems and teachers that offer them, but in the end, each of us has to become the final arbiter.  We have to have the courage to ask ourselves, does this resonate?  Is it bringing me closer to truth?  Is it deepening my consciousness?  And if the answer is, “no,” and it doesn’t jibe with the tradition or the teacher, we have to be courageous enough to stand on our own and to continue to seek and discover an access points that do.