My friend Dan just posted an insightful piece about the sweetly humbling (without diminishing) perspective on the single life or the whole collective human being in the context of the whole universe. It resonated with the passage I had read for group practice last Wednesday from Ramesh Menon’s rendering of the Shiva Puranas, which talks about all the units of time from a nimesha, a human moment, to the life of the highest Siva principle–an immensity of infinite time that is incomprehensible at a human consciousness level.
Last night another storm front passed us by with only a trace of rain, leaving us deeper in drought. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped, and the clouds scattered, leaving the sky scrubbed bright blue and the air fresh. Though this morning on my walk to work there was hardly a cloud in the sky, a rather menacing gray cloud hovered directly over the building where I work. Observing this odd cloud led me to ponder about how I often feel that I have my own personal cloud–everyone else has purpose in their lives and is worthy of love, but not me (this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea).
The reality is that all of us get such feelings to a greater or lesser degree some of the time. It can be a helpful step in clearing away feelings of unworthiness to remember that it is part of the human condition. The tantric yogis say that there are three cloaks or malas (anava mala, mayiya mala, and karma mala) that result from the manifestation of diversity from the pure universal out of its own play. The sense of unworthiness we sometimes feel (anava mala) comes from forgetting that we are spirit, and anava mala– in whatever form it appears to manifest–is just because of the loneliness of not remembering our true self. When we experience or create conflict or unhappiness out of the illusion (maya) that separateness and distinction are the only state of all that is real then we are in thrall to mayiya mala. When we think we are completely in charge and responsible for everything we do and how it impacts the world, that is karma mala at work.
We practice to pierce through the clouding of our individual consciousness by the malas. By inviting ourselves to open to the luminous space of consciousness and to surrender to the very fullness of our being, we reduce the impact of the malas on how we conduct our lives. Our practice helps us to remember our worthiness so that we can be happier and freer and do our work and engage in our relationships with more love and light. It helps us remember the light in each being so we are naturally drawn to respond with more compassion and friendliness to everything on the planet. The grace of dissolving kriya mala is that when it is not obscuring our vision, we can engage fully on our path, but still accept that we are ultimately not in charge and do not know what the universe truly has in store.
A student and friend sent me a link to an article posted by the Center for Consumer Freedom alerting consumers that excessive levels of heavy metals have been found in the reusable bags being sold by some of the big box retailers and supermarket chains. The analyst reached the conclusion that consumers should be allowed to use disposable plastic or paper bags [environmental consequences ignored] so that they are not forced into the untenable position of having to use bags that are manufactured with unacceptable levels of toxic ingredients.
It is fantastic that the folks at CCF advised people of the potential hazards associated with the manufacture and use of certain types of reusable bags. What I do not follow is the absolutism of the “either or” choice presented: poisonous bags (forced on you by environmentalists) or disposable plastic or paper bags (with all the attendant hazards to the environment). Why does the bag you use have to come from the grocery store? The types of retailers identified might have seized another retail and advertising opportunity to make cheap, hazardous reusable bags in nations with cheap (i.e. inadequately paid and treated) workers in countries with lax environmental and consumer safety standards. But this is just another example of how corporations prosper at the expense of the health of the planet, as if the worth of the stock of corporations — the part that is separate from the world in which the corporation operates — in itself is the highest good (that’s a discussion for another day).
I write about this article because it seems to me to be a perfect example of how staying within paradigms, choices, and societal constructs presented can keep us in the kind of ignorance (avidya) that prevents us from being in alignment, from seeing the good, and from responding in the highest. I am sure you, as can I, can think of far too many other examples of how if we stay with the question as it is framed, can prevent us from finding a peaceful, loving, healthful solution. The choice here is not bad for the environment and your kids (or pets) reusable bags or bad for the environment disposable bags. The choice is between bad for the environment bags and reusable bags that made by you or someone you trust not to use poisonous materials.
I have been carrying my own bags on a progressively more consistent basis since I was inspired to invite people to participate in Earth Day when I was in junior high and high school in the 1970s. The photo shows some of my favorite carry bags. From left to right: (1) the day pack I bought in 1984 to carry my law school books, which were very heavy; it cost maybe $20 and it is still going strong; (2) cute organic cotton bag with “make love, not war, haight-ashbury 1968” silkscreened on it; I get complimented on it whenever I use it, especially when I turn down super cool disposable bags at fashionable stores in NYC (“no thank you; I have my own bag”); freebie canvas bag from Barney’s Coop; cannot be sure that it was made with union labor, but am pretty sure it isn’t one of those toxic bags described in the article.
