Yoga

Five Elements Series Part 1: Intro

In this blog, I am offering up the five elements as a lens to explore our yoga practices.  I practice and teach Ashtanga Yoga, and while I realize that the five elements is not necessarily associated with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ expression of the method, I’ve found it quite a useful tool for staying open and curious, especially in those places where I tend to check out and where I get uncomfortable. A lot of the work of growth and transformation associated with our yoga practices is about developing the capacity to turn and look at what it is that is coming up.

Abhyasa and Vairagya

This turning and looking is described-- in the twelfth verse of the first chapter of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the source text of yoga-- as abhyasa, which means 'to sit facing' something.  In yoga, we face whatever comes up on a moment-to-moment basis, thoughts, sensations, emotions, etc.  Along with abhyasa, the Sutras suggest that the yogi apply vairagya, which is often translated as non-attachment, but is better understood as not getting stirred up, freaked out or shut down.  So abhyasa and vairagya are two polarities that the yogi cultivates: looking at something without freaking out.  In yoga, that's particularly important because we're trying to unravel the avidya (misunderstanding or misapprehension) that permeates our lives.  Without staying present, we can't see what we do, what we feel, or who we are.  And there are a lot of experiences where we go unconscious, especially those that evoke feelings of discomfort, whether we feel pain, fatigue, fear, or sadness.

I find the five elements a particularly useful lens to use because they help me worry less when I don't feel good, when I am scared, or when I am tired.  They help me just experience the sensations that come up in my body without reacting to them.  I simply identify them as heat, cold (fire element); numb, heavy (earth element); deep and sad (water element); or moving, tingling, light, clear (air element).   Instead of getting locked into trying to understand what they mean, why they're there or how to fix them, I just notice the qualities and elements that are coming up.  As a result sensations and experiences that are uncomfortable tend to shift a lot quicker.  So, for me, the most useful part of the tool is that it helps me not to get glued in some sort of analysis paralysis.

Recreating Balance

The other part I find useful is that the five elements can be an intuitive tool to use in order to recreate balance or harmony.  So, if there's too much earth element and I am sleepy, I can apply the air element through deep breathing, to wake myself up.  Or, if there's too much fire in the system, I might want to add both water and something to cool me down, kind of like putting cream in coffee.  Coffee is really hot and bitter.  Cream is cool and heavy.  When we want to treat, heal, or rebalance ourselves on and off of the mat, the five elements can be a useful and intuitive tool that can help us understand and work with what comes up.

Using Language to Describe and Create

The five elements give us access to the language of the body and are a form of dharana and dhyana (concentration and meditation, the sixth and seventh limbs), themselves. In the inner work associated with yoga, it's important to develop a language that gives us access to our inner lives.  Our work-a-day-world language does a decent job of describing the objective reality, but it doesn't do as well at describing the subjective worlds we simultaneously cohabit.  So while it's easy to describe where I am sitting, who's sitting next to me, and what color the sky is, it isn't as easy to describe the feelings I have inside as I sit here writing this blog.  That's why music and poetry touch each of us.  While great poets and musicians can describe experiences, they are also capable of capturing qualities of the inner experiences, which touch us.  As yogis, the nature-based metaphors associated with the five elements can be useful in distinguishing inner states of consciousness.

The elements are like a metaphorical language map that gives form to internal states.  First of all, they can help us define qualities of consciousness, feeling states, emotions, and sensations.  Additionally they are an intuitive categorization that can point out when we're close to the experience of yoga and when we're far away.  And when we're off, we can use the five elements as a tool to harmonize or to create transformational breakthroughs.

So, for example, this morning, I got on the mat feeling fatigued and uninspired.  My diagnosis:  lack of fire and air and too much earth element.  Fire--along with earth-- is a necessary ingredient to evoke the combustion for transformation.  If there's too much earth in the form of fatigue and heaviness relative to fire, the fire of passion will feel like a spark instead of a standing or moving fire.  The word inspiration comes from the same root, to inspire, or to breathe in.  And what do we breathe in?  Air.  So when the air element is lacking, so is the spirit of inspiration, insight, and levity.  The air helps us float along from one vinyasa to the next.  Like fire, it is constantly in balance and interplay with the earth element.  When there's not enough air, there's almost always too much earth. And so we experience a heaviness, lethargy, or fixity in our bodies.

Diagnosis and Treatment

This diagnosis is extremely helpful because it informs the way I move, what I highlight in my practice, and what I shift to the periphery.  In my case this morning, I chose to focus on the deficiencies.  I asked myself, "How do I increase fire?"  One way that I know is to move more rapidly through the vinyasas.  Additionally, I can either take five breaths per posture very rapidly, or I can take two, three or four breaths per asana, hopping and bopping from one asana to the next.  In order to increase the air element I decided to emphasize the inhale over the exhale.  And to even emphasize the point more, I chose to take an ever-so-short inhale retention.

I realize that some of the shifts I've made are a bit "non-traditional."  This isn't what is being taught in Mysore, now.  But its what I learned from Guruji.  When I first went to Mysore in 1994, I was extremely stiff.  I was one of those guys who couldn't touch his toes in a forward bend.  And so when I asked him about working with my stiffness, he had me moving faster and making louder sounds on my exhale than my inhale.  This rapid movement increased the fire that was needed to dissolve the earth element that was keeping my body stiff and stuck.  Essentially, what I am saying is that historically, this was a practice of self-healing.  Guruji had an incredible eye for noticing what was out of balance, whether it was your spine being off or your spirit.  And he had a knack for giving us just the medicine we needed.

Likewise, each of us needs to learn to use the practice to treat ourselves medicinally.  If we practice the same way, day-in-and-day-out, we'll bore ourselves out of the practice.  Chit, consciousness, is the first thing that goes when we've lost interest.  When that happens, we end up practicing on "auto-pilot."  And when we've gone there, we're lost. It's also important to be able to tailor the practice to our individual body, mind, and spirit.  Each of these aspects of our being needs to be honored by our practice, and each changes from day-to-day, moment-to-moment.  We need to find and maintain a flexibility of approach such that our practices not only meet us where we are, but they heal us and lead us back to our truth, consciousness, and joy.

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!

The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?- Part 3

'The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?' Series

This is the third part in a three-part series.  In the first post, we explored the traditional relationship of the guru and disciple.  In the second post, I made the argument that this relationship is no longer valid in this day and age.  In this final posting, I will posit some ideas of what I think might replace it. 

I've taken quite awhile to post this, partly because I wanted some feedback from friends.  Thank you Brook, Lauren, Peter, Karen, and Norman for all of your insight and depth.  Much of what is written below is the result of ongoing conversations that Devorah and I have had about the student-teacher relationship.  It is the result of our collaboration and an elucidation on our mission at Mission Ashtanga, to create a safe space for transformation.  So while I have written it, I want to give credit where credit is due.

Also, some of the ideas I am using, especially the idea of relationship design, has been drawn from the Co-Active Model designed by Henry-Kimsey House, Karen Kimsey-House, and Laura Whitworth, the founders of Coaches Training Institute.  Whatever the reader’s preconceived opinions of coaching, I encourage him or her to put them on hold and be curious.  I have found aspects of this model to be a useful tool in creating intimacy, connection, and trust with my students and wanted to present it in a way that applied to the teacher-student relationship in yoga.

I have been reticent to post this because I know that whatever I posit here is totally incomplete.  This is a complex relationship and for every teacher-student relationship, there must be a unique form of relating.  Likewise, there's just no way to sum up how a modern student-teacher relationship could possibly take the place of the guru-disciple relationship. It can't.  That relationship is a unique one, a style of relating and relationship that is thousands and thousands of years old, and the tradition of it is a rich one.  But at the same time, I think it's important to recognize, as I've said previously, that our modern Western, egalitarian culture doesn't condition us for such a relationship.  Instead of growing and evolving through it, many of us have a propensity to abdicate our power in it.

So what I am hoping to provide below is a barebones framework that is loose enough so as not to stifle the relationship but not so loose as to be without structure. If the framework is too loose, both students and teachers run the risk of crossing boundaries, manipulating one another, projecting, and miscommunicating.  The structure is designed to ward off some of these pitfalls.  At the same time, I intend for the structure to be loose enough to accommodate the nuances that occur in any relationship, and to provide space for spontaneity, creativity, and intimacy to show up.  That way the relationship can remain fluid, dynamic, and transformative.

Why It’s Important to Have a Teacher on the Path of Yoga

Not everyone who comes to yoga class is looking for the full-promise of yoga.  Many students just want to get stronger, feel better, or have a positive group experience.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with these approaches to yoga. Yoga is for everyone no matter where they are or what they want from the practice.  However, I am starting with a little bit of theory to point out the fact that the work of yoga can be very, very deep.  And, in this case, it can be extremely helpful to have a teacher.  Not everyone wants to go there, and that’s perfectly fine.  The description below is what’s possible from the practice of yoga, as described by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras, a text dated sometime between the 2d centuries B.C. and A.D. and considered by many to be the authoritative source text that describes the path of yoga.

Historically the role of the guru was to help the disciple to distinguish (viveka) temporal from eternal, relative from absolute, truth from fiction, and light from dark.  The tricky part of this work is that asmita, the excessive sense of I or me, often wants to assert itself.  And the truth of the matter is that the asmita is not particularly adept at distinguishing truth, eternality, or the absolute.  The asmita is in a sort of hell realm, constantly grasping to what gives pleasure and trying to avoid that which is uncomfortable.  This hell realm is known in yoga as avidya, which can be translated as misunderstanding. A lot of the work of yoga is a slow, gentle a dismantling of this misunderstanding associated with this excessive 'I-clinging.'  One might argue that the role of the guru was to make sure that this 'I-clinging' didn’t get in the way of the process of realization.

That’s why most traditional schools of yoga or Buddhism emphasized the teacher-student relationship and not the practice of postures or meditation, alone.  Without a teacher the aspirant risked misleading him or herself.  He or she risked being led around by a craving for pleasure (raga) and a repulsion of discomfort (dvesa).   For Patanjali, yoga wasn't about feeling good, nor was it about feeling bad, either.  It was a game of noticing that which was beyond pleasure and pain, clinging and aversion.  It was a game of noticing essence, truth, and the absolute through a long, steady process of discernment.  According to Patanjali, this process takes continuous practice (abhyasa) and the skill of non-clinging to pleasure or aversion to discomfort (vairagya) to be able to see clearly (1.12).

Very few of us naturally have this discipline.  It's not easy to be with discomfort.  Many of us can be with some discomfort. Few of us can be with it for extended periods of time. Nor are we apt to give up our 'I-clinging.' The process of letting go of what we cling to and being with what we’re averse to is counterintuitive.  Additionally, the role of the guru presupposes that no matter how earnest we are, we can all get pretty slippery from time to time, and this can take us off of the path, even when we think we're on it.  In other words, it can be pretty useful to have a relationship with someone who is committed to our growth and transformation, someone who can offer an honest reflection and guidance, too.

What Qualifies a Teacher?

And yet, we're living in a time when none of our teachers are fully illuminated.  So what kind of criteria do we employ to choose someone to teach us?  Do we choose a teacher because he or she has been on the path longer than we have?  I don’t think that this is a valid reason to study with someone. Length of time does not qualify someone to be a teacher.  I can't tell you how often I run into ‘20-somethings’ who are so darn wise these days.  I don’t know what’s happening to our gene pool, but I am excited by the generation that’s in their 20’s these days.

So what standards shall we use to determine the qualification of a teacher?

▪   Years on the mat?

▪   Years spent with the leader of the tradition?

▪   Displays of mastery?

▪   200 hours of teacher training?

▪   400 hours of teacher training?

What determines a qualified teacher?  How the heck are we going to experience the full promise of yoga without someone who's qualified?  And how are we to determine those qualifications?

   Above is a rough outline of the teaching model I describe below.  At the heart of the model is the student's evolution.  That should be at the heart of the teacher-student relationship.  The spokes around the central wheel represent the qualities of relating that the teacher provides.  The relationship is wrapped in the 'designed relationship,' which is essentially a spoken agreement that the teacher and student make with each other in service to the student's evolution.  The foundational blocks at the bottom of the model represent presuppositions and prerequisites within that relationship that create clarity, safety, honesty while at the same time empower the relationship. 

Collaborative Relationship Designing

The problem is that it is impossible to be qualified to be a guru in this day and age.  Gurus are 'fully-cooked,' so to speak.  And most yoga teachers aren’t even close.  We all have some clarity and a lot is still obscure.  And while some of the prerequisites I list above can be helpful, I don’t think that any one of them can prepare a teacher to support a student on their path.

