Practice, contemplation, and insights

Teaching Less to Practice More

This morning is the last Saturday in the foreseeable future when, even waking up before dawn, I have to cut short my morning practice to get on the metro to go teach. I have a strong memory of a relatively novice teacher telling me, before I started teaching, that she was going to stop teaching indefinitely because she needed more time for her own practice. At times over the years, when my other job was at its most demanding, I would think about that statement. Mostly, though, I have circumscribed other activities to fit in time for work, teaching, and a full practice.

It came time to admit, though, after nearly two years of steady study with 0Paul Muller-Ortega, which expanded my meditation practice from 25-30 minutes a day, in addition to asana practice and studying, to an hour a day plus additional practices and more studying, that there are not enough hours in a day for all I want to do.

I have been teaching on Saturday mornings for a number of years now. I love my Saturday morning students and have embraced the discipline of getting to class to teach.

The energies have shifted. I will still teach my noon class on Saturday and my weeknight classes, but I will have more time for a full practice and perhaps some extra garden time from this shift. I expect that this time to deeper into my own path will bring new energy and light to my teaching. I hope trust I will see my Saturday morning students at other classes and workshops, both when I am teaching and taking class together at Willow Street.


Starry Nights, Tantric Yoga, and Pratyahara

On my previous visits to Sedona in the past year and a half, the moon has been full or nearly full each time.  Even though there was little light from man-made sources, the bright light of the moon illuminated the sky enough that the stars were outshone.  This trip, though, there was only a sliver of a crescent, and then, no moon at all.  In the absence of the moon, the stars blazed forth in all their glory.

I recently have been contemplating how the practice of pratyahara (usually translated as withdrawal of the senses) fits into a tantric yoga path. Pratyahara is the fifth limb of the eight-limb path of raja yoga, see Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.   In classical yoga, the aim of yoga practice is to transcend the body-mind, and the eight limbs provide the means for that transcendence.  It fits within that paradigm to withdraw from the senses to move towards meditation.  In tantric yoga, though, the aim is not to transcend or quell the body-mind, but to understand that the body-mind is an emanation of spirit and to live ever more full of the light of spirit. The senses are not something to be transcended.  Yet we still practice pratyahara on the tantric path.Why is that?

I think that in order to remember our own light, we sometimes need to choose to withdraw from the potentially constant stimulation of our senses; we need to pick darkness and quiet so that we can better discriminate between being delighted and inspired by the senses and being bound by craving stimulation of the senses.  If we get completely bound up in the senses and seek only to get more and more stimulated, we will forget the fullness and light of spirit.  We choose, therefore, at times in our practice, to diminish outer sensory input so that the inner light can shine more brightly.  When we return from the inner light to go back to the senses, we are then better able to appreciate the wonder of what our senses bring to us.  It is not unlike how we get to witness the extraordinary magic of the stars when we take ourselves away from the light of the sun, the moon, and the city.


Airport Delay (and “Unreasonable Happiness”)

I am sitting in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International airport waiting for the plane that should already be carrying me home to finish being repaired. After having done a full hour of practice this morning in my room, having a last delicious breakfast at the retreat center, and enjoyed the two-hour ride with friends to the airport, I find myself perfectly happy to sit in the airport. I am warm and well-fed. I have bought a novel to read on the plane — Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” — and put aside a philosophy handout to write. The handout, a translation of the beginning of Abhinavagupta’s “Tantrasara” that was given to us by Paul Muller-Ortega to support our meditation practices, teaches us to seek the power of bliss through the practices, this bliss being true knowledge and true freedom. The more we practice, the more we can draw on this power and abide in a state of true happiness. Paul Muller-Ortega sometimes says that we want to be “unreasonably happy.” As I sit here feeling perfectly content after my weekend of practice and community and watching others in the airport get progressively grumpier with the delay, I feel unreasonably happy. I also feel fully motivated to practice and study ever more deeply so that I can abide ever more steadily and this glorious unreason.


Going on An “Advance”

I am sitting at the airport getting ready to fly to Phoenix. At Sky Harbor International, I will join friends, and we will drive together to Sedona for a weekend of study, meditation and other practice, and companionship.

