Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

Minding the Gap (and vinyasa krama)

One meaning of the phrase vinyasa krama is “the yoga of sequencing.”  This is the art of knowing how to practice in an order that will be most optimal for where you are in space, time, and health in any given practice.  Part of a true practice of vinyasa krama, like beautifully played music or an exquisitely presented music, is the silences and the pauses.

I’m sure you have all seen the “mind the gap” warning, the admonishment to notice the space between the train and the platform, the place where one thing ends and another begins.  In that case, it is presented as a warning of danger, but it also can be seen just as an exhortation to be mindful.

When we are truly mindful of the space between things — both spatially and temporally — then we are better able to honor what has just come and to be open and conscious for what is to come.

In our yoga practice, noticing the space between coming in and coming out of the pose helps keep us aligned in the transition and enables us to better reap and experience the benefits of the pose.  The reason we are advised always to practice savasana at the end of any practice is so that we will have a good pause between a practice and going back to our other activities.

Off the mat, taking time to pause in between thoughts and activities, helps us appreciate little moments of joy during a busy day.  It also helps us sequence our day more optimally and can prevent mistakes and misalignments by giving us time to be more aware of what will work best next.

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Negation, Affirmation (and a new yard sign)

I went to a delightful brunch yesterday hosted by friend and neighbor K, who lives on the other side of the Hill.  A number of the guests turned out to live within a couple of blocks of me on the Northeast side.  In describing my house to those who lived farther from the Capitol than I (knowing my block was part of their usual walking path), I said, “mine is the one with the ‘War is not the answer‘” yard sign.  “Oh yes, I know which one it is,” was the uniform response.

K said she did not have the yard sign because she did not want a negative message in her front yard.  It served its purpose for a time, she claimed, but she wanted a more positive message.  I replied that if the sign said “peace is the answer” it would not have the same p0litical meaning.  People would just think, “yes, peace is nice, but whatever,” and keep walking.  We all agreed that was likely, but I left still thinking about the conversation.

One of the reasons K gave for wishing to turn the sign on its head, was she did not want something renunciatory, and she referenced the principle of “negation” in Buddhism.  I knew what she meant.  Advaita vedanta has a phrase, “neti, neti” or “not this, not this” which means extinguishment of the individual self and a life of the senses and mind to unite with the ultimate Spirit.  The Buddhist “nirvana”  literally means “void.”  I did not engage the conversation in such a way as to bring it to tantra lest I go too far in the direction of yoga geekiness, but the conversation certainly led me to think in that direction.  Tantra seeks to do exactly what K was seeking:  to turn the phrase, “not this, not this” into an embrace that will reveal truth and light by means of affirmation rather than negation.

Interestingly, though, I think a possible inspiration for K’s yard sign dilemma could come from from Buddhism:  metta meditation (note:  I have been offered this meditation in various settings and have practiced it many times, but it is not my regular meditation practice, so I hope I am not misinterpreting or mischaracterizing it here).  The theory behind metta meditation is to distance one from anger to cultivate calm.  In this creation of calm comes a general demeanor of loving kindness and compassion.  I personally become calmer by embracing and aligning with all my emotions, including grief and anger, but still find the languaging of the metta practice beautifully inspiring.

In that spirit, I suggest as a possible rewording of the yard sign that still serves the political message, the call to serve:   “may all beings be free from war.”

Or maybe FCNL should make a sign with the query:  “what do I do in my life to remove the causes of war?” Is that still a negative, if we are calling for positive actions to remove causes?

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9-11 (and personal choice)

Secretary Hilda Solis sent workers at the Department of Labor an email invitation yesterday to do some volunteer activity today to honor those who lost their lives in the tragedy of 9-11.  She did not remind us of terror or enmity or need for war.

It resonated with what my teacher John Friend, who often discusses the need to serve as part of our practice, counsels in times of distress.  He admits that it is not, as the t-shirt would have it, “all good.”  We can choose, though, how to respond to violence, to suffering, to meanness, to evil.  We can, he urges, seek to respond from “the highest.”  We personally have the choice to try to bring light when we encounter darkness.

I do not always succeed, particularly with the small things, but I continue to try, and I deeply appreciate all the teachings and reminders I get.

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Taking Woodstock (and spanda)

Kashmir shaivism, using the term spanda, talks of the ultimate pulsation of life itself, all being a vibration, everything a play of opposites, a constant dance of concealment and revelation.

Yesterday I when I went to see Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, I thought about about what a dance of moments, desires, emotions, motivations, opportunities, and relationships made Woodstock the phenomenon it became.

I remembered when I was a teenager asking my mother why we had not gone; I had some idea that good family friends had made the trek from Long Island.  She said it did not seem sensible to bring three girls under 10.  I am sure that if we had gone, my memories would have been of being dirty, hungry, tired, wet, and overwhelmed.  Instead, I grew up with the instant nostalgia of someone who was just a few years too young to make it up there on my own.  In this contemplation, I marveled nearly as much at the play of spanda in my own life as in the world around me.

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Bhagavan (what does it mean to be prosperous?)