So I am starting with a basic premise: no one is perfectly qualified for the role of a teacher.  Everyone in that role will be imperfect, flawed, and will make mistakes.  It can be extremely helpful to start from the most basic recognition that our teachers will be and are human, people with good intentions who might fail us, nonetheless.  Given that, how do we find ourselves in loving, trusting relationships with a teacher that can support us in our evolution along the path of yoga?

It starts with an agreement that I call relationship design.  In relationship design, the context for a relationship is spelled out.  In other words, it is a conscious contract that provides clear boundaries and a sense of direction for both teacher and student. When the agreement isn’t clear boundaries are crossed that can do damage.  I once had a really bad experience with a teacher in which I abdicated my own common sense in favor of my teacher’s common sense, thinking that her’s was ‘more enlightened’ than mine. By doing so, I made a decision that went totally against my own code of ethics.  As a result, it kind of ruined me for a period and destroyed some significant relationships that meant a lot to me. Had we designed clearer boundaries along with the space where I could struggle with decisions myself, I might not have had to experience that suffering.  As a result of that experience, I am acutely aware that as a teacher, I cannot presuppose anything about my students wants or needs.  In other words, I don’t know what’s best for my students.  I am constantly asking my students to design with me what they need.

So when it comes to the relationship of teacher and student, it can help the process immensely for that relationship to be crystal clear.  When it’s clear, both student and teacher can feel confident in their respective roles. The more committed student and teacher are to staying in communication, even and especially when the going gets rough, the more powerful that relationship can be. The more communication around the structure of that relationship, the safer it is for the student to delve inward and to know that he or she is supported.  Additionally, it is critical that the relationship be continually tended to and be kept tidy.  At the end of this piece, I give an example of how to start the conscious design of a student-teacher relationship.  Have a look.  Give it a try.

Humanity as the Doorway to a Sacred Friendship

Given the premise stated above, that no teacher is perfectly qualified to teach, it can be immensely helpful if both teacher and student start by recognizing the sanctity of the relationship.  This relationship has the potential to be a form of yoga itself.  It has the potential to be something quite unusual.  As you read on, you’ll see that what makes it unusual is that it is one rooted in collaboration and based as much as possible in agreement, transparency, and intimacy.  When both teacher and student fathom the honor of the relationship, both naturally hold one another to a particularly high standard.

In the few times that I taught classes for a friend in Tokyo, I have been struck by the way Japanese students regarded the sensei.  As the teacher, I sensed the students’ reverence in a way that we in the West have difficulty comprehending.  Given the level of surrender these students demonstrated, it would have been quite possible for me to take advantage of the situation, but I personally found it the case that I couldn’t help but step up in a way that I’d never stepped up as a teacher before.  It was a great honor to be held as an authority, one that I couldn’t help but want to meet.

Likewise, I’ve experienced students walking into my classes with a sort of disregard for the role of the teacher.  That’s perfectly fine.  Not everyone would like a teacher, and many of us have experienced wounds at the hands of teachers.  At the same time, without a regard for the sacredness of the roles, the teacher-student relationship takes on the quality of being a financial transaction, “payment for poses,” kind of a boring way of relating.

So honoring the sacredness is one part to this premise.  Another part is that because the teacher is never perfectly qualified to teach, he or she can be regarded as human, warts and all.  Some of us want our teachers to be extraordinary, but they're not. This is a real set up for failure, the teacher failing the student and visa versa.  But when the student can recognize and interact with the teacher’s humanity, a true connection can start to be established, one that encourages a quality of human-centered friendship.  It is rare to have a relationship where one’s humanity is honored.  Very few of us experience relationships where we have permission to share all of ourselves and all parts are welcome.

Another boon associated with recognizing the teacher’s humanity is that it allows for both the teacher and the student to make mistakes.  Relationships where mistakes are valued are dynamic and creative.  Both people aren’t afraid to try things, to mess up, and to have breakthroughs.  If the teacher has to play-it-safe for the sake of not upsetting the relationship, the relationship lacks a sort of dynamism that’s necessary to face the tough stuff that comes up on and off the mat.

The Shadow: Trust and Transparency

Both students and teachers have their limits of what they’re capable of working with in the shadow-work that shows up on the mat and in the relationship.  Playing with this edge can be very useful.  For the teacher to take the student past the student’s edge, he or she must be confident in that territory him or herself.  The teacher has no business shoving students into areas that are unfamiliar to the teacher.  Below, I describe the prerequisites of teachers: self-study, peer feedback, and mentor feedback.  All of these ensure that the teacher is doing the inner work necessary to support their students when they enter unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.

Because the work of yoga confronts some of our most intimate spots, the student must be able to trust the teacher as much as possible.  And so there has to be agreement between the teacher and student such that the student grants the teacher permission to head into a particular area, especially areas that feel vulnerable or scary.  All it takes is a simple request, like “Is it okay if we go here?”  Sometimes it can be helpful to create more dialogue before entering in.

In my first year as a teacher, I ran into a situation that I am not proud of but feel that it’s pertinent to share.  I had a student who was very, very proficient at Ashtanga Yoga. I thought, “This guy is good.  Let’s keep him going!”  So I kept giving him pose after pose.  Eventually he started to say stuff like, “I’m good.  I don’t need any more, now.”  But I kept adding poses on.  At some point, he stopped coming to class, and I found out through the grapevine that he’d had a psychotic break that he considered a ‘kundalini rising.’  While I don’t take full-responsibility for what happened, I had a part, a big one.  I was pushing, thinking that I knew best, when, in fact, he knew better.  That experience taught me a lot about both trusting the wisdom of my students and keeping the conversation clear.

Throughout that work, it can be helpful to be transparent.  Transparency isn’t just in the hands of the student.  It can be extremely helpful and useful for the teacher to share when they’re confused, concerned or scared in relationship to what’s happening with a student.  If the teacher has to pretend to be okay when he or she is not okay, it creates a low-level of distrust in the relationship.  Transparency feels counterintuitive, but it’s honest.  And being honest is an incredible gift that the teacher grants the relationship.  It creates trust.  When there is trust in the relationship, students and teachers enter into an intimate dialogue that is not misconstrued or taken advantage of by one or both parties.  When there’s a lot of trust in a relationship, there is no telling what's possible for the student.

Selfless Service

The role of the teacher can be tricky.  Occasionally students adore their teachers.  Sometimes they loathe them. If the teacher is caught in the ‘popularity game,’ he or she will end up being manipulative.  I've been caught in it, myself, from time-to-time.  Occasionally, I will notice myself trying to use my charm to get students to like me.  Once again, I am not proud of this, but it happens, and I don’t think I am the only teacher that’s fallen prey to wanting to be liked.

My proudest moments, though, have been when I've seen a student uncover something she or he'd been confused about or struggling with; when I've seen him or her diligently stick with something even when it was really uncomfortable; and in those moments when his or her wisdom, brilliance, and insight emerged with more clarity than that of a diamond.

In these moments my focus was not on me but on my students and their discovery process.  That doesn't mean that I was perfectly objective, neutral, or impersonal.  It just meant that my stance was first and foremost about my students, not about getting my personal wants and needs gratified.  In short, the role of the teacher is one of self-less service for the sake of evoking the student’s evolution.

In Service to Evolution/ Granting the Respect of Autonomy

Part of the challenge this relationship faces is the fact that the student is paying the teacher to provide a service.  In most service positions, the role of the server is to provide both care and comfort.  While care and comfort may be useful qualities to cultivate in a teacher-student relationship, they cannot be the only qualities.  If the student expects to experience the full promise of yoga, then the relationship has to have room to be edgy and uncomfortable, as well.  Without that, the yoga room becomes a ‘feel-good space,’ and this doesn’t really have anything to do with this path of distinguishing (vivieka) misunderstanding (avidya).

The teacher’s primary responsibility, then, is to the evolution of his or her students, not to the perpetuation avidya.  This is where the role of the teacher can get tenuous.  Manipulative teachers have been known to take advantage of this aspect to the role of the teacher.  They’ve justified narcissistic behavior as something that’s “best for the student” when, in fact, it’s actually best for the teacher.

Being in service to the student’s evolution means that the teacher isn’t always in agreement with the student and is granted enough trust by the student to assert what needs to be asserted for the student’s growth. At the same time, the teacher grants the student the respect for their capacity to make decisions.  Decisions of the student are of their own choosing and those decisions have to be respected.

Presupposing Our Students are Whole Rather Than Broken

Early in this discussion, I was speaking of the basic premise that no one is perfectly qualified for the role of a teacher.   Similarly, it might also be useful to start from another premise, that students are whole and complete.  They’re not broken.  They don’t need to be fixed.  In fact, the role of the teacher is to empower the student to trust him or herself, especially those parts that are innately wise, compassionate, and clear. This is a very unusual premise.

In most teacher-student relationships, the role of the teacher is to presuppose that the student has something wrong that needs to be altered, changed, or reworked. Rarely is this, in fact, the case.  In the years that I have been teaching, I have rarely come across someone looking to be put back together again.  When this is the case, psychiatry and psychotherapy can be extremely useful adjuncts to yoga therapy.  But more often than not, students that have shown up to my classes are resourceful enough to make good decisions.  Sometimes, it can be helpful for me to offer my expertise or to ask questions.  Ultimately, I leave the decision in the hands of my students. If I regard my student either as broken, confused, or lost, it can be nearly impossible for him or her to access his or her own clarity.  If the student cannot trust that something within is innately wise, then he or she will remain lost at sea.

I personally have had mentors and friends that have wanted to fix me at certain low-points in my life, people who had very good intentions, in fact.  The problem with those relationships was that I would often abdicate my will to them, and while they may have steered me away from dangerous rapids, I never learned to either ride the rapids or to identify them in the distance.

When I can cultivate my students' confidence in their decision-making capacity, magic begins to happen for them.  They begin to trust the wise parts of themselves to lead with clarity.  So much of the baggage my students come in with is not from being egotistical.  They don’t need to be knocked down and then eventually rebuilt.  On the contrary, most of my students struggle with a degree of self-doubt, lacking the confidence that they know how to make good, sound decisions. When a teacher can cultivate a student’s innate strength, the process of clarifying (viveka) can take place.

Prerequisite: Svadhyaya: Continuously Growing and Evolving

If a teacher is not actually walking the path, he or she probably shouldn't be teaching it. Now, there's a lot of wiggle room in terms of what that means.  If, for example, a teacher has a knee injury and doesn't practice various asanas, it doesn't mean that he or she is not qualified to teach.  That's too literal a translation.  The essence of what I am suggesting is that a teacher needs to be growing and evolving and in self-study (svadhyaya) in order to be able to help his or her students sort out their struggles.  That really must be a prerequisite to teaching.

Prerequisite: Peer and Teacher/ Mentor Feedback

Another prerequisite must be that a teacher has a teacher or mentor of their own and a peer body to get honest feedback from.  If the only people a teacher receives feedback from are his or her students, he or she risks becoming narcissistic or bipolar.  Sometimes students love the teacher.  Sometimes they don’t.  And student feedback is biased, by nature.  Peer and mentor feedback is not.

I've been very lucky in my years of teaching.  I have had some smart teachers that I've partnered with who I've given permission to give it to me straight. It doesn't always feel so good to know when I am off base in a particular situation, either with a student or in the classroom, but with that feedback, I've learned a lot.

Having peers also gives one a sense of camaraderie, the sense that while the experiences of teaching are different, the essence of it is the same.  I often find it comforting to have a space in my peer relationships where we can commiserate about the ups and downs of teaching.  It normalizes experiences and situations where I do not feel confident.

Finally, having a teacher or mentor is critical for most teachers.  It can be extremely useful to have someone to share confusions with, to seek clarification from, and to learn the art of deeper inquiry.  Teachers need teachers and peers! These simple measures ward off the possibility of vainglory, a common pitfall associated with being in any role of authority.

A New Conversation

We’re living in different times, spiritually speaking, now that the age of the guru is over, but that does not mean we cannot experience the promise of yoga.  It just means that we have to get a little creative.  What I’ve presented above is very preliminary.  I welcome all of your feedback.  I have no intention of this being a ‘final statement,’ but, instead, something to evoke a conversation, something that we as a community have the courage to struggle with.

The Sangha May Be the Next Guru...

Before I end, I want to share a suggestion that Ken Wilbur posited, that the new guru is the sangha or community of like-minded individuals on the spiritual path together.  I have actually had several experiences of living in and amongst communities.  More often than not, there is no uniform agreement within it to use it as a tool for transformation.  When there is, however, the experience can be absolutely brilliant and searing, at the same time.

I notice that we’re in a time when we long for community and yet we’re all frightened of it, of exposing ourselves and of being exposed.  Likewise, many of our most painful moments have been in community, so we all have a lot of wounding around community, as well.  But we’re also lonely, disconnected, and disjointed.  And community can be a powerful place to reconnect, again. That’s why I think Wilbur might just be right.  It might just be the perfect opportunity to wake us up to our true nature.   Your thoughts?