On the most recent study call, our teacher Paul Muller-Ortega said that we are not going on a retreat. We are not joining together to get away from things, to escape from our lives. Rather, we are taking an opportunity to deepen and expand our practice to live life more fully. Would it not be more accurate, then, Paul suggested, to think of it as going on an “advance” than on “retreat?”


Found Sculpture

I saw this beautiful roll of chicken wire in the Enid Haupt garden when I was walking back to the office after a quick visit to see the Gods of Angkor exhibit at the Sackler Gallery (sorry about the absence of links; blogging from the BB).

I was first introduced to the idea of “found poetry” in junior high school and have developed a life-long habit of photographing words to change, enhance, and/or question their meaning and hidden beauty by the act of extracting them from their original place and presenting them as a photograph. Marcel Duchamp and others did what poets and photographers were doing with words with ordinary objects by presenting them as sculpture.

Here, where I have photographed the chicken wire roll, is the art a sculpture (because I could treat it as such) of which I have taken a photograph–the photograph being mere documentation? Is the art the photograph of what I have seen to the extent I am offering it as a vision and a dialogue generated by what I saw? Or is the photograph merely a snapshot taken with a hand-held computer device documenting an object that happened to be sitting there–not art at all? If it were not for artists such as Duchamp, could I or would I even be able to ask this question?

I think that analogous types of questions have been and can be asked about the variety of religious and mystical experience. Is there a particular way they must be experienced? Do such experiences have to fit within a prescribed framework to be valid? When are such experiences madness or delusion and when are they the voice of the spirit? Who gets to decide? Does it depend on the era and the culture in which the experiencer lives? Does the answer to any of these questions matter if the experiences lead one to a more loving, compassionate, and beauty-filled life?


“It’s All Good” (and Voltaire’s Candide at the Shakespeare Theater)

Last night I went to see the revival of the Bernstein musical version of Voltaire’s Candide, now playing at the Shakespeare Theater’s Harmon Hall (discount tickets available), which was absolutely a delight — fantastic staging and direction, luxurious costuming, enthusiastic performances.  Throughout his journey, which is beset with cruelty, hardship, natural disaster, and other mishaps wherever he goes, Candide sings of his tutor’s optimistic advice that “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”  The application of this philosophy leads to some silly results, including the Monty Python-worthy lyric “it’s a great day for an auto da fe.”

I have a friend who, after telling me of various life challenges and griefs, inevitably signs off with the phrase “it’s all good,” though I am not sure she believes it.  I thought of her repetition of the phrase “it’s all good,” while I was watching the musical.  Later in Candide’s travels, he encounters a second philosopher scholar who (I’m paraphrasing loosely) contradicts the “it’s all for the best” philosophy of Candide’s tutor by telling Candide to just look around and he will know that things are not in fact always for the best.  A fluffier version of  the debate in the novel, as to whether things are all for the best when there is so much cruelty and devastation, is interwoven into the rest of the play.

I’ve never had a desire to wear the t-shirt proclaiming that “it’s all good.”  I look around me, and I simply do not believe it.  I do believe wholeheartedly, though, Voltaire’s premise that we have the responsibility to “cultivate our garden.”  As my teachers John Friend and Paul Muller-Ortega espouse, we should “respond from the highest,” regardless of what we experience and encounter.  By having our response make the best of all possible worlds from things that are not evidently for the best, we bring more light into the world, whatever is our world view.  I can only hope that with steady practice of yoga and meditation, I can keep ever truer to these teachings when I am seriously challenged.


The Sky Is Just As Big Wherever You Are

The sky was luminous and beautiful early this morning when I headed out to teach. The air was scrubbed clear by the cold front that passed through in the night, leaving behind fluffy clouds to highlight the luminousity of the sun rising.

As I enjoyed looking at the clouds and light in the sky on my walk to Union Station to catch the metro to go teach, I thought about seeing the sky in Arizona next week. When I am there, I always feel a keen delight when I look at the sky. Then I thought that the sky is just as lovely here. It is that things on the land are bigger and farther apart out west that make the sky seem bigger.