Bhagavan — another name for Shiva — literally means “possessing fortune, blessed, prosperous.”

What does it mean in this context to be possessed of fortune, to be blessed, to be prosperous?

What does it mean in the context of balancing individual and societal needs, hungers, and wants?  What could it mean the current conversation about taxes, government spending, and healthcare?  In the discussion of budget, war, etc?

We live at one level in a paradigm in which communal wealth is finite and is fought over to obtain individual wealth.  How do we live within that paradigm and still find a sense of inner prosperity with what we have been given?

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Shiva the Dissolver (and rare hybrid orchid)

The other day, it was announced that following a controlled forest fire, a rare hybrid orchid that hasn’t been seen in the wild in Maryland for the past 70 years has emerged.  This, I think, is such a wonderful example of the privileging of the destructive energy of of Shiva in the context of the triad of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (sustainer), and Shiva (destroyer).

Shiva in this context does not so much destroy for the sake of destroying, but is part of the inevitable and necessary part of life that strips away, dissolves, razes, eliminates, so that new life can emerge and be sustained.

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“Sometimes I have nothing to say”

Several years ago, when I still had a working art studio in my house, the favorite thing to do of a friend’s child when the family came over was to go into the studio to see what I was painting.  I had just finished a piece on which I had painted the words, “Sometimes I have nothing to say.”  D was five or six at the time — just learning to read full sentences.  He chortled delightedly, pointed to the painting, and exclaimed, “I get it!  I get it!”

As I have been studying and contemplating yoga philosophy in a group setting recently, I have been thinking about the tension between saying and not saying, the conundrum of yearning to communicate the indescribable, and the countervailing desire just to experience and not to try and describe or communicate.

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Creating Healing Energy (and communal knitting)

A friend of mine who is an avid and wonderful knitter decided to make a shawl for a friend who is about to have surgery.  Instead of whipping out a shawl herself in a few days, she invited other friends to knit squares and bring them to her.  She is going to piece together the squares to create, in essence, a physical manifestation of a gentle, loving, communal embrace.

I loved this idea.  Though I could not put name to face for the friend who is suffering (I think I would likely recognize her), to support my friend who is setting such a strong intention of sending healing, I am knitting a square or two with some beautiful handspun yarn leftover from a sweater several years ago.

As I knit, I am setting an intention to infuse the cloth with healing energy.  In having been invited to participate in this project, I have been given the gift of a potent reminder of how strongly our attitude and intention in whatever we create and offer can shift how it goes forth into the world — whether it be gifts, practice, speech, food, work.

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Julie and Julia (and “actionless action”)

I went to see Julie and Julia because I, like most other Americans of a certain age who like food, have a history with Julia Child.  Seeing the movie brought back an episode from junior high school.  By seventh grade, I was pretty competent cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and doing needlework.  Being a feminist in training, I wanted to take shop.  Mr. Murphy, my ancient (OK who knows how old he was, but he was gray and bald and had leathery skin, so he was likely over 50 at the time) guidance counselor refused:  “shop is for boys; home economics is for girls.”  I expected my mother to back me up, but for some reason she did not.

I had no interest in making rice crispy treats, which was not the kind of thing we cooked at home and was the kind of thing they taught in home economics.  Part way through the year, when we were told to cook a whole dinner at home and then bring in a report, I decided to cook from Julia Child.  I am sure the meal was perfectly delightful, but the motive on my part was not to make a delicious dinner for the family, but to show my guidance counselor and parents that I should have been allowed to learn something that I did not know how to do and could not learn from a book (woodworking and other “shop” skills).

I enjoyed the movie (it’s a pleasant couple of hours and Meryl Streep is wonderful), but the interesting after thought for me was the difference in the happiness of an individual depending on motivation in life choices.  Is something done for joy (with recognition being delightful, but somewhat incidental) or is it being done because one needs recognition and then feels satisfied on getting it?  From a yoga perspective, is it “actionless action” (see Bhagavad Gita)  or is it acting out of a need to fulfill the ego, which inevitably binds one in the fierce dichotomy and inner tug or war of the opposites of longing and gratification, pain and pleasure?

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A Happy Life is an Engaged Life (and Sadhana)

I have spent most of my life practicing one thing or the other.  What attracts me about practicing in the sense of complete absorption that it brings.   For a time, the absorption can be enough.  Ultimately, though, the absorption should bring joy.  I do not really think that it matters what it is that one is practicing as long as steady engagement brings a sense of inner peace and bliss that enables one to be kinder and to offer service in some way.  I have quit some things along the way either because the practice did not bring enough joy or fulfillment or the practice was detrimental to my nature.

I know yoga and meditation are the right for me at this point in my life because sadhana (practice) continues to brings me ever increasing delight.  I do not think of practice as work (though sometimes I need to use some self-discipline to remind myself to practice), but as an invitation to greater depth and understanding of not only the practice, but myself.

I have friends for whom the right practice is not yoga, but something else — a visual art, music, law.  It is not what one does, but how one does it, and whether it brings a sense of fullness to life, a satisfaction with the engagement in the doing, rather than in what the doing achieves.

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