Exercise:  Designing a Relationship With Your Teacher

It may seem a bit artificial, at first, to have a ‘sit down’ with your teacher, especially if you have an ongoing relationship with him or her, however, the results can be very powerful and pivotal for you, him or her, and your practice. By the way, the design doesn’t end after the first conversation. It is constantly being re-negotiated. That way, the relationship remains both flexible and tidy. Below are just a few pondering questions that may give you a sense of what might be shared in such a conversation.

  1. What exactly do you need and want from your teacher? From your practice?  For yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc.? If your relationship with him or her were to have a huge impact in your life what would it look like?
  2. What’s your sense of what will really support your growth in the practice?
  3. How do you want your teacher to handle you around risk taking?  Does it help to push you, to be gentle with you, or to be somewhere in between?
  4. When and how do you tend to get evasive?  Do you stop coming to practice?  Do you get angry?  Do you shut down? How do you want your teacher to be with you when you do?
  5. Where do you usually get stuck, either in your practice or in relationship? When you are stuck, what can he or she say that will bring you back to the present moment?

What does your teacher need from you in order to support your evolution?

The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?- Part 2

'The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?' Series

This is second part in a three-part series.  In the previous posting, we explored what the traditional relationship of guru and disciple was like.  In this postings, we'll examine how this relationship may not apply to this day-and-age.  In our final posting, I posit some ideas of what I think might replace it.  

Guru Projections

We in the West have an awkward relationship with this sort of authority.  We tend to think of the guru-shishya relationship as one of projection.  The shishya abdicates power to the guru by projecting all things parental onto him.  I saw this, and even experienced it, first hand when I studied at Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam throughout the 90s. Guruji could play the face of our good father quite well.  He could also be the fierce father, the tender father, the wise grandpa, and many, many more.  Much of the relationship we shared with our guru depended on our unfinished business.  In a lot of ways, many of us were working out our daddy stuff with him, whether we wanted to admit it or not.

Today, I have little doubt that most of the projection I had with him had almost nothing to do with who he actually was, but being a great teacher, he willingly took on the various fatherly roles and allowed us to act them out with him in order to move through some of the leftover childhood stuff.  While a lot of us got great benefit from this form of relating, I saw some of my fellow guru bhai (disciple brothers and sisters) leave the practice altogether because they could never separate the projection from the man that he was.  And some left because when they did, they were sorely disappointed.

Guru or Snake Oil Salesman?

But unlike an authentic guru, who is regarded with great respect in his culture, our teachers in the West are looked upon with a degree of skepticism. We do not have the same opinion of the spiritual dimension that Asian cultures do.  In the audio CD, The Roots of Buddhist Psychology, Jack Kornfield describes the experience of being a monk in Thailand and accepting alms from people who could barely feed themselves. The work of the monks was so important and valued, that the lay community would starve to feed them.

We, in the West tend to hold people of spiritual authority, with doubt and distrust.  Fundamentally we resist being conned.  It is not uncommon to see leaders of spiritual movements initially elevated by their followers and eventually disgraced by those same people.  Just look at the recent John Friend-Anusara Yoga and Diamond Mountain University scandals.  I don’t know the inside scoop, but what’s clear is that students revere their teachers as if they were gods and then they, somehow, fall off the pedestal.  They're human.

But we as a society tend to hold people who run or lead spiritual movements to a higher standard than we hold even our politicians.  Because they’re leading us into spiritual practice, they have to be unblemished by any one of the seven deadly sins; in fact, in some way or another they need to be perfect.

 

However, when you look closely at the lives of some of the great teachers from the East, the so-called illuminated gurus, what we’ll find is nothing but humans, people steeped in tradition and teaching and, at the same time, riddled with human foibles.  Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan spiritual leader that founded Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, had the reputation of drinking beer all day long and had quite an appetite for young women.  Osho, also known as Bhagawan Shree Rajneesh, the founder of Osho Ashram and Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, was addicted to nitrous oxide and also was known for his affairs with his female disciples.  Amrit Desai, the yoga master who founded Kripalu Institute, had to resign as director after his multiple extramarital affairs were exposed.

Does that make these men any less spiritually advanced?  We in the West would like to think so.  It’s quite possible that we want to believe that our spiritual leaders represent the perfect parent, the one we didn’t grow up with.  The truth of the matter is that we all make mistakes, sometimes even very big ones, ones that hurt others badly.  I am thinking, at this moment, of the priests who mistreat(ed) children.  Without a doubt, this behavior is inexcusable; however, it demonstrates that we can no longer afford to completely relinquish our power to the charismatic individuals that lead our spiritual movements.

God is Dead

These people are human, just like you and me.  Perhaps there was a time when there were gurus who were truly unblemished, but we’re living in a very different period, historically speaking.  When Nietzsche said, “God is dead,” what he meant was that we can no longer rely on the church, the mosque, the monastery, the lama, the guru, or even a philosophy for our salvation.  For him, these forms of authority had become completely discredited.  As a result, it was up to each of us to find our way.

I am not suggesting that we do it alone.  We need others to support our growth and development, but when we are always looking for the wisdom, the compassion, and the answers outside of ourselves, we forget that we're just projecting.  It can help immensely to love and revere our teachers while simultaneously never forgetting that that which we love and revere is The Self.  Essentially, what I am arguing is that when we take the projections back, when we take responsibility for our own transformation, we stop the game of elevating teachers or the spiritual lineages we come from in a way that does not serve us.  Likewise, we also stop being disappointed when our gurus turn out to be human, just like you and me.

In the next post, I will offer an alternative to this traditional guru-disciple relationship.  Be sure to check in early next week.  You can also subscribing to our blog on the upper left corner of this page or returning to our site in the next few days.

The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?- Part 1

This afternoon I’ve been perusing various Youtube videos on Ashtanga Yoga looking for inspiration when all of a sudden I got what I was looking for. I came across this video in which Richard Freeman, a well-known Ashtanga Yoga teacher, is speaking on a panel at the Urban Zen Well Being 2007 Forum.  What struck me about that clip was that he was making the point that “it’s no longer the age of the guru;” in fact, a new model is being born in the West in which the relationship of student to teacher is one of  “equal partnership on both sides.”  In this article, I intend to explore what the traditional guru-disciple relationship was like; how it is no longer valid in this day and age; and what we might replace it with.

The Guru-Disciple Relationship

The role of the guru dates back to the period of the Upanishads, around 1000 B.C.E. Prior to this period, Hindu spirituality was expressed in the act of sacrifice to the gods.  The gods were thought to be outside forces that needed to be manipulated in order to maintain order.  The Brahmans (priestly caste) were in charge of maintaining the spiritual order in the form of sacrifice.

But by the ninth century, a new revelation began to be expressed.  Instead of gods, like Shiva or Brahma, dwelling outside, the gods were considered inner experiences, inner energies that could be met and used for personal transformation.  Anyone could, now, have a direct access to the gods.  It wasn’t just the Brahmans (priestly caste). The term "Upanishad" derives from the Sanskrit words upa (near), ni (down) and şa (to sit) — so it means to "sit down near" a spiritual teacher to receive instruction in discovering these powers within.

The role of the guru was to illuminate the shishya (disciple) from the darkness of illusion through esoteric knowledge.  Gu means to dispel.  Ru is the darkness of ignorance. In order for this new revelation to be expressed, the guru’s knowledge needed to be vast.  He needed to have been someone who had already awoken from the dream of maya (illusion), awake to the direct experience of the purusa (indweller, soul).  Additionally he needed to have been a shishya of a guru, himself and to have received his guru’s blessing to impart the wisdom.

Hierarchical Roles

The role of the shishya’s was primarily devotion, commitment, and obedience.  In exchange, the guru taught through discourse, through silence, through medicine, and through imparting esoteric practices.  The guru offered what he could to illuminate his disciples into the truth, knowledge, and experience within.  But the role was hierarchical.  The shishya was in the hands of his guru.  If the guru took advantage of his position, then that was the risk the disciple took.

In Aṣṭadaa Yogamālā: Articles, Lectures, Messages by B. K. S. Iyengar, the author describes the brutality, at times, of his guru, T.K.V. Krishmacharya, how “his moods and modes were very difficult to comprehend and always unpredictable.  Hence, we were always alert in his presence.  He was like a great Zen master in the art of teaching.  He would hit us hard on our backs as if with iron rods.  We were unable to forget the severity of his actions for a long time.” (Iyengar, B.K.S. Aṣṭadaa Yogamālā: Articles, Lectures, Messages. Mumbai: Allied Publishers Private Limited, 2006. Print. p. 53)

And in an interview I dug up in my files dating back to 1993, Pattabhi Jois says this about his guru:

My guru was a very difficult man…One example of his callousness, which I tell about is this:  on the Sanskrit College’s anniversary day a large celebration was staged which the Maharaja attended.  We were to give a demonstration on the ground…There was no podium so my guru told me to do kapotasana (an extreme backbend) and stood on top of me for 10-15 minutes giving a lecture.  There was a small tree coming out of the ground that had been haphazardly cut several inches from the ground.  The sharp end of the stick stabbed into my shoulder and stayed there, penetrating more and more deeply as the lecture went on…After the lecture I stood up and was covered with blood…For 15 days I could not move my arm.  ~Pattabhi Jois

Imagine the lawsuits that might have taken place had Krishnamacharya been teaching at the local Yoga studio these days?  Clearly, times have changed.

'The Age of the Guru is Over…Now What?' Series

This is one part in a three-part series.  In the next posting, we will explore how this relationship is no longer valid in this day and age.  In our final posting, I will posit some ideas of what I think might replace it.  Be sure to check out these other posts over the next few days, either by returning to this blog or by subscribing to our blog on the upper left corner of this page.

Yoga in India is Not the Same as Yoga in the West

It's my opinion that the method of awakening for a classical Indian seeker is not the same for a Westerner.  And so as teachers in the West, it is critical that we translate the teachings of any method of illumination rooted in a cultural lineage different from our students.  Sticking to doing it "the way it's done in India" is a trap not only for the teacher, but more specifically for our students.  There's always an aspect to the teaching that is culture-specific, and as teachers of a method, we are also translators.  It's our job not only to impart the method, but also to distinguish the essence of the method from the cultural idiosyncrasies that that method is imbued with. I personally teach Ashtanga Yoga. I learned 'the practice' from my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  He was what I consider a classical Indian.  When I say classical Indian, I am actually making a distinction from that of the modern Indian. The classical Indian still exists today but is slowly getting lost in the shuffle of modernity as India grows economically.  One thing that distinguished my teacher's classical Indian's students from their Westerner counterparts primarily had to do with where they were identified.  The classical Indian student tended to be identified with his or her role in society, whereas the Westerner identified primarily with his personality, replete with likes and dislikes, confidence and insecurity.  Much of the work of disentangling conditioned existence-also known in Sanskrit as samsara- for us Westerners required and still to this day requires very different work.  It's clear to me that while the game is still the same--overcoming our conditioning to discover who we truly are--the path of yoga in India is very different from the path of yoga in the West.

Classical Indian Dharma versus the Western Path

In India, the sense of individuality and uniqueness is not valued in the same way it is valued in the West.  From a very young age, what is valued is one's relationship to one's role in society.  If you are a brahman, then, indeed, that's what you are.  That's the role you are to play out in society.  Relatively speaking, life tends to happen to people in India compared to the West.  It isn't chosen the way it's chosen here.  And while that is starting to change, now, the change is slow.  So, for example, it wasn't until recently and in certain very small pockets of Indian culture that one would even think to choose one's partner in marriage.  That was determined by the caste of the individuals, the parents, and often with the aid of a family astrologer.One's role is called dharma, or duty.  A major theme in The Bhagvad Gita, is performing one's duty to caste.  If that means fighting one's family members for the sake of upholding the universal law, or santana dharma, then it must be done, like it or not.  The essence of the training of the yogi in India is the elimination of likes and dislikes, of the overly identified sense of self, called asmita in the Yoga Sutras.  And, in turn, identifying and surrendering to the role the society has put upon him or her.  What we in the West think of as the creative faculty to be at choice in how we live our lives is completely eliminated.  Surrendering to one's role-be it one's role in society or in the family unit-is the transformational breakthrough that's asked of the aspirant.

As Westerners, we learn not to totally identify with our roles as brother, mother, teacher, or CEO.  While this is a form of our identity, it doesn't define us the way it does the classical Indian.  A large portion of our identity is formed on our relationship to our personality and personal preferences.  So, when a father asks his son, "Do you want to be a football player or baseball player," and the child responds, "I want to be a make up artist,"  then that child is exerting his separate identity through his or her wants and wishes.  The same is true when we choose our wives and husbands or even when we choose either to have or not to have children.  The faculty of making choices and choosing what makes us happy is what forms this persona we in the West identify as, "me."

