yoga

A Living, Breathing Practice

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

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

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

The Sutras Through a Critical Eye

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

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

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

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

Bringing Old Texts to Life

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

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

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

IMG_1130.jpg

 

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

page0001-e1356913664777.jpg

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.

Sat: The Sanskrit Term for "The Real Deal"

In the last two blogs I've written, I have been discussing Sat-Chit-Ananda, an ancient yogic compound that describes the experience of yoga.  Each of the three Sanskrit words, sat, chit, and ananda, all speak of different aspects of the one, unitive experience called yoga.  It's almost like a description of the Holy Trinity, which connotes the three various qualities and aspects of the one God.  The same is true of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  While each word is a world unto itself, the experience of yoga occurs when all three of these worlds take form at the very same moment.

Non-Doing

In this blog, I intend to write about the Sanskrit root, sat.  Sat is really the part of the compound of Sat-Chit-Ananda that has less doing or action than chit.  Chit is the active part that we play with our minds.  It's how we direct it.  And, specifically, we direct the mind on 'what is,' as opposed to the way we think it is; the way it might be; or the way think it ought to be.  Chit is a direct form of seeing without interpretation. Sat, on the other hand is not active.  It's just who we are, essentially, when we’re not trying.

It is an interesting word because it can mean two different things when we translate it from Sanskrit to English.  On one end of the spectrum, it can be used to describe something that is either true, right, and/or good.  On the other end of the spectrum, it can mean being, existing, or abiding in.  So we have these two very different usages of the word, and yet when we join both together, we have something along the lines of "true being" or "abiding in the truth."   So the term, sat, is pointing to a sort of presence or quality of being that is right good, and true.

Authentic Self

So when we put it together sat is really who we are at the very core of ourselves, namely the authentic self.  Given the intensity of change and the fast-paced times we're in, it isn't always easy to connect to or even know who we truly are.  We're so hyper-stimulated that to look for and discover what this is seems only for the elite, for those few monks and yogis who live in monasteries and caves somewhere in the Himalayas. The problem is that if we don’t start to look to see who we authentically are, we run the risk of flitting about life, never feeling truly anchored to a sense of the sacredness of who we truly are.

Initiation

So where do we start?  How do we uncover our authentic selves?  In yoga we start from where we are.   It doesn’t matter whether we’re coming from a bright place or a dark one. I personally started practicing Ashtanga from a place of tragedy. My journey began more than 20 years ago when my brother committed suicide.  Why is suffering such a powerful initiator?  Because the experience of suffering wakes us up to our vulnerability. It’s often from this place that we go looking for answers. Some of us, like my wife, was initiated into her journey into Ashtanga Yoga in order to “ get a six-pack abs.”  It doesn’t matter where we start.  The journey toward the heart of who we are on the level of being, our authentic self, starts where we start.

Asmita

We all start the journey with an identity that you and I call, “me.” Patanjali’s Sutras call an excessive sense of me, asmitaAsmita is often translated as “ego” but is, in fact, more like that part of us that overly identifies with our opinions, our beliefs, our moods, and, in general, the way we think things are.  When we’re locked in our fixed ideas, we may feel superficially safe, but if given even half-a-scare, a loss, or physical pain, we immediately come face-to-face with our fragility, our aloneness in the world, and sometimes, even, the meaninglessness of life.  And it’s worse when what we thought we knew or understood is, all of a sudden, pulled away from us.

When I lost my brother, everything I thought I knew about life, got mangled.  In one moment, nothing made sense anymore.  I’m not just speaking about the horrible grief of losing a brother, which is heartbreaking in and of itself.  I’m also noting the sense of having the rug pulled out from the identity of who I thought I was.  My asmita wasn’t able to cope with the stark reality that my brother could end his life so tragically.