Next time you are struggling with what seems like an choice between Scylla and Charybdis, invite yourself to soften, to open to the bigger picture, to open your heart and mind as wide as the widest space of meditation, and ask whether you are asking the right question.
For the first few years I was teaching, one season a year, I would have as my overall session theme the Anusara invocation (for the words written out, click on “invocation” in the menu bar above). In so doing, I invited myself and others to contemplate at the heart level the meaning of each word, of why we were making the invocation, of how the invocation might inform not only our practice, but how we bring our practice off the mat and into our daily lives. Each time I chant the invocation–and it has been hundreds of times now over the years I have been studying, practicing, and teaching Anusara yoga–I seek to invoke into my practice the deepest qualities of the heart that it represents.
Over the winter break, when I was preparing for this session, the invocation called to me. I decided it was time to make it as a specific offering again. Last week and this week, including in the restorative workshop offered at Willow Street Yoga last Saturday, I have been exploring namah shivayah from the first line. Namah–which has the same verbal origins at the English word “name”–means to bow, to honor, to name. It forms the basis of the greeting namaste–with the light in me, I bow to the light in you. Sivayah here is our siva nature. It is variously the light within, auspiciousness, spirit, divine nature, elemental goodness.
When I was practicing in preparation for teaching the week’s classes and the restorative workshop and contemplating (practicing bhavana on) namah shivayah, I thought about a question I often get when I teach restoratives: “should I be maintaining the alignment principles or should I be relaxing completely?” When I get the question phrased this way, I look the student straight in the eye and respond, “yes.” I get a quizzical look; how could the answer be “yes” to an “either or” question? The answer is “yes” because in each pose, we are seeking to embody the fullest expression of namah shivayah. Taking the time to make sure to be in alignment when setting up for a pose, moving into a pose, reaching the pinnacle of a pose, and then moving out of or dissolving a pose, is out of loving respect for your body and the energy that courses through your body. We seek to be fully in alignment in all stages of each pose, not only to minimize the likelihood of being in pain or getting or aggravating an injury and to increase the likelihood of healing any existing injuries and expanding our capacity to feel free in our bodies, but also out of a profound respect and honor for the self, the teachings, and the practice.
Sometimes people think that focusing on getting the alignment just right is fussy or rigid and the antithesis of relaxation. In the case of restoratives especially, everyone coming to the practice wants to be at peace and feel free of effort. In the hunger to get to a place of relaxation, some hurry into the pose without honoring the alignment. Oftentimes, it is the hurry to relax and the loss of attention to the details of alignment (of both the mind-body and the props) that leads to pain or discomfort in a pose that is meant to be held for a long time, as are restoratives. When a student tells me that they are in pain in a particular posture, I invite the student to back off, set up the pose again, and far more often than not, all discomfort disappears, and the student is able to move into a blissful place. The student then experiences for herself how much the alignment enables the surrender to the exquisite opening to siva and the blissful attributes of siva (satcitananda).
One of the reasons I find restoratives to be such a powerful practice is because they require such focused attention on alignment to enable full relaxation. As such, they are a great way to understand the need for the perfect and simultaneous balance of effort (tapas) and surrender (ishvara pranadhana). So the answer is “yes;” the answer is “nama shivayah.” In everything we do, in every aspect of our practice on and off the mat, we want to be consciously in alignment. We want to use all the knowledge that has been imparted by our teachers and experienced in our own practice as a way of honoring and naming and helping to enable an unceasing, simultaneous, and full surrender to our own siva nature.
Brrr. It’s cold out there. And if it is seeming colder than usual, you are right. There have only been five winters on record with fewer days above 50F in Washington, DC. Perhaps, like me, you have noticed that you are feeling just a tad sensitive or edgy or maybe a little blue. I recognize the symptoms; in my distant past, a therapist suggested that I might have “seasonal affective disorder.” My prescription for myself when winter has me feeling down? Do more yoga, keeping a focused intention on cultivating the light of inner awareness.
The form of meditation I practice is intended to allow the practitioner to rest in the light of inner awareness. One of the aspects of the Anusara principle of “opening to grace” for me is to open to the light in myself and others. On a more physical level, backbends will open up your heart and make room for the light; core work will warm you up by stoking the agni, the inner fire; forward bends will help you go deep inside to find your own light. There is a light-filled practice for every day of the week, every time of day, and every mood you are in.