So when a Western person--with a developed sense of ego--goes to an Indian guru--that's rooted in a classical Indian culture--and learns yoga, the guru does not and cannot totally recognize what he or she sees.  The Westerner's sense of self is strongly identified with his or her persona along with its various wants.  Additionally, us Westerners really struggle mightily with issues of confidence, feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing.  While I am sure that plenty of classical Indians struggle with the same issue, a confident, outgoing personality is not as valued as the fulfillment of one's responsibilities to society and family.  And because the "come from" is so different, often times, the method doesn't work in the same way.  This isn't to say that the method doesn't work.

Mistaking Cultural Maps for Spiritual Maps

I remember it used to baffle my guru that we'd keep showing up at the shala year after year, either unmarried, littered with more tattoos, and still experimenting with various illicit drugs.  I imagine that he would sometimes scratch his head wondering why the method wasn't working the way it ought to for some of his students.  He'd often say in his lectures to us that we needed to get married, to have children, essentially to surrender to our dharma.  I am sure that he saw that even though we came from comparatively wealthy places, we were equally spiritually lost.  And yet I wish to argue that, while the practice wasn't working based on his cultural maps of dharma, it was, in fact working on us.

It's my hunch that the path of illumination for us Westerners has less to do with surrendering to our roles in society and has more to do with having the courage to trust what authentically moves us.  And that's what we were doing when we were saving up all the money we earned as waiters or yoga teachers to go back to practice with our teacher.  That's what we were doing when we would show up on the mat day after day.  We weren't doing these things because society deemed them valuable or worthy.  On the contrary, most of my parents' friends thought I was a freak for waking up at 5 am to contort my body in odd shapes.  We were doing this because it moved us.  It resonated with something very individual within each of us.  We used the practice to help strip away all the nonsense our parents, teachers, and society had foisted upon us so that we could each find our own individual way in the world.

Mistaking 'Correct' for the Truth

And that's how I think the practice worked and continues to work on us Westerners differently.  So when I hear Ashtanga teachers insisting that their students practice exactly the way it's done in Mysore today; that they never vary the sequence to meet their student's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; that they alienate those that cannot practice six days per week, I can't help but think that this is laziness on the part of the teacher.  He or she is foisting a brahman interpretation of yoga onto Western students.  As Westerners our path is not necessarily to become more dutiful.  For some it is.  But for most of us, our work is to strip away what isn't true so that we can sense and choose life from our essence, the part of us that is authentic, awake, and deeply resonant.  And for each student, that's different.  Overlaying a system of "ought to's," of "right and wrong," of "correct and incorrect" is just another system our students will, at one point, need to throw off.

 

Isvara Pranidhana: Sticking With What We Truly Know

In my previous blogs, I have been discussing Sat-Chit-Ananda, which is really a description of the experience of yoga.  If you've been following the series, you'll notice that I give examples of Sat-Chit-Ananda from the perspective of not just our yoga students, but various coaching clients of mine, as well.  This experience shows up not just when we're practicing ujjayi pranayama (victorious breathing) or following the vinyasa count exactly the way it's performed in Mysore.  In fact, Sat-Chit-Ananda is an everyday, common experience we all have.  It spontaneously occurs in moments that ring of profound truth; in moments that wake us up; and in moments that evoke resonance. But if everyone can experience Sat-Chit-Ananda, and it happens in everyday, normal experiences, then why do we practice yoga?  What's the point?  The point is that to continually discover Sat-Chit-Ananda in our lives, it requires both practice and the capacity to stay.  In one sense, the practice gives us the kinisthetic experience of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  We tune and attune to the instruments of our bodies in order to experience what it's like to be in accord with our inner most truth; to develop the knack for directing our attention without distraction; and to know what "the yum" feels like.  Not only do we cultivate the feeling sense in the body, but we also foster and learn to stay connected to the part of us that is courageous, wise, and clear, the part that Patanjali calls isvara.  In this blog, we will explore why this part is so important.

The Threshold

We all come to places in our lives where we just have to make an authentic, resonant choice over doing what we think we "should do" or what the so-called "right thing," is.  Joseph Campbell describes this choice in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949,  CA: New World Library) as "the threshold," which he described as the "passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown."  It's a place in which we have to become bigger than we know ourselves to be.

Devorah and I often have the privilege of sitting in the front seat of our students' lives as they're at their thresholds.  Sometimes it shows up in the form of of a physical injury.  I don't know what it is about us Ashtangis, but often it takes the experience of pain to wake us up and connect us to the fact that we have to change.  On one level, we can't keep practicing the way we've been practicing previously.  We have to clean up aspects of our asana practice, so we don't keep getting repetitive strain.  Maybe we need better alignment; maybe we need to back off certain postures; maybe we need to just stay more present when we're entering and exiting.  More often than not it's not just the asana we need to clean up.  We also have to face the fact that our lives need to change.  And change can be a pretty scary thing for most of us.

The Resistance to Change

We all get pretty locked up at the threshold of change.  We resist and resist because we're frightened of what we might find out about ourselves and whether we will find what we're truly looking for on the other side.   To make choices that lead us toward authenticity, toward awakening, toward aliveness, toward healing we often have to say, "no" to what we're habituated to.  And when we don't, our "world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and [our lives] feel meaningless." (Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949. p.23)  In other words, when we can't muster the will or courage to make the leap, life feels stagnant and heavy, dull and grating.

I recently had a chat with a new friend who spent three years in a quagmire.  Once she and her partner had her first child, she discovered that he didn't really meet her.  As she said, "if he was just a jerk, leaving him would've been a cinch," but she loved many things about him.  And it was important to her not to leave him because "he is the father of our child."  So she tried all sorts of different ways of staying in the relationship.  And no matter what method she employed, she kept discovering and rediscovering throughout those three years that they just weren't a match.  She described those three years as "some of the hardest years of my life."  That's what it's like for most of us when we just can't move even though we need to...badly.

Samsara: Conditioned Existence

We're so conditioned to stay with things even though they don't suit us.  Choosing differently often can feel like a death.  We're programmed at such a very, very early age to choose things that don't necessarily resonate with us in order to receive the love we crave.  I am watching this first-hand since my wife, Melissa and I took a puppy into our lives.  I know that our little Disco would like to poop wherever she wants to in our house, but she's learning that the pleasure of affection and attention will be temporarily removed from her if and when she does so.  And, more importantly, she will get rewarded when she goes to the bathroom outside.

I know that we're psychologically different from dogs, but we're all trained in a very similar manner.  Most of us were rewarded when we did things that others wanted, and, likewise, were punished when we did things they didn't like.  That's how we were taught to survive in our homes, at school, and any other place we were exposed to as kids.  For all of us, our survival was predicated on a few things.

In my case: "Always look your best, even if you don't feel it;" "don't be so negative;" and "never let them know how you really feel."  As a result of these subtle messages, I developed a pretty affable personality, but for many years, I was frightened of confrontation.  Still to this day, I struggle with expressing anger, except to the few who I trust will stick with me, even when my anger starts to look ugly.

In order to fit in to our family settings and to survive all of the socialization we get as kids, whether it's at home, in the classroom, or on the football field, we had to make choices that took us out of accord with ourselves, with who we authentically were.  We had to do this.  That's just part of growing up.  If Melissa and I just let Disco take a crap on our rug, like she did today--ugh--and just say, "Hey, she's just expressing her 'authentic, doggy nature,'" we're setting her up for a rough adulthood.  By conditioning her to live in our home in such a way that she can live in harmony with us, we all get to thrive.

Samsara Halahala

But there's no doubt that many of the experiences that socialized us also scarred parts of us.  That conditioning is what we're requesting to overcome when we chant:

vande gurunam charanaravinde sandarsita svatmasukhava bodhe nihsreyase jangalikayamane samsara halahala mohasantyai

We're essentially calling on the guidance of our guru to eliminates the delusion of our conditioning.  Delusion includes all of the ways we numb out to the suffering that results when we don't follow our Sat-Chit-Ananda.  For many of us, the experiences that conditioned us also left us lacking in confidence, either about how beautiful we were, how smart we were, and many of us grew up wondering, deep down, whether there was something fundamentally flawed about us.  So we remained stuck in what everyone else wanted for us.  We never found our own unique way in the world.

In fact, even when we survive our childhood, even when we "make it" relative to the standards of most human beings in the world, we still sometimes make choices that don't feel very life affirming.  We still make choices that keep us in a sort of unconscious fog.  We choose the yuck.  On a deeply emotional level, on the level of the pre-rational brain, we're still looking for some sort of affirmation that we're okay; that we're wanted; or that we're lovable.  In many ways, we're still surviving our childhoods even though we've totally outgrown them.

Isvara Pranidhana: Staying With the Seer, the Knower, and the Guru Within

It takes a lot of guts to make some life-affirming choices because we've all been programmed to believe that if we do, we might end up "without a home, with no direction home, like a complete unknown, just like a rolling stone." (Dylan, Bob, "Like a Rolling Stone". Highway 61 Revisited.  Columbia. 1965)  To make choices that go against our conditioning can be downright frightening because it often feels like we have to cast ourselves off of a cliff with no clear sense that there will be anything below to catch us.  And no matter how intensely we practice asana, somehow the physical practice doesn't always take us all the way there.  This is where isvara pranidhana is needed.  Isvara pranidhana is typically translated as surrender to God or faith in God, but as we explore further, we'll discover that it is something altogether different.

In the West, we have all sorts of funny reactions to both the words, "surrender" and "God."  Either we wholeheartedly give our life to our savior; we're just over the superstition of the whole thing; we're not sure what to believe; or we have inklings of some relationship to a higher power, but that relationship doesn't fit the models we grew up with.

But pranidhana isn't exactly faith or surrender.  Surrender is what we do when we realize we're not going to win the war. We pull out the white flag, both literally and figuratively, and enter the battle field with our hands in the air.  "We give up. Don't shoot!" Maybe we give up to a higher power, which is beautiful, but it's not pranidhana.  Faith is belief without proof.  When we have faith we don't need it.  We just believe.  But pranidhana is a "continual placing of ourselves into." Pra means continuously, ni is into.  And dha is place. So it's much more active than faith or surrender.  It is the act of totally staying with the part of us that is isvara.

And isvara isn't God, the way we know God.  Isvara is not the biblical God.  It is not the judger, the punisher, the ruler, or the guy with the white beard.  Patanjali describes the three qualities of Isvara like this:

  1. the seer that is unaffected by the suffering we face (1:24).
  2. the knower (1:25)
  3. the teacher of teachers, the dispeller of darkness (1:26)

Isvara can either be perceived as a force outside of ourselves or something that is within.  My preference--since it is easier for me to access-is to see isvara as the one within me.  It's the part of me that is not afraid to suffer, the one who knows, and the one who, as the teacher of teachers, is always learning and growing in order to become wiser.  Accessing this part of ourselves can be extremely useful in moments when we're scared shitless; when we're confused; when we're depressed; and when we're so angry that all we see is red.

I recently got a call from an acupuncture client who said that within an hour or so after leaving the appointment that she started to feel tightness in her chest and breathless.  My first instinct was to press my internal "panic button" along with the button that say, "You're no good at what you do.  See you're a failure.  People pay you to feel better, and you make them worse. Just give up.  It's not worth the fuss, anyway.  You're a fraud.  Just think what people will be saying about you."

In spite of the fact that I have been practicing yoga for almost 20 years, I still have these self-loathing and belittling voices in my head.  But I've also cultivated isvara pranidhana.  When the shit hits the fan, not only do I consult the self-critical voices, but I've also learned to consult the part of me that is isvara and to stick more with that wisdom than the crap that my self-sabotaging voices would have me believe.  And when I contacted this part of myself, it asked:

"What's the truth here?"

"The truth is that my patient experienced a reaction from my treatment."

"Does that make you a failure?"

"No, I did and continue to treat my patients the best way that I know how.  And I make mistakes.  So, I guess I get to admit being a human here, a human that makes mistakes."

"Yeah, you get to be human.  And you get to have compassion for yourself.  Now, what can you do to support your client?"

"Well, I can call her.  I can see if I can help her with her pain.  And I can learn from this experience."

So for me isvara pranidhana is a bit like having a dialogue with myself.  I am accessing the wiser part of me that dispels the lies of the self-sabotaging voices; offers compassion and the gift of humility; allows me to see what can be done to rectify the situation; and most importantly, sees the opportunity for learn and grow.