When the asmita is particularly strong in us, we feel a sense of separateness from our world.  We feel a sort of disconnect.  That can show up as malaise, frustration, low-grade anxiety, bouts of rage, and the sense that something just doesn’t feel right. We often regard these feelings, as “bad news,” but, in yoga, we regard them as, in fact, “good news.”  The reason why is that if we apply consciousness or chit to them for any sustained amount of time, we begin to develop deeper insight into who we are.

If we do not face what’s right in front of us, these feelings can give us the sense that the world has no luster.  This is what in Hindu philosophy is called maya, the illusion of our separateness.  But illusion and insight are two sides of the same coin.  Through the application of chit, the veil of illusion opens up to a sense of greater unity or harmony with the world we live in and the relationships we have, both to ourselves and others.

A coaching client has been struggling with low-grade anxiety for the last three days.  His wife and he are in a disagreement.  His employee just can’t seem to get things done the way he’s requested.  His boss is acting like a ‘bull in a china shop.’  He’s been trying to get a product ready for market by traveling back and forth from San Francisco to Southern California every week for the last six months.  He feels anchorless and reports feeling like “a ship out to sea.”  As we sat in conversation, I asked him, “What are you feeling?”

“Anxiety.”

“Where?”

“In my chest and belly.”

“What does it feel like in there?”

“It feels hollow in my belly, and at the base is this heavy stone.”

“How heavy?”

“Like one big brick.”

“Great.  Just notice that.”

After a few minutes… “What are you noticing, now?”

“The heaviness is gone.”

“What’s here, now?”

“Sadness and fear.”

“What does that feel like in the body?”

And so the conversation went on like this for about 20 minutes.  We just kept applying chit to the body, checking in every once in awhile to report on what he was experiencing.  After a period of time, the intensity of feeling shifted from anxiety, fear, and sadness to clarity, insight, and wisdom.  At that point, he realized that he needed to reestablish trust with the people around him, that he’d been so unmoored by trying to get the product to market, that he hadn’t really given his relationships the time and energy they deserved.  “I’ve always prided myself as a ‘relationship guy,’ and I’ve been stuck on just getting it done.  Boy have I been missing the boat.”

In the case of my client, anxiety, which is normally regarded as something that needs to be overcome, was, in fact, a great teacher.  Because he had the courage to apply chit to the discomfort in his body, he was able to wake up to see how his overemphasis on accomplishment rather than relationship was affecting not just others but mainly himself because he wasn’t being congruent with his essential self.  That’s sat.  It’s often through pain and discomfort that we wake up or our reminded of who we fundamentally are and what’s truly important to us.

Gratitude, Chutzpah and The Long Slog

But it’s not just suffering that puts us in touch with sat.  It also shows up when we’re connected to the practice of gratitude.  I feel a deep sense of gratitude that I have the space and time to write about topics that mean a lot to me.  Writing is my gratitude practice.  I feel more truly who I am when I can slow down enough to distill my thoughts and feelings into something that can be read by others.

For many of us, passion is a doorway into Sat.  It takes incredible passion to be willing to face ourselves on the mat the way we do.  Even though Guruji used to say that Ashtanga is universal, that it’s for everyone, I’ve always been clear that it isn’t for the faint of heart.  You need the fire of passion burning in you to face the things we face on the mat.  Sometimes we show up and feel a llittle broken, sometimes we face limitlessness, but we’re always face-to-face with ourselves.  The practice becomes the mirror expression of how we are each day. And it takes incredible chutzpah to look each day.  It’s this passion for practice that uncovers an aspect of our sat.

One of our relatively new yoga students is in the stage of her practice that I call “The Long Slog.”  It’s the point where she’s experienced the initial thrill of learning a portion of the primary series, but now she needs to practice what she’s learned in a continuous manner to both develop some mastery and, more importantly, to really extract the deeper learning that the sequence has to offer her.  This is the point in the practice where we unpeel the layers of holding, old injury, childhood wounding, and boredom, lots of boredom.  During “The Long Slog” many new students give up because they see the work that’s in front of them, and it appears daunting.  Others recognize it and see the value.