Avoid the temptation to huddle inside, eating too many carbs and hiding away. When the sidewalks are passable, bundle up and take a long walk. When you come back inside, do a good therapeutic and restorative practice–it’s as good as hot chocolate (and no one said you couldn’t have the hot chocolate, too). Invite friends over for a potluck. Cook bean soups. Have hot cereal for breakfast and perhaps for dinner. Balance the warm food with the freshest of fresh food by growing sprouts on the kitchen counter.
Want to light up your yoga fire, sun, inner light with company? Join me and your friends and neighbors at William Penn House classes on Tuesdays at 6:30. Need a little R&R or found you have tweaked something shoveling or walking on the ice and snow? Drop ins are always welcome at the gentle and therapeutics class at Willow Street, Takoma Park, Saturdays at noon. Give yourself something to look forward to by signing up in advance for the second “Relaxing Into Optimal Alignment with Anusara Restoratives” workshop at Willow Street on Saturday, February 26th.
And plan for Spring with “Yoga for Gardeners,” the weekend of the Spring Equinox–yes, it is only weeks away. As has been my practice in previous years, my profits will go to support the Youth Garden at the National Arboretum.
Looking forward to sharing, expanding, and delighting in the light with you soon.
Peace and light,
Last night at around 2:30, I found myself very aware and wide awake for no apparent reason. I got myself readjusted for going back to bed and then sat in my bed in the dark, wrapped in my favorite shawl for meditation. I got myself sweetly settled into a practice intended to invite in the sweet support of the satguru (see my previous post on variations of what that might mean for you), which serves well to help a return to sleep on a wakeful night.
After I had been practicing for about five minutes, a slew of emergency vehicles wailed down the street. The emergency was not on my block, but based on the timing of the sirens, it sounded like it was not far away.
I marveled that I was already awake and meditating in a delicious place when the sirens sounded rather than having been jolted awake out of some dreaming. There were enough vehicles that I am sure many if not most people other than the soundest of sleepers for blocks around were woken by them.
In thinking about the auspiciousness of my state, a memory came to mind. Friends Meeting of Washington. Where I often attend Quaker unprogrammed worship, is just west of Connecticut and Florida Aves., NW. Being on such a busy street, even on Sunday morning there can be a lot of traffic noise and having an emergency vehicle drive past with its siren blasting during meeting for worship happens from time to time.
It is, of course, somewhat jarring to be deep in meditation and silence and have a siren start wailing and not pleasant to be woken from deep sleep. One time several years ago when a series of siren-sounding vehicles sped down the street outside the meeting house, a friend stood in meeting after the sirens were gone and said that for him, whenever a siren interrupted his worship, he used it as a reminder to hold those in need in the light. In sharing this reminder, he took us all back from however we reacted to having been loudly interrupted to a grace-full place. I remember having moved back into the depths of silence, offering its healing light-filled energy to whomever had needed the emergency vehicle, those driving the vehicle and attending it, devoting their lives to serving those in need, and to others in my life who were struggling or in pain.
In recalling that beautiful teaching last night, as I also wondered whether at some level I had woken and started practicing to be ready for the event, I thought that what had been so special about the message was that the reminder was not a criticism of whatever reaction might have spontaneously arisen to such a disturbance, but rather an invitation to respond in the best light. The speaker clearly had been reminding himself of his own teaching and sharing with the rest of us how much it helped him.
The other morning, in the middle of meditation, the thought arose of how different my life would have been if my older sister and my birth orders (keeping our congenital make up the same) had been reversed.
Imagine, too, if it had not been for the Russian Revolution, we might not have all grown up having read Nabokov’s Lolita.
I spend a lot of words on this blog extolling the benefits I have perceived in myself and in my students from the various yoga practices. I also candidly admit (when asked) that not all practices are for every one and certainly not all of the time.
It probably seems obvious that challenging asana would not be right in the presence of certain injuries or illnesses, even if asana practice, which is good for our strength, balance, and flexibility, among other things, is generally beneficial overall. Being an advanced practitioner entails in good measure being sufficiently sensitive and aware of our edge day by day and even moment by moment in our practice so that we expand our capacity to live life to the fullest without blowing past our edge out of ignorance, carelessness, or ego and needlessly injure ourselves.
What is more subtle is finding the same edge in meditation. I am not talking about physical discomfort sitting for meditation. That can be easily remedied with appropriate props, for example a cushion or chair. There can be such a thing as too much meditation or not the right type of meditative practice for certain practitioners or under certain circumstances. Going deeply into the self beyond the surface level of thought can release things that had been buried. We may not be surprised if we have nightmares or anxiety dreams when life is presenting us with lots of challenges and difficulties. It may be more shocking, though, if negative thoughts or emotions come up when we sit for meditation. Meditation is supposed to be benign and health-optimizing.