It is a lens through which we see the world, an access point for moving forward, for making choices that are informed by the depth of who we are rather than those smaller, superficial parts of us that are holding on for dear life.  We're all in samsara, or conditioned existence.  We all have things we must overcome in order to meet the direct experience of Sat-Chit-Ananda. For me, personally, Isvara pranidhana, is really the gift of seeing that the things we suffer with are really opportunities for our evolution.

My brother-in-law, Boyd, just came back from a hospital visit to a friend who only a few days ago fell backwards from the bed of a truck onto his spine.  In a split second he went from being an agile, capable man to being a quadriplegic.  His response to the accident was, "It's just another of life's hurdle."  One might read that as either machismo or naiveté, but it also just might isvara pranidhana.  Somehow it shows up in those moments we need it the most.  And in those hours, weeks, months, and years when we're stuck on the threshold, Isvara pranidhana can be our greatest ally.  We need allies on the journey toward Sat-Chit-Ananda, whether we're paralyzed in our body or paralyzed by life.

 

Exercise

It can help immensely to tap into the three faces of Isvara within ourselves: the seer, the knower, and the teacher.  Whether they actually exists or not is really of no significance, but it's a powerful lens or perspective to step into when we're stuck or we're freaked out by change.

  1. Take a moment to slow down.  In fact, don't just read through this exercise if you don't have time to really give it the thought it deserves.
  2. Notice if there are areas of your life where you're on the threshold.  Is there a fulfilling move you've been too afraid to make because you fear a loss of love, affection, or care from another or others?  Are you sticking with something even though you know it doesn't fit you, but it's the so-called "right thing to do"?  Take a few moment to either write, contemplate, or meditate on where, exactly you're held back and what it's like being there.
  3. Describe, think about, or meditate on what the self-critical voices are saying about the situation.  Notice if you can hear the voices of your parents,  teachers, or mentors.
  4. Tap into the part of you that is the seer.  It's the part of you that is permanent, pure, unchanging, non-material, and everlasting.  It's the part of us that knows that you can withstand all suffering and so is not afraid of it.  What's the perspective of the seer in you?
  5. Tap into the part of you that is the knower.  This is the part of us that just knows the truth.  When all the drama of life is dropped away, when all of the fear and doubt are dropped, what's true about this situation? What's eternally true?
  6. Now pay attention to the part of you that is the teacher of teachers, the dispeller of darkness.  As the teacher of teachers, you recognize that all of the experiences of life are opportunities for growth and evolution.  What's the bigger lesson you're learning in this situation?  What's the big lesson you still have to learn?
  7. Finally apply pranidhana to isvara.  In other words, you're job is to stay with the wisdom and knowing of that part of yourself rather than letting the self-sabotaging voices take over.  Make a practice of reminding yourself of what you know deep inside.  Consider that the practice of isvara pranidhana is not one you'll ever master, but it's a powerful practice that will take you very far on your journey, much farther and much more interesting than the journey your self-sabotaging voices will lead you down.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

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

 

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

 

Chit: Noticing What Is

In my previous entry, I discussed Sat-Chit-Ananda, an ancient yogic compound of three Sanskrit roots: sat, chit, and ananda, that describes the qualities of the experience of yoga.  I spent most of that blog entry discussing ananda, which I translated in our everyday language, as "the yum."  By "the yum," I mean that 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 when life is especially rich, rewarding and poignant.  "The yum" is our truth; it's our essence; it's our raison d'être.  And essentially, I made the case for the idea that "the yum" is what we're after in the practice of yoga.

Eyes Unclouded By Longing

In this entry, I intend to speak about chit, which is really "the doing" of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  It's the action we must take to uncover, and meet "the yum."  Chit is often translated as understanding, comprehending, or the fixing of the mind.  The action that leads to such an outcome is, essentially, observation, the simple act of noticing.

And it's not just any old noticing, it's the kind of noticing that occurs when the "eyes are unclouded by longing." (Tao Te Ching).  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 with curiosity, openness, and a quality of freshness, we come to know them as they are.

The Habits of Seeking Relief

We rarely see this sort of observation applied on the geopolitical stage.  Instead of curiosity, what tends to show up amongst enemy nations is distrust, accusation, manipulation, coercion, and combativeness.  At the heart of this form of noticing are human emotions that are difficult to be with discomfort, distrust, and, more often than not, fear.  This doesn't just happen among nations.  It also occurs in our everyday relationships.

A few years ago I was coaching a married couple, who claimed to have "the perfect sex life," but they just couldn't get along.  Both had plenty of justifications as to why the other wasn't being a good husband or wife.  He complained that she was "passive aggressive" and always found ways of deflecting responsibility for their arguments.  She would argue that he was domineering and even, at times, dictatorial. When we first met, the two of them tried to get me to see their respective interpretations of what was wrong with their partner.

She'd say, "I don't want to argue.  I just want to feel the way we felt when we first got together."  He'd rebut with, "I am not trying to start a fight.  Come on, Chad, can't you see how manipulative she is?"  At the point in our conversations when both had uncovered and identified the manipulative games they played with each other, I asked them, "Well, what's here if you're not playing out this psychodrama with each other?" Immediately, the masks came off, and what revealed itself in the space was raw, passion, and it was so palpable in the room, but neither of them could just be with it without reacting to it.

Being With What Is

Part of chit is really the capacity of being with things as they are, without interpretation, reaction, or labeling.  And there's so much we have great difficulty being with.  Like the couple above, a lot of us have a hard time being with our passion.  Instead of just experiencing it, we tend to jump to the conclusion that it means something like, "What does he want from me?" or like, "I don't deserve her."  We also have difficulty being with certain feelings in our bodies, like anxiety, sadness, anger, and even joy.  Before we will ever really let ourselves just feel what's coming up emotionally, we are often already seeking a solution that will get rid of the discomfort.

That's what "following the yuck in order to get to the yum" is all about.  Something occurs, like somebody says something to us that makes us uncomfortable, and then, before we actually give ourselves the space to just experience the pain, we go looking for a way to get rid of it.  We might seek revenge.  We might go and hide. We might go straight for the pint of Haagen Dazs.  This is just habit.  It's the habit of reacting so as not to be with the experience, as it is.

The Body as the Field of Experience

We know the world through our bodies.  All we need to do is slow down enough just to notice what's coming up, what it's feeling, and meet the feelings with curiosity and openness.  But being able to slow down and notice isn't necessarily easy.  That's why we practice daily and why the Yoga Sutras state that when practice is done steadily and for an extended period of time, we develop a solid foundation (1.14).  It takes continuous practice to get the hang of choosing the direct experience through the body over the reactive, interpretive reality that our discursive minds create.  In other words, it takes a lot of clarity and years of practice to be with both the pleasure and discomfort that shows up in our body without seeking gratification.  One of the benefits of daily practice is that we get the hang of being with the initial discomfort when we have to choose something that in the short-run doesn't feel so good but is ultimately for our highest good.

A student came to class today with some tears.  She was sad but proud of herself.  Yesterday, she broke off a relationship with someone who she cared about but didn't see a future with.  As she put it, "the relationship wasn't heading in the direction I wanted it to go.  Breaking it off is really painful, but I know that, in the long run, it's the right thing for me."  Instead of holding on to the relationship for another year or two, she knows that deep down inside, she has to let it go in order to meet someone who really does meet her.  Sometimes being with 'what is' doesn't feel so good.  In the case of our student, it's painful, but, simultaneously, there is a feeling, deeper down that something is "right," that it’s perfectly fine to just be with the discomfort, without having to fix it or resolve it.

By the way, our student is creating the yum in her life simply by being willing to face the pain of breaking off the relationship.  Why?  Because she is creating a sort of congruency between whom she knows she is deep inside and whom she is out in the world.  Creating that harmony sometimes requires being with what we fear the most.  In fact, more often than not, it takes incredible courage to make that leap.

Asana: Directing Our Awareness Toward Ananda

The practice of asana (posture) teaches us both how to be with the discomfort when and how to kinesthetically distinguish when the experience of "the yum" is authentic. In Patanjali's Sutras, "the yum" in asana is described as: sthira sukham asana (2.47), the place in the posture that has the simultaneous qualities of sthira, steadiness, and sukha, comfort.  So when we practice asana, we're developing a feel for ananda.   That's why Pattabhi Jois used to say that Ashtanga Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.  It's not a passive, intellectual pursuit.  It's active, and it requires the direct experience.

For those of us who practice, we all know it.  Every once in a while we're in a posture, working with the breath a little, refining the alignment, noticing the bandhas, and then all of a sudden there's this deep, resonant feeling of, "Yes," or "Mmm," or "Ahhh," or just emptiness, vast emptiness.  That's the experience of sthira sukham asana.  And it's the experience of ananda.  It's not that superficial pleasure we get when we eat a cookie or drink wine.  It's deeper than that.  There's a sort of profundity, a rightness, a fundamental goodness about that experience.

And it's why Mysore teachers give adjustments in class.  They do it, not because they simply want to force students into a deeper posture, but because they want the student to connect to the deeper resonance that the posture can evoke in the body.  When we get the hang of finding those dual qualities in our physical practice, when we find that sweet spot, we begin to develop the skill for discovering it in our relationships, in our work, and in our lives.

Being at Choice

The funny thing is that the moment we've found that sweet spot, it's gone.  It only occurs in a moment.  So what brought us sthira, steadiness, and sukha, ease, in our asana or in our lives yesterday won't hold up today.  The nature of things is change.  Nothing is constant, so we have to remain flexible, not just in body but in mind, as well.

Part of chit is being aware and open enough to see that we are constantly at choice in how we interpret things.  Usually, we just assume that the way we've interpreted reality is just the way it is and probably the way it will always be.  Consider that your interpretation of this blog would change dramatically if you read it ten years from today or even if you read it one more time.  Yet we have the tendency to think that our interpretation of 'what is' is the way it is, that it's fixed.

But if we will apply chit to an experience and the interpretation of it, we will find two very different domains of reality.  The first is based in the direct experience, which is always here and in the present moment.  The second is rooted in ideas, beliefs, opinions, and judgments, all of which are past oriented. So, for example, as I was practicing this morning, I noticed a lot of heavy and crampy sensations in my back and legs.  That was my direct experience.  I could have interpreted that experience to mean that I was stiff today, certainly quite a lot stiffer than I was yesterday.  Once I made that interpretation, I could have followed that logic and made my stiffness mean something like, "I hate practicing when I am stiff.  I think I'll just skip the rest of the poses I planned to do and go straight to savasana (corpse pose)."

I am at choice only when my awareness is here and now, in the present moment. When I am stuck in my interpretation of what the sensations means, I'm caught in a cascade of decisions, which are all informed by past stories and experiences that have nothing to do with what I am experiencing in the moment.  More often than not, the choices are not appropriate to the situation at hand.  But when I just experience the sensation directly, I am more apt to make choices that are appropriate for that particular situation, choices that bring me back to ananda, to both my truth and to what's needed in the present moment.

Chit-Ananda

It takes incredible patience not to jump straight to conclusions but simply to observe what's here.  Patience is not about waiting without any discomfort.  True patience is really the capacity to wait both with comfort as well as discomfort.  If we will slow down enough and direct our attention to what is here in the present moment without judgment, without labeling, with curiosity, by allowing things to be as they are, we will discover what the well-known and widely respected Ashtanga Yoga teacher, Richard Freeman, calls "the yoga matrix," which he describes as  "the background of unconditional love and absolute support that is the true nature of an open mind" (Freeman, Richard. The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind. Boston: Tambala Publications. 2010. Print).  This is nothing other than ananda, our truth, our happiness, our wisdom, and the deep, profound sense of the perfection of things.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the second 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!

The Marriage of Yoga and Modern Medicine...Ugh!

New York Times science writer, WIlliam Broad, is making the rounds to speak about his book, The Science of Yoga.1   In his interview with NPR host of "Fresh Air", Terry Gross,  he suggested that because science is beginning to understand the physiological responses to the practice of yoga, that we begin to train doctors of yoga, "people who are trained to uniformed standards, people who understand the science and what these yoga positions are really doing, tweaking our own pharmaceutical complex to produce the hormones that you need and want."

Science is Finally Showing Yoga's Benefits

What I love about Broad's idea of 'yoga doctors' is that science is starting to be able to describe why we feel so good when we do yoga.  Science has advanced to the point of being able to detect neurotransmitters, like GABA, that are evoked while we transition from upward facing dog to downward facing dog.  For many of us who were raised on science, the physical matter--rather than the metaphysical ethers--makes the benefits of yoga somehow more real and, thus, more accessible.  And for many of us who don't give a hoot what science has to say about it-- but do it anyway because it just feels good--we can, now stand justified with smug grins on our faces.