When life is easeful and we are feeling spacious, then the inner place of meditation can feel more luminous than when we are struggling through the day. But just as the sky is just as big wherever we are on the planet, the inner space of meditation is just as vast and luminous no matter what is going on in our lives. The more we remember that and the more we look, the more we will have the opportunity to be lit up from the inside.


An Example of How One Door Closing Opened Another (and Article in Yoga Journal)

I think snow can be beautiful and enjoy the hush when it first falls, but it’s not my favorite thing, which was one of the reasons I settled this far south (yes, DC is pretty far south for a native New Yorker).  Last winter with its record snow falls felt at times as a seemingly endless exercise in looking for the good and trying to respond in the highest.  Among other fallout of the snow, the February blizzard grounded my flight to San Francisco where I was supposed to go to celebrate the start of John Friend’s 2010 workshop schedule and to visit friends.  Instead, I was home shoveling.  With the arthritis in my spine and some other old injuries to groin and shoulder, I had to be extra careful with my alignment so that shoveling could be an enjoyable work out instead of a dreary and potentially debilitating task that I was doing instead of playing with friends and yogis in San Francisco.  Being grounded at home and needing to be in alignment with the shoveling, led me to blog about Anusara alignment for snow shoveling.  Putting this advice out there led to an editor at Yoga Journal discovering my blog and interviewing me for a short article that (I haven’t seen it yet–waiting for my copy to arrive in the mail, but a friend who was reading the most recent edition at Willow Street’s Silver Spring studio gave me the heads up last night) is in December’s magazine (page 22).

While missing out on a vacation due to weather is not exactly a momentous disappointment or life challenge, this story is an example of how we never know what life is going to bring our way.  We cannot choose what life gives us, but we can choose how we respond, and how we respond will change how the path unfolds.  I persist in the yoga and meditation and share my teachings and experiences because it has been so helpful in opening my perspective and finding more delight and opportunity in life.  In that regard, one of the reasons I challenge myself on the mat, inviting myself into places of discomfort and effort and staying with them until I find ease and even delight, is to help me be able to see the good and to respond in the healthiest and most optimal way on and off the mat.  While I love sometimes just to do the easeful poses, what has brought more strength and joy to all of my life is going deep into the hard places and staying with them.


Some Books About Gurus

As I have discussed with a few of you, I have been contemplating deeply and for a long time the questions of what is a guru and who is a guru.  In the context of this contemplation, I read to enhance my background and understanding, deepen my contemplation, and give myself food for thought or additional exploration.  Here are some books that I have in my library about gurus or those who have been labeled gurus (in no particular order).  Some are written with loving devotion by disciples.  Some question or comment on the interrelationship between the status of guru and the sometimes all too human foibles of the guru and his disciples.  Some are of the guru’s own experience of practice and his relationship with his own guru.

Be Love Now, Ram Dass, HarperOne (New York, NY 2010)

Miracle of Love — Stories About Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass, E.P. Dutton (New York, NY 1979)

Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship (13th Ed., reprinted 2001)

The Golden Guru — The Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, James S. Gordon, The Stephen Green Press (Lexington, Mass. 1987)

My Guru and His Disciple, Christoper Isherwood, Penguin Books (New York, NY 1981)

Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Christopher Isherwood, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY 1970)

Great Swan — Meetings with Ramakrishna, Lex Hixon, Shambhala Dragon Editions (Boston, Mass. 1992)

Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa, SYDA Foundation (South Fallsburg, NY 1996)

The Buddha from Brooklyn — A Tale of Spiritual Seduction, Martha Sherrill, Vintage Books (New York, NY 2001)

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Stephen Cope, Bantam (New York, NY 1999)

At the Eleventh HourThe Biography of Swami Rama, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Himalayan Institute Press (Honesdale, Pa. 2001)

Play of Consciousness, Swami Muktananda Paramahansa, SYDA Foundation (Oakland Ca. 1974)

The Great Oom — the Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, Robert Love, Viking Press (New York, NY 2010)

ps Jess–Yes, the widget for Library Thing is coming for the website.  I just need to add more books, so that it is a decent start at a representation of at least the yoga-related portion of my library.