One way to deal with the shock is to stop, but then we lose the wonderful benefits of meditation. What is more optimal is to learn where is our edge in meditation, just as we do for asana. As we get more proficient and experienced with meditation, if things are coming up that are difficult to handle, we learn when to shorten our time sitting, when to add in more physically comforting and boundary-enhancing asana, and how to release the negative stuff that is arising without it impacting our lives or relationships.
The challenge is that it is precisely the steady, intense practice over time that gives us the insight to know when the practice is too much at a particular time. For me, finding the edge where I can expand perfectly can be a challenge, but is ultimately and completely worth my while.
For some of the alleged dark sides of practice, try entering into your favorite search engine “meditation side effects.” Then read with appropriate skepticism; it is the internet after all, and you should be as skeptical about the claims of the negative aspects as you might be or once have been of the potential benefits of the practices.
In Paths to God, Ram Dass speaks of satgurus and upagurus. A satguru is the true teacher. The upaguru is anyone who teaches us something, which, when we are truly open to recognizing the good in all, is literally every one.
The satguru may refer to that within us that is the power, or the essential pulsation, or the light, or the illuminative wisdom, or the heart unbound by space and time that leads us to know the true Self. As such, the satguru unfolds the means to experience the love that the satguru is/experiences. The very rarest of individuals do not have to make any effort either through the various yoga practices (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, etc.) or practices in another spiritual tradition to experience the fullness of consciousness unbound by self, or time, or space. The rest of us must engage in shifting our lives to align better with nature to experience the highest bliss of being. For this, we need teachers and we receive, if we are paying attention, teachings.
Sometimes a person will will recognize the satguru embodied in a particular human form, as Ram Dass has with Neem Karoli Baba. Sometimes, the teachers illuminating our journey are acharyas, great spiritual teachers who illuminate pathways and practices for finding the satguru within ourselves and in others. They are important teachers for many and a profound influence, but except to the extent that we are all the satguru, they are not “gurus,” nor do they hold themselves out as such. I think of my primary teachers–those I have studied with personally and a couple, like Ram Dass and J. Krishnamurti, whose writings have deeply shifted me–as acharyas. That they may have human foibles does not diminish the power of what I have learned from them and the joy I have experienced and shared from studying with them.
Other people we meet — all of them — are upagurus; we can learn from everyone and anyone. That is what Quakers are taught and seek to practice; that is what Ram Dass is offering for us to consider in both Paths to God and in more detail in Be Love Now. Sometimes we meet a stranger just for a moment, but the stranger in that moment exhibits such grace, that the stranger is one of our teachers for life. It is by being open and spacious that we get the opportunity to recognize those who have just one perfect teaching for us. When we are closed off, we can miss both teachers and teachings.
If we are open enough to seeing the light in everyone, we will also find that even those that trouble us can help us better respond in the highest. Those are the ones Ram Dass calls “teachings” instead of “teachers.” And those who will trouble us will come. We will meet someone and that person will push our buttons. Perhaps the person demonstrates too strongly some behavior or trait we don’t like in ourselves. What a great teaching that can be. When I see such a reflection of myself, I know that when I respond or act in similar ways, I am out of alignment, and it is a great motivator to release the behavior or trait.
Perhaps someone shows up to help us reenact an old emotional pattern that has not served. That someone is the laboratory upaguru who has arrived to give us the opportunity to discover whether this time around we are able better able to embody the principles that we are studying. In being faced with our old stuff, we are given an opportunity, by changing how we respond, to dissolve the old patterns (samskaras) that, if not dissolved by practice, commit us to perpetuate the suffering resulting from our past actions (karma).
Sometimes the upagurus come from the past. They are seeing you through the filter of their own past and have reappeared for something on their own journey. In such people, we perhaps get a teaching that reminds us why we are seeking to better align, why we have sought to shift and change old patterns. We might also meet in an upaguru who has been part of our past someone who has shifted and grown and inspires us to go further on the path, sharing it for a while. Those who are parts of our life for a long time, I think generally serve as both teachers and teachings, and we are the same for them.
With regard to everyone we meet, from an embodied satguru to the most troublesome, the more we are open, the more we hold all that we encounter in what John Friend calls “luminous spaciousness,” the more able we will be both to recognize the true teachers and to learn from the teachings.
On the column that supports this bas-relief and a larger than life standing portrait of Daniel Webster, is engraved: “liberty and union now and forever one and inseparable.” Kind of sounds like a description of the absolute consciousness, the one self, though that was probably, mostly not the intent.