Either way, I've always been attracted to the notion that we could use yoga to heal and transform illness and injury.  As a teacher, I've seen and had the privilege of supporting hundreds of people heal old back injuries, broken hearts, and asthma.  I have a hard time with the notion, though, of yoga being medically standardized.  I also have a hard time believing that the yoga postures along with the various techniques of observation can be used in isolation to and from a yogic worldview.

I am not suggesting that for yoga to be effective that patients subscribe to notions like karma and reincarnation.  However, I do sense that the essence of yoga is a transmission not just of techniques and information, but of something much more subtle and rich.   Unfortunately, science cannot quantify this transmission.  My teacher didn't simply teach me postures.  He taught me a way of being that would give me access to the sacred.  And, unfortunately, science, as powerful as it is, cannot quantify the effects of this type of interaction.  It cannot be conveyed in books, lectures,  or exams.

The Marriage of Yoga and Modern Medicine

While I applaud Broad's idea, I am afraid that the marriage of yoga with science might be translated mechanistically.  So, for example, if you were diagnosed with Crohn's disease, your 'yoga doctor' might look in her Merck Manual of Yoga and see that the research shows that 10-20 breaths in shoulder stand along with seated victorious breathing for 10 minutes has a cure rate of 30%.  She would prescribe it and then asks you to come back in three weeks.  But that absolutely ignores the true healing that takes place when we practice yoga.

One of the main benefits of practice is going to a yoga class.  In this day and age, we are so isolated from one another, that so much of what shows up as illness is really the stress of loneliness.  So part of the cure of yoga is being connected to others: chanting the same chant, moving with each other, and seeing one another on a day-in-day-out basis.  Yoga is not just a series of techniques.  It's community, as well.  Finally, yoga is also about the relationship of a teacher to a student.  As I said above, the benefits of that relationship cannot be quantified by science.

So while I do applaud the idea of yoga doctors, I would rather call them yoga therapist or yoga healers.  I think the latter terms imply an even balance of both the hard and soft sciences, and when it comes to yoga, we're not simply working with hormones, neurotransmitters, and blood production, we're working with an individual who is physical, emotional, and spiritual.  She's also a member of a community, of society, and of the universe, as a whole.  The problem with modern medicine is that it tends to reduce us into body systems and body parts.  And, in a way, I think that this reductivism is really the source of much of the loneliness, malaise, and dis-ease that lures many of us to yoga classes in the first place.  If yoga is to make more forays into hospital settings, we need to think long and hard weather we want it to replicate the modern medical system or whether we want it to retain its essence.

1Excerpts from the book were published in the New York Times under the title, "How Yoga Can Wreck You" and got all sorts of controversy.  One of my favorite responses comes from my friend, Eddie Stern, under the title "How the New York Times Can Wreck Yoga."

The Drishti: Looking Out & Looking In

A friend of mine is struggling in her relationship with her boyfriend.  They've been together for quite some time, but he's feeling stuck and wants to move on.  He tells her that he's in love with her, but then tells her that he needs to move out, to find his own place.  She's getting all sorts of mixed messages, and she can't help but vacillate between wanting him to stay or demanding that he just moves on. Either way, she feels hostage to his moods and to his indecisiveness.  She says, "I can't really move forward in my life until he makes a decision."

While not all of us have been in a position like this, we can all empathize with her. We've all experienced the sense that our happiness, security, or well-being was in the hands of someone or something outside of ourselves.  The problem my friend is stuck with is that she's in a perspective that leaves her powerless.  All the power is in his hands.  Each time she feels elated or crushed by his next intended move on the chess board of their life together, she has no say.

A Profound Meditation on the Self

The recognition that we always have a say, however, is what is the essence of the practice of drishti in Ashtanga Yoga.  Mostly, when teachers discuss drishti, they talk about it as a way to keep the mind focused in the present moment. They describe the various gazing points as tools to keep the mind anchored in the present moment, much like the bandhas or the sound  of the ujjayi breath.  But it's my sense that the drishti is so much more profound than this.  It's really a meditation on waking up to where we direct our attention and how it effects our relationship to the Self.

The Windows of the Soul

You know the saying, "The eyes are the windows to the soul"?  When we say this, we think about looking into another's eyes, but when we practice drishti during or Ashtanga practice, we're looking through our own eyes and deep into our own souls.  Drishti, in the context of Ashtanga Yoga, is a form of sense withdrawal (pratyahara).  While we gaze at the tip of nose (nasagrai drishti) or the hand (hastagrai drishti), we're not simply looking at objects, but we're noticing the gazer that is gazing at them.

While the Sanskrit word, drishti, means to gaze, the drashtaa is the seer, and the drishya is the object that is seen or known.  So, for example, if we're gazing at the tip of the nose (nasagrai drishti), the nose is the drishya, the capacity to gaze is the drishti, and the one that gazes is the drashtaa. The significance of this triad known in Sanskrit as triputi is that when we're practicing the drishti, it isn't exclusively the nose we're really looking at.  Rather, it's the whole phenomenon of the self (drashtaa)  looking (drishti) at the nose (drishya).  And so the nose is really a profound meditation into the questions: Who it is that is looking at the nose?  In short, the drishti is not just a point of concentration that keeps us focused outward, but an inquiry into the relationship of the seer within (drashtaa) and to the objects that define it.

Choose Your Gaze Wisely

As I shared the practice of drishti with my friend, she began to see that his indecisiveness was simply a stimulus that evoked feelings of pain and uncertainty that have always been with her and that were independent of him.  In addition, she could see that she wasn't simply at the whim of his uncertainty but that by continuing to gaze (drishti) at his uncertainty (drishya), she (drashtaa) was choosing to suffer.  The most significant revelation she discovered through this practice was that by continuing to direct her attention toward his doubt, she didn't have to be with her own regret and insecurity, as well as her wisdom and depth.  By waiting for his decision, she didn't have to make one, herself.

Once she woke up to her role in his vacillation, she could be at choice.  She could ask the questions: Did she want to continue to put energy into and empower his vacillation?  What wounds did she need to handle that predated their relationship?  And did she want to continue to wait for him to decide to stay or go, or could she find a different path?

The practice of drishti allowed her to see she could be conscious of and at choice in where she focused her attention.  By focusing entirely on being held captive to his capriciousness, it left her uncertain, scared, and even sleepless.  But if she redirected the awareness on the greater learning this experience evoked in her, then she could actually use it to grow.  In addition, she recognized that by focusing on the negative in him, she only experienced pain and negativity within herself.  So she chose to redirect the focus of their conversation from what his next move will be to how they could consciously collaborate in designing a new relationship with one another.  All of this recognition simply occurred because she was able to recognize that her gaze, her drishti, didn't just have an object that it was attached to.  On the other end was her, a subject, a soul, and a spirit very much at choice in terms of where she wanted to direct her gaze.

To me, that's the power of drishti. It's not just something you do when you're practicing asana.  If we consider all of life "the practice," then we can start to wake up to where we're focusing our attention.  Do we point it in directions that feed us and remind us of the rapture, wonder, and mystery that we are? Or do we point it at situations, people, and things that suck us dry and leave us with a sense of our impotence?  Mastering drishti is a life-long endeavor because it's really the development of the capacity to wake up to both what we see, what it tells us about ourselves, and what choices we want to make, as a result.  And so next time you're in downward dog, gazing in the direction of your navel, begin this profound inquiry by asking yourself, "Who is it that's gazing?"

 

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.

Asking "Why?"... is the Wrong Question

why.jpg

I stopped to talk with a student in Mysore class today. I wanted to check in to see how she was doing, if she had any questions or needed a little support or encouragement. I thought the conversation would be a short one, but it turned into quite a discussion. Essentially, she's been practicing Ashtanga Yoga pretty regularly as of late, but she's frustrated. She doesn't feel as if she's progressing. She doesn't feel like she's either getting more flexible or stronger, and she wants to know, "why?"

Overvaluing the Intellect

I hesitated to walk into that discussion because looking for the answer to "why" she's stuck is a lot like going down a rat hole. Instead of offering her solutions, looking for the "why" really only deepens the potential that she stays in the rut she's currently in. Even if she found the reason for why she's not progressing that reason would just keep her locked in a particular way of relating to her situation. It might offer her some perspective, but it wouldn't offer her solution.

In addition, our reasons and justification are intellect-based. Her "stuck-ness" is non-intellectual. We have a culture that's overvalued the power of the intellect. It values "knowing" rather than "experiencing." We live in a culture that would rather have us relate to ourselves as some entity that exists somewhere behind the eyes rather than the whole, which includes body, emotions, heart, spirit, soul, etc. And yoga practice is all about the direct experience. It's all about noticing what's occurring in the body and mind from moment-to-moment. Looking for "why" she is experiencing a particular sensation takes her off on a wild goose hunt, far, far away from her capacity to be with the experience.

What You Resist Persists

One of my favorite quotes from the famous psychiatrist, Carl Jung, is, "What you resist persists."   Looking for why is just another way to avoid the direct experience of suffering that showing up both physically and emotionally.  The antidote to Jung's statement is: "what you will be with completely causes it to disappear."  In other words, when you can experience whatever pain or suffering that's arising, directly, using the body and feeling sense as your lens, transformation naturally happens.  Sometimes it happens quickly and instantaneously and other times it's slow-going.  Either way, by staying with whatever shows up, we grow.

20/20 Hindsight

The "why" of situations that show up for us usually only shows up once we've passed difficult or challenging situation. The reason or reasons we are in them, however, don't, in fact, reveal themselves to us until we have long passed the situation we're struggling with. When I look today at the chronic digestive problems I experienced throughout my 20s, the "why" is obvious. Now that I am in my late 30s, I can see clearly that not only was I grieving the loss of my brother to suicide, but so was my gut...20/20 hindsight.

So, essentially, I advocated that she stay with her experience, which included not just the lack of progress, but the feeling of frustration that accompanied that lack of progress. I asked her to find it in her body, to locate it, to feel it, and to compassionately stay in connection to it. The point, as I saw it, wasn't to get rid of it or to overcome it, but to have a direct experience of it. Her search for "why' was just another opportunity to avoid the direct experience. It's really when we stop resisting what we're feeling, discomfort especially, that it no longer has a hold on us. But when we're busy trying to understand or justify it, we don't have to feel, and, as a result, it just keeps us stuck in it.

Practicing All Eight Limbs...At the Same Time

Ashtanga Yoga is not an Indian form of calisthenics or gymnastics.  It is an eight-limbed path. The word Ashtanga comes from a text dating somewhere between the 4th and 1st centuries, B.C.E., called The Yoga Sutras.  The Sutras--as they are affectionately known by yogis-- are arguably the most important 'how-to' compilation of terse statements about yoga for yogis.  The word Ashtanga  means eight limbs (ashto- eight; anga- limb).  Ashtanga yogis don't just practice the second two limbs of this eight limbed path, asana and pranayama. They practice all of them...at the same time.  They practice the first two limbs, yamas and niyamas, which are basically 'do's and don'ts.'  They're the yogis version of the Ten Commandments.  The fifth limb, pratyahara, is translated as 'the withdrawal of the senses.'  The last three limbs, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, are gradations of the various levels of absorption or concentration that can occur when we practice. The tradition my co-teacher, Devorah Sacks, and I come from has a unique spin on this eight-limbed path.  As students of the renowned yoga master from Mysore, India, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, we’ve been taught that all we need to do is to work on asana and pranayama, and the rest of the limbs naturally and spontaneously will follow.  But that's not to say we are to ignore the other six-limbs.  Rather, the other limbs are to be considered benchmarks that give us direct feedback on the quality of intention we bring to our practice.

Getting Fit and Chilling Out

As a long-term teacher of Ashtanga Yoga, I’ve come to recognize that most people don’t come to practice in order to have a deeper connection with the yamas and niyamas. They come either to get fit or to ‘chill out.’ This is usually the first aspiration that shows up on the mat. If the new student is persistent and continues to practice through the initial phase of soreness, stiffness, and the difficulty of waking up in the early morning to get on her mat, she will more often than not begin to wonder about the philosophical aspects of the practice.

I cannot say for certain what it is about practicing breath and posture that elicits this curiosity, but I do know for certain that at least 80% of the students I have taught make it past the initial stage of just wanting to get strong and flexible. That initial aspiration doesn't go away altogether. It just becomes obvious that the goal of yoga is much wider and broader than originally perceived.

How the Eight Limbs Work Together

Within the yoga that Jois taught, the eight limbs do not follow a linear sequence. In other words, we’re not taught to master the first limb before moving on to the next limbs. [ref] I don’t doubt, however, that historically, there were schools of yoga in which that was how the practice was taught.  Neophytes probably needed to prove themselves before the deeper, more introspective practices were taught.[/ref] In this tradition, the first two limbs, yamas and niyamas spontaneously arise out of the steady and continuous practice of asana and pranayama. Jois used to say that when the body and mind were cleansed of impurities, that following these rules was easy, natural, and obvious. And when the mind and body were gummed up with negativity and illness, to follow yamas and niyamas put the yogi at odds with herself and only created more tension.