During ‘The Long Slog” we’re doing the same thing over and over and over again, but each day it’s different than yesterday’s practice, last weeks practice, or the practice we had a year ago.  We start to see what it is that is constantly changing.  Behind all the change, we cannot help but notice a part of ourselves that always remains the same. That’s sat, the one self, the eternal part of us, the one that never changes.

Sat and Chit, Being and Doing

Recently, I’ve been watching old Ashtanga video footage on Youtube.  One of the videos that I recently became reacquainted with and that has always particularly moved me is the 1993 Yoga Works footage of Guruji leading a class with Tim Miller, Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Richard Freeman, Eddie Stern, and Karen Haberman.  I saw this video a few years after I started practicing Ashtanga.  This was a time when all-things-Ashtanga absolutely thrilled me, and I remember being totally enthralled by those ‘masters’ on the screen.  It must’ve been a bit like what it was to see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or Led Zeppelin at the Greek Theater.   What I most loved--and still love--about that video was that even though they were practicing the same sequence, each was approaching the practice from a very different place.  To me, Tim was all heart.  Chuck was depth.  Eddie was laser intensity.  Richard was pure grace.  Maty was fiery passion.  Karen was herculean strength.  I could not help but see a portion of their authentic selves shine through in the footage.  What I saw and still see in those yogis and yoginis was the merging of doing and being.  This is the same thing as sat and chit being one.

It isn’t yoga to me when I see yogis practicing the way pianists practice scales, without connection to their essence. It’s a lot like those people who go to the gym, turn the Stair Master on high, and look up at the Today’s Show to see what Ann Curry is wearing today.  It’s vapid.  It’s like saying, “I have a body somewhere below me that needs to be exercise, but I am somewhere else. And, hey, at least it’s yoga.”  When I see this 1993 footage, I am reminded that when sat and chit are one, something beautiful and graceful emerges that is both pleasing to the eye and puts us in touch with our sense of aliveness, ananda, and our essence, sat.

When the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

Ashtanga is physically very hard.  There’s a ton to do and remember.  From the moment we arrive on the mat until the moment we leave, we are in an incredibly detailed choreographed set of movements, breath cycles, internal contractions, and endorphins, lots of endorphins.  By the time we complete the practice, a defensive part of the psyche is sometimes so pooped out that our authentic selves just magically appear.  In other words, the practice exhausts us in such a way that a lot of walls we put up that keep us away from ourselves and the world around us fall down.  Many of us experience this in savasana.  Sometimes we experience it for 30 minutes after practice.  Sometimes it lasts for a whole day.

One of our new students clearly had it for seconds last Monday.  As I was leaving the studio, I noticed him looking at the sky in a meditative way for about 5 seconds.  Most of us just glance up to notice whether it’s sunny, cloudy, or rainy.  We don’t often really look.  Something about this students practice allowed a part of his automatic responses to not take root in that moment.  It was actually breathtaking for me to watch him appreciate the simple beauty of the blue sky.

Remember...Forget...Remember...Forget...Remember...Forget

In those rare moments when sat, chit, and ananda appear simultaneously together, the moment is sublime.  Once we’ve experienced this union, we can’t help but keep looking for it.  Why?  Because it feels both expanded and natural, transcendental and normal, and deeply and profoundly true, good, and right.  We often label ourselves by what we do, and we describe ourselves by the lives we’ve previously lived.  When sat coexists with chit and ananda, we know who we truly are.

And the game of sat is really a game of remembering and forgetting.  Remembering who we essentially are and forgetting who we are, remembering and forgetting.  Once we think we’ve understood it, we haven’t.  In order to continue to remember, it can help a lot to make choices from this place, to follow the thread of resonance that sat presents.  When we do, we cannot help but create lives for ourselves that are true, good, and authentic.  In the next blog, I will speak more about how to choose sat as a way to remember more than we forget.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

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

 

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!

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.