is part of a headline for an article in today’s BNA (Bureau of National Affairs) Pension and Benefits Daily. Not only is this sound advice in every realm of life, but a linchpin of yoga practice, which is designed to free ourselves from being constrained by the play of the pairs of opposites.
This spring I decided to for the second time growing a fig in a container. It has about five figs, all of which I intend to eat before the squirrels can get them (I’ve beaten them and the birds to the three blue berries that have ripened so far; I have high hopes for the figs). I don’t think my fig in its container is suitable for sharing as “Neighborhood Fruit.” Do you have a fruit tree that has too much fruit for you? Let people know.
Svadharma, from sva (self) and dharma (duty) means our personal path, duty, calling, or place. The principle of svadharma is a significant teaching in various yoga texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, especially emphasizing the importance in acting in accordance with one’s caste (for example, Arjuna needing to act in accordance with his dharma as a warrior) or one’s sex (consider Sita’s role in the Ramayana).
Extrapolating this teaching and taking it onto the mat, during one of the practice sessions the previous week at the Certified Teachers’ Gathering, John Friend said that “every part of the the body has its own svadharma to increase the pranic flow.” He then said that if you just took a photo of the feet of an Anusara yoga practitioner in any pose, you should be able to see that the whole body was fully engaged and active. John Friend’s teaching here was not just using the yoga philosophy as a catalyst to better understand the body. By using the principle to illuminate the practice, the practice reflectively illuminated the principle itself, without denying or denigrating its original context or getting bogged down in its historical baggage of perpetuating the caste system and demarcated, subservient roles for women.
Thinking about the svadharma of the pinky toe has no such baggage. The pinky toes are homely looking things, they do not fit well into most women’s shoes, they rather painfully bump into things, and they are hard to move independently. They are not essential for living and do not have the emotional charge of the heart and brain, the exquisite connection to the world of the sense organs, or the connection to life itself of the lungs. Despite this, the call to lift and spread the toes, to draw the pinky toe toward the heel, or the hip happens just about every time I go to the mat in my practice or teach a class. Activating the pinky toe by opening it and spreading it apart from the other toes is a conscious act of opening that helps hug the shins to the midline. In hugging the shins in by means of activating the pinky toe, the yogi on the mat can then safely move the thighs back and apart, creating an expansion of the pelvic floor that provides room for more strongly tucking under the tailbone to access core power. The pinky toe thus is an important part of our practice, even if we could manage to get by without it.
But the svadharma of the pinky toe on the mat is not just to be able to help us access the movement of “shins in” so that we can better do “thighs out,” although that is an important physical part of its essence. The toe does not move on its own. We have to start by bringing our awareness and consciousness to the toe. Part of the pinky toe’s svadharma, then, is to invite the infusion of consciousness to show how full participation of even an apparently insignificant part of the body can lead us to a better understanding and personal experience of the pulsation between reaching out and hugging in and affirming ourselves. By intentionally bringing our awareness to the power we can unleash in the pose by the movement of the pinky toe, we bring the opportunity for greater strength, expansion, and flow of energies. This is why, I think, John Friend suggested that by just seeing the toes we should be able to know the engagement of the whole body and mind in a particular pose.
As a practical and therapeutic matter, recognizing and bringing into play the svadharma of each and every part of the body serves to help us increase the flow of energy and expand our range of movement. In addition, activating the parts of the body that are inclined to slack (for example, the pinky toe or the adductor and abdominal muscles) will bring ease to the muscles that tend to overwork to compensate, such as the neck and low back muscles. We are not just stronger and more flexible when every part of the body does fulfills its svadharma, but we eliminate much pain and suffering. (More to come on this particular concept in other posts.)
Off the mat, when all parts of the whole are fully conscious of and know their svadharma, the whole will itself have more consciousness, more light, and better experience the bliss of being. It is easy to see, without judgment or question, that the pinky toe cannot do the work of the heart, although when the pinky toe is working it can help contribute to an integration of mind and body that will further the opening of the heart and thus the whole person. Finding our svadharma as a whole person within society does not have to be about conforming to preconceived social norms that no longer serve. The better we are able to understand where we are in time, space, and the interconnected web of being, though, the more fully we can participate in leading society itself to a more conscious and light-filled place, just as bringing our conscious awareness to the actions of the pinky toe can do the same for us as individual yogis on the mat. When we recognize and live out our true svadharma as such, we radically affirm ourselves, the community, and the very essence of all being.
What a magnificent life: to have made art, explored truth, and felt the freedom to allow for contradictions:
Hanuman, the monkey god, is one who reminds us to serve. When Hanuman was a kid, he was rather full of himself. That was not surprising, really, as he had wonderful and magical powers of strength and agility. When he got too audacious playing with his powers against the bigger gods, he was cursed to be able to remember his powers only when he was serving with true love and devotion. When he was serving Ram and Sita, then, the full force of his powers were available to him to help in their dilemma. (Yes, this is a rather creative summation).
Some of my strongest memories from childhood were observing my father when he was providing draft counseling for those conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War. My father did not talk on the phone because it was tapped, but we heard a lot of conversations about whether to be a soldier, be a conscientious objector, find a basis for deferral, or otherwise protest or avoid the draft. Although I was raised to think that war did not serve humanity (though my parents engaged in debates about whether all wars were bad, discussing the difference between fighting against Hitler and fighting in Vietnam), I was also raised to believe strongly that we all have a duty to serve. I meet many in the military here in Washington, DC. What I find is that those who have chosen military life have a strong sense of service. Even if I do not believe in most of the basis of the service (just as I don’t hold much truck with whom Sita was expected to be and the basis of the battles in the Ramayana — more on that some other time perhaps), I respect that those who were conscripted and felt they had no alternative or those who chose to be in the military put their lives on the line to serve.
I try to think of Memorial Day as honoring those who have served and not, as I did when I was younger, dismiss it because it was more societal indoctrination to perpetuate the war machine. When Natalie and Joe Miller invited those at Willow Street to join them in service by helping to clean up part of Long Branch Creek, I signed up. I appreciated their way of making it easy both to honor peace (by helping the environment) and those who have served (by ourselves serving). We will be taking our yoga of the mat and into the world with a morning of seva— selfless service.
See this Op-Ed piece in the NY Times written by the Dalai Lama. Although the proliferation of technology and constant access can be overwhelming, it can also serve as a wonderful bridge and connection among us.
My friend Olga has written a series of blog posts reflecting on the Certified Teachers’ Gathering and what it means to her to to be a part of the Anusara community. I found most interesting the reflections on how Anusara is growing as a community, even as an “institution.”
One of the things that I ponder in connection with being a member of any group is how deeply to be involved, whether I can pick and choose from among the teachings and practices offered and still be regarded as a true participant? Whether I can be uncomfortable with some of the organizational structure, but still be true to the ultimate goal or teachings? What does it mean at the workplace — for me the giant bureaucracy of the Department of Labor? What does it mean if we are a member of an organized religion (I’m a member of the Friends Meeting of Washington)? A group of like-minded practitioners? A neighborhood? A society?
We have a choice. We can emphasize what we don’t think enhances life (for example, an over-sized, gas-guzzling, suburban SUV with city plates) or we can focus on an exquisite reflection of beauty. That we see what optimally would better be changed or shifted to be more fully aligned with nature or that we speak of it does not mean that we are not seeing beauty or embracing the whole of life with love.