And according to Jois, the last four limbs—which are, essentially, deeper levels of introspection, attention, and meditation—cannot be practiced. They arise spontaneously from the steady practice of the first four limbs. In other words, meditation cannot be practiced, according to this tradition. It just naturally grows from the continuous practice of breath work, posture, and the observance of certain morals and mores.

Focus on Asana and Pranayama And All Is Coming

Here’s the bottom line: essentially, Jois is saying is that all we need to do is to just practice asana and pranayama and the rest of the limbs follow spontaneously and naturally.  By the way, his teacher, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is really the grandfather of modern yoga, said the same thing. So this isn’t idiosyncratic to Jois’ tradition. This is what all Krishnamacharya’s well-known students, including B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, Indra Devi, A.G. Mohan, and Srivatsa Ramaswami, basically teach and taught.

Meditation Happens

If you look at this closely, it’s a pretty far-out idea.  The tradition is saying that you cannot do meditation. Meditation cannot be done. Meditation just comes. It’s like that William Blake quote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite.”  So, as yogis, it is our job to cleanse the doors of perception through the continuous, steady practice of asana and pranayama. In fact, that is all we really have the power to do anything about. And so at the heart of the practice of yoga, we’re just cleansing and clearing away what’s in the way. Once cleared, the goal of yoga naturally and spontaneously occurs.

What's the Point of the Other Six Limbs?

So why even mention the eight limbs if all we can really do are asana and pranayama? The limbs are signposts along the journey. They’re there to let you know about the quality of your aspiration and intention in your asana and pranayama practices. In other words, if you take away the other six limbs, and all you had were the asana and pranayama, it wouldn’t be altogether clear where the journey of yoga were taking us. But given the fact that introspection, attention, and meditation “should” naturally arise along the path of yoga, if they’re not, it’s a good indicator that there is something askew with the way we’re approaching our practices. Likewise, if the yamas and niyamas become more obscure to us and more difficult to practice along the path, then that, too, is an indicator that our practice is not, in fact, supporting our transformation.

Behind the Scenes at My Yoga Journal Photo Shoot

This summer, I was asked to model some basic asanas for the November 2011 Yoga Journal magazine: As someone who has been practicing Ashtanga for 20 years, I expected the shoot to be an interesting experience, but fairly easy. These are fundamental poses that I've done thousands of times. The two-day photo shoot in a San Francisco Mission District studio turned out to be even more interesting than I anticipated.

I worked under the direction of the Yoga Journal Editor Jennifer Rodrigue, who comes from a very strong Iyengar tradition. (That's her voice on the video above.) Both B.K.S. Iyengar and the founder of Ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois, studied under the same teacher—Sri Krishnamacharya. You would expect the systems to be quite similar, but while they share many of the same asanas, the approaches are totally different. Ashtanga is about movement and breath, Iyengar is about alignment and anatomical precision. Jennifer instructs with a keen eye for details that we don't address in Ashtanga.  She kept directing my attention to the fact that I was pointing my floating ribs out. Each time she'd ask me to draw them in, I'd find myself unconsciously poking them out again. When I would draw them in, I noticed all sorts of things happening in my body that I'd never noticed before, including feelings of lightness, clarity, and a sense of calm.

So, the experience was challenging—a bit of a surprise. And while I'll always be a die-hard Ashtangi (the sequence of asanas and vinyasas helps me tap into a deeper consciousness like no other practice), this brush with Iyengar gave me some interesting perspectives.

I also gained a whole new appreciation for the level of expertise, detail, breadth and depth that goes into the making of Yoga Journal. It was a total thrill to be a member of a high caliber team of artists and experts who are really great at what they do: Jennifer Rodrigue (editor and yoga spotter), Lyn Heineken (stylist), Tamara Brown (hair and makeup artist), Charli Ornett (creative director), and Katrine Naleid (photographer).

The So-Called Tradition of Ashtanga

I have noticed that as the Mysore-style Ashtanga method becomes more popular over the years, the individual connection between teacher and student is disintegrating. The practice, which was originally designed to be individualized, has become increasingly supplanted by a one-size-fits-all approach. This is a natural outgrowth as more and more people both learn and are touched by the method. The unfortunate thing is that it misses the point of the Mysore-style methodology, which by its nature honors each student’s constitution, body, emotions, personal development, culture, etc. The problem is that as yoga becomes increasingly popular, the practice is morphing into something that alienates the practitioner from his or her own wisdom. In the Ashtanga world this change is being called “traditional” ; however, I want to posit the notion that there is nothing traditional about it; in fact, it is an unfortunate and new result of the popularity of yoga. And if we continue to alienate our student’s innate wisdom from the practice, Mysore-style yoga will become a practice for only the select few.

Unlike led classes, the Mysore-style allows for a relationship to arise between the student and the teacher in such a way that the practice can be made to fit the student, as opposed to the other way around. In led classes, generally speaking, it is difficult for the teacher to work much on an individual basis with the student because he or she has to ensure the flow of the class as a whole. Mysore-style, however, is the equivalent of a private master class with the support of group energy. In other words, a student has the opportunity to be inspired both by the intensity of the class and the direction and support of the teacher. When a student finds his or her yoga home, indeed, it is like coming home. Both the relationship with the teacher and the class as a whole cradles and supports them in achieving yoga, however the student chooses to define that word.

Breakthroughs

Over the years, I have noticed within the Ashtanga world that yoga has increasingly become defined as the mastery of asanas as opposed to the achievement of yoga. The goal of yoga has become the need to bind the hands in marichyasana d in order to progress through primary series or stand up from a back bend in order to move to intermediate series. Frankly speaking, milestones like this are not helpful. Many, many individuals will never be able to bind in marichyasana d because constitutionally they just cannot. What often happens is that people will compromise their knees in order to get into the posture. So marichyasana d becomes the source of a medial meniscus tear. Likewise in an effort to stand up from back bends, students often injure their backs. The result of trying to master asanas is often a long-standing injury from repetitive strain. As Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Health will result from good yoga, ill-health will result from bad yoga.” Clearly, this is bad yoga.

The myth generated amongst practitioners of this method that if we push through pain, we are likely to have a breakthrough known amongst so-called ‘aficionados’of this method as an “opening.” When someone says “opening” they mean the ability to complete a posture that they could not previously complete because something opened up or let go. Most so-called ‘openings’ that I have seen over the years are repetitive strain injuries caused by a blatant disregard for the body’s signals that what they’re doing is painful. I have to admit that I stand in contrast to most so-called ‘traditional’ practitioners when I admit that, generally speaking, I don’t believe in openings. I have wanted to over the years. There have been many, many times when I have told myself and my students that the pain they’re experiencing is just an opening, but I have seen enough ‘openings’ to know that the idea is wishful thinking.

The first time I visited Mysore, in 1993, I saw a friend from New Zealand get injured in janu sirsasana c. His visit to Mysore was shortened from a three-month stay to one-month because his lateral collateral ligament had been totally ruptured. What struck me about that particular incident was that my friend had been complaining of pain in his knee. Various prominent practitioners and member of the community had advised him to keep pushing forward, that he would eventually have a breakthrough. Essentially, he was discouraged from recognizing his own pain receptors telling him that his knee was in danger.

Ashtanga is a rigorous practice and injuries do take place sometimes that are deleterious, but to overlay the problem with a false statement, like “oh, it’s just an opening” is like putting ice cream on top of crap and saying that the whole thing is ice cream, so eat it up. That’s the problem when we disregard our own common sense in place of tradition. I am not saying that it isn’t useful to look at the experience of pain and injury as an opportunity to grow or develop in a inner way. Our injuries can be some of our best teachers. What I am saying is that pain is usually an indicator that there is something wrong. It is the body’s intelligence speaking. In all the years I have been practicing and teaching, I have rarely seen the notion of breakthroughs pan out

Tradition

We all want certainty. We somehow think that if we align ourselves with a lineage that is thousands of years old, that its wisdom will keep us warm on a cold night. After all, if we look at our modern lives in reference to more traditional cultures, we can see that in many ways we are lonelier, more isolated, and have a greater propensity toward feelings of meaninglessness . I think it's natural to want to align oneself with the  old and great traditions in order to feel a part of something greater.

Unfortunately, more often than not, we see individuals clinging to traditions that are foreign or “other” who may in some sense find a connection but often are, likewise, cut-off from themselves. One of our students told me that when she discovered yoga and its teachings, that she was so enamored by the truth of the words that she heard and the practice, that she decided to park her old, lonely self at the door in order to embrace the teachings fully. Through our discussions together, she discovered that what she had done is cut herself off from sides of herself, wisdom and intelligence that had been cultivated for years before her introduction to the practice. And by parking her lonely self at the door, she cut off from those sides of herself that needed tending to. Since making that decision, she felt very satisfied when reading about, discussing, or practicing yoga, but her parked problems kept nagging her. Eventually through probing, she came to discover that the true test of the practice was to use them on those parts of herself that felt lonely and isolated as a way to discover the their actual power.

When I started yoga, I remember there being a sort of strict division between Ashtanga and Iyengar practitioners. Somehow for the Iyengar yogis, we had it all wrong. We lacked alignment and precision, and every one of us was prone to injury. And we thought they had it all wrong. Their practice was totally boring, static, and mental. As Ashtanga has become increasingly popular in the last few years, I have seen this division between practitioners within the method itself that is similar, either you’re traditional or you aren’t. This idea of being ‘traditional’ is a new creation. It simply didn’t exist until recently. Not that the method wasn’t exact. Indeed, it was, but because the room in Mysore was so small, each individual was tended to in a unique way. Many of Guruji’s old students, including myself, will tell you that he would tell one person one thing about a particular asana or about the method as a whole and then absolutely contradict himself with someone else.

This idea that somehow the method is monolithic, ancient, perfect, and precise is something we wish were true but isn’t. Pattabhi Jois said that he received the teachings exactly as he taught them from his teacher, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who learned the method from his teacher, Rama Mohan Brahmachari, and so on. The idea is that at no time was the system tainted, but, instead, it was passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years in pristine form. The system is linked to a source text no longer in existence called the Yoga Korunta, which was supposedly written by a sage named Vamana Rishi and was imparted from Rama Mohan Brahmachari to Krishnamacharya. At some point the text was written on palm leaves, which were in the safe keeping of Pattabhi Jois, as the legend goes, but somehow insects destroyed the text. All of this description creates the myth that somehow the practice has some profound history and its transmission has been untainted from time immemorial.

But in purusing the notion of tradition a bit further, I came across The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace by N.E. Sjoman. Sjoman makes the following compelling argument: the yoga system taught by Krishnamacharya comes from a merging of gymnastics with yoga. The author drew his conclusions by mining the royal library in Mysore, where Krishnamacharya taught during the time he taught Pattabhi Jois. Krishnamacharya was appointed to the Mysore Palace in the early 1930s to teach yoga to the Arasu boys, the maternal relatives of the royal family. Through the patronage of Nalvadi Krishanarja Woodeyar, he opened a yoga shala or yoga school which continued until 1950. The author makes a very compelling argument that Krishnamacharya not only developed the Ashtanga system as taught by Pattabhi Jois during his tenure in Mysore, but that he drew on elements of gymnastics and Indian wrestling.

So, not only is it a misnomer that somehow the system has been perfectly sustained for thousands of years, it is easily argued that the system was created in the 1930s to some degree or another and has sources outside of the yoga tradition. And in the bit of history we have of Ashtanga from the vantage point of long-time Western practitioners, one can see that the system has been changed to one degree or another since 1973. Postures have been added and subtracted. The length or duration of holding postures has been changed. Even sequences have been changed. Third series today is only a fraction of the old Advanced A series and its sequencing has changed somewhat. Students who completed first were moved on to second without the barrier of getting up from backbends. Pranayama was taught after completing primary series initially. Then eventually, it was taught after completing intermediate series. Now, supposedly, it is taught after completing Third series. To say that the practice has sanctity through historicity just is not true. It is a living, changing phenomena.

The New Tradition

And as the method is being passed to the next generation of practitioners, it continues to mold and change. So to say that there is a ‘traditional’ way to practice doesn’t actually mean that there is this vast history that supports it. Instead, what traditional means is what is currently being taught in Mysore at the given moment. Pattabhi Jois’ family, essentially determines the ‘traditional’ nature of things. And as the torch has been passed on to Jois’ grandson, Sharath, he currently determines what, in fact, is traditional.

The notion of standing up from backbends in order to progress to intermediate series was created by Sharath. This is just one so-called ‘tradition’ that has recently been added to the practice in order to manage the influx of students coming to Mysore. So many people show up in Mysore today that it is increasingly impossible for the teacher to give much individual instruction. In order to counter this, every Friday and Sunday, led classes are given. Led classes, generally did not exist before Pattabhi Jois moved from his yoga shala in Lakshmipuram to his shala in Gokulam. In addition, more focus is being played on backbends than ever before. Essentially the tradition is going through another metamorphosis and is being influenced by the influx of people attracted to the power of yoga.

That being said, tradition is based upon agreement. When that agreement lacks discrimination the risk of damage can be great. I write this because the practice and community have meant so much to me. I hate to see Ashtanga Yoga go in this direction. What lead me to the practice, in the first place, was the fact that individuality was honored. Each of us who maintains the practice has a stake in maintaining its authenticity and longevity. My personal stake is that as Ashtanga continues to develop that it continues to honor the individual rather continuing to evolve  into a one-size-fits-all method in the name of tradition.

Ashtanga Yoga: Do Your Practice and All is Coming

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This morning, as I was coming home from yoga practice, I came across this beautiful lotus in the picture. It seemed to me that it was saying, "Yes!!!" In spite of the muck of life from which it grows, this lotus wanted to spread itself wide open, to blossom in all of its fullness. In Hindu and Buddhist symbolism the lotus represents purity of body, speech and mind because it emerges from the muddy waters of attachment and desire from where it was born. This isn't very different from the "Yes" that we Ashtangis say each morning on our mats. We're saying, "Yes" in spite of the fact that we may feel like shit; in spite of the fact that we may be shut down; in spite of the fact that we would rather be nestled in bed. But what we're saying, "Yes" to is the transformation of those stuck, shitty, shut-down places. We're saying, "Yes" to life.

A Mirror for Ourselves

It takes incredible determination and courage to show up in practice on a day-in-day-out basis. Ashtanga Yoga is a mirror. Because we practice the same sequences of postures--more or less--each day, it's easy to see misalignments both physically and emotionally.  

Yesterday, I had had a disagreement with a vendor I buy supplies from, and I was pretty pissed last night, but I felt pretty clear when I went to sleep. However as soon as I was into the second surya namaskar this morning, I could feel myself fuming, again. And while I tried to ignore, overcome or distract myself from the irritation, I couldn't help but just keep spinning stories of vengeance the whole time. I can't say that I handled the anger with what the Buddhists call "skillful means," but that's what the practice can do. It puts you face-to-face with your stuff, whether you're ready to acknowledge it or not.

And those are the moments when you are really learning the deeper aspects of practice, those moment when you're caught in guilt, anger, grief, or any other powerful emotion that just triggers self-loathing or that comparison game we do.  You know the game,"She's better than I am." "I am more flexible than her." "I wish my butt was less flabby." That whole conversation is an invitation to look deeper, not at the content but at the underlying emotion that's running it.  

Yesterday a dedicated student of mine was complaining in class because, in spite of the fact that he'd been working on his backbend for several years, it lacked the mobility he thought was required of a practitioner of his status. The big learning for him was not having a physical breakthrough but in the recognition that what drove the need for a breakthrough was an underlying, anxiety that didn't just pertain to his backbend but to all aspects of his life.  Now that we've uncovered the anxiety, he can start to work with that rather than the need to "beat it" with a better backbend.

Showing Up in Spite of . . .

The "Yes" that I am speaking of is that in spite of all the bad news we see on 24 hour news channels, the onslaught of information coming our way through the Internet, the bills to pay, the loneliness and isolation we face, we still show up.

Like the lotus, when we step on the mat, we're saying, "Yes, I want to blossom. I could just watch TV or sleep a few more hours. I could give in to inertia or the anxiety or sadness or boredom, but I know that I am more than this. And these feelings are fodder for a breakthrough."

Do Your Practice, All Is Coming

Showing up is a stand for transformation. Through practice, we meet those stuck, tender, painful, and often lonely places within our being that we typically try to avoid. We run away in hot pursuit of things that we think will make us feel better, like sex, money, or the perfect partner.

Instead of the practice being about the performance of beautiful acrobatics—which, by the way, Cirque du Soleil does so much better—it's really about meeting our painful places with warmth, kindness, and compassion. It's through this courageous and loving act that we transform that which is stuck.

I'm often asked how long it took me to "be with" the painful things without turning away or distracting myself. Admittedly, there are lots of places I am still struggling to acknowledge in myself. As you read above, I am not particularly masterful with some forms of anger, but then if I look at my capacity to hold feelings of grief or boredom, I can say that I have gotten so much better.

Essentially, all practices cultivate our capacity to stay and be with whatever shows up. That staying really is about staying in relationship to yourself as distinct from the suffering that's showing up. In addition, the staying is about creating a relationship to the suffering. It's a relationship of your choice. If you want to be pissed off that you feel pain, then you get to be pissed off. If you want to see the pain as the key to your awakening, then you get to choose that. My experience is that the more empowering the relationship you create, the more you say, "Yes" to that which you are staying with, the more possibility there is for a breakthrough.

To give you an example, a student at Mission Ashtanga, where I teach Mysore three mornings a week, was promoted to a huge project in her corporate job that required that she create coordinated communication throughout the company. The project was stalled for one year, which left her feeling guilty and irresponsible. Behind the self-criticism, a feeling of unworthiness was driving her. For a year, she practiced primary series, and her intention was to untangle the self-criticism and to meet the underlying feeling with warmth, compassion, and kindness. About a month ago, she mentioned to me that the sense of unworthiness was waning, and the project had just begun flowing with ease.

Ashtanga Yoga is a lifelong practice. Those tender places cannot be repaired in a day or a few years. What I can say with certainty from first hand experience is that slowly, slowly all things are healed through the cauldron of practice. The bottom line, though, is that this transformation needs a "Yes!!!" from us. All we need to do is show up, do the practice and stay awake.  As Pattabhi Jois used to say, "Do your practice and all is coming."  Say, "Yes" and the practice will do the rest.

My Ashtanga Yoga Practice Was Boring Today

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That's right. You read the title. Because I am an Ashtanga yoga teacher, I should ALWAYS be inspired by my practice and all things yoga. I'm not. At least today I am not. In fact, I had a very boring practice today. I tried to be inspired, to be excited to roll out of bed at 5am this morning, to throw down my mat at the studio and have an expansive, mindful, breath-full practice. But I did not. And somehow, I don't feel like I am alone. I think lots and lots of us have boring practices, but we don't admit it, at least not until we quit the practice. And that's why I am writing this blog today. I am writing because I am sharing the fact that it doesn't freak me out or make me want to quit because I am bored. Boredom is normal. It's something that shows up in any commitment we have. There are lots of things that we do for awhile, get bored, and then move on. And then there are things that we try to convince ourselves aren't so boring, but end up quitting anyway. And then there are those things that bring boredom, but we stick with them. This is the essence of what commitment is to me. I have this crazy commitment to my Ashtanga yoga practice. It's crazy because I will endure good times and shit times. This practice is central to who I am. It's an integral part of my life. I was telling a friend today that my practice is my other wife. I am committed to both for the rest of my life. My practice probably won't look the same when I am 90 years old, nevertheless, it will be part of who I am.

And when it comes to a partner that you love dearly and one that has given boundlessly to you, you don't just up and go when times get rough. You stay. And you stay. And you stay. And you stay. But it's not like the staying that occurs when you're eating shitty food just to be nice to the host. There is a quality in which you continually search for and reach for the connection.

When my wife Melissa, and I are out of whack, I may initially shut down but at some point, I start to try a bunch of stuff to reconnect with her: communication techniques I've learned, cooking her a yummy meal, or, yes, doing the laundry. I will keep trying stuff until we reconnect. Often times, it takes giving something up, like admitting my fault in something or owning up to something. Sometimes it requires that she does that. Either way, I am committed to staying in relationship with Melissa. Whatever it takes, I am going to make it happen. And when it doesn't happen, I am not like, "Screw her. I am out of here." Instead, I just know that this shows up in marriage and this is an opportunity to learn and grow.

I suppose the same is true for my practice.  It's not like I'm just going to say, "Screw the practice. I'm bored. I am going to Anusara class from now on." I may go to an Anusara to get some inspiration, but I am not going to all of a sudden become an Anusara devotee. My primary yoga relationship is to Ashtanga. So when boredom shows up, it's an opportunity to scratch my head and say, "Wow, here's boredom.  I get to look at boredom." Instead of seeing boredom as this sign that my practice is all wrong for me, I get to just notice the boredom.

Boredom doesn't mean anything. I could make the boredom I experienced today mean that the practice is boring or that there is something wrong with me that I need to fix. I guess when you've been bored before, like I have in my 20 years of practice, it's not incredibly worrisome. I know that at some point, something will come along and I will be chugging again with excitement. I also have this intuitive sense that the boredom is giving me access to know myself in a new way. It's not like I am just going to wait until the boredom goes. I'm going to keep trying stuff, keep reading, keep looking for something to inject into my practice or take away. I will actively pursue an entrance into relating to my practice in a way that enlivens and excites me. So I actively pursue change while passively knowing that at some point change will come. It always does.

If there's one thing we can expect, it's change. That's inevitable. So you can be sure that when your practice is boring like mine was today, at some point, it won't be. And if you're loving practice today, at some point you will be ambivalent about it. It tests our mettle in terms of our commitments and it causes us to grow. In short, it's my hunch that boredom is a good thing and an opportunity for another breakthrough in my relationship with my second wife, but don't tell Melissa because instead of dealing with boredom, I will have to face jealousy.

Castor Packs for Pain

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The Problem with the Castor Bath The first time I went to Mysore to study with my yoga teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, in 1993, I noticed that he was often prescribing castor oil baths. He suggested that we lather our bodies in castor on Saturdays-which is the day we don't practice-- in order to detoxify the body from all of the heat or inflammation that showed up in our bodies from yoga practice and various other toxins that we took in, either through food, water, or any of the offenses our bodies experienced through living and eating in India. The problem with the castor bath is that it is so darn messy. It stains your clothing and is impossible to scrub out of the shower and bath. And on top of that, in order to get the castor off of the whole body, you have to use gram flour or soap nut.  Yuck!!!  While I do think that a castor bath has amazing effects on the body, it's a mess.  However, I know from experience that castor is an amazing tool to both detoxify the body and alleviate tightness, stiffness, and chronic pain. Used in conjunction with heat, Castor has a salve-like quality. It draws out toxins from the organs, muscles and skin. The heat dilates the blood vessels, thus increasing circulation through the area of discomfort. The combination of increased circulation and the salve-like quality promotes quick healing and really eases pain and inflammation, showing up as pain and stiffness, irritability, liver inflammation, loose stools and constipation, irregular menstruation, and cysts, and fever.

The Castor Oil Pack

The castor bath can be replaced by castor oil pack.  Castor oil packs are made by soaking a piece of flannel or a paper towel in castor oil and placing it on the skin. The flannel or paper towel is covered with a sheet of plastic, a towel and then a hot water bottle is placed over the plastic to heat the pack.  It is easy to do, easy to clean up, location specific, and very, very relaxing.

A castor oil pack can be placed on the following body regions:

A) The right side of the abdomen. Castor oil packs are sometimes recommended by alternative practitioners as part of a liver detox program. B) Inflamed and swollen joints, bursitis, and muscle strains. C) The abdomen to relieve constipation and other digestive disorders. D) The lower abdomen and lower back in cases of menstrual irregularities, uterine and ovarian cysts, and pain.

Safety

Castor oil should not be taken internally. It should not be applied to broken skin. It should not be used during pregnancy, breastfeeding, or during menstruation.

Materials

A)Three layers of undyed wool or cotton flannel large enough to cover the affected area. A paper towel will do, in case you don't have flannel. B) Castor oil C) Plastic wrap cut one to two inches larger than the flannel or paper towel (can be cut from a plastic bag) D) Hot water bottle E) Old clothes, sheets and towel. Castor oil does stain clothing, bedding, and towels.

Method

1. Soak the flannel or paper towel in castor oil so that it is saturated, but not dripping.

2. Place the it over the affected body part.

3. Cover with plastic. And place a towel over the plastic to moderate the heat. The more folds in the towel, the more separate the hot water bottle is from the skin. Heat should redden the skin but not burn it. The point of the heat is to dilate the blood vessels in the area, thus, increasing circulation to it.

4. Place the hot water bottle over the towel. Leave it on for 45-60 minutes. Rest while the pack is in place.

5. After removing the pack, cleanse the area with the towel. Be sure the towel is old because the castor WILL stain it.

Please drop a line to let me know how it goes...