Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

Sauca (and freecycle)

The first of the niyamas or ethical restraints set forth by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras is sauca, which means cleanliness or purification.  BKS Iyengar in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says that sauca is both internal and external and that mastery of yoga is unrealizable without observance of the ethical principles of the yamas and niyamas [non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, aligning with the good, greedlessness, cleanliness, contentment, fire for practice, self-study, and acceptance — my definitions] is not possible.
What does cleanliness mean in this time in our society?  Scrubbing the kitchen and bath with toxic cleaners and slathering ourselves with chemical products and taking long showers may make our house and body look and feel clean, but it is soiling the earth.  It is definitely easier to practice in a neat room than a messy one, but we need to learn how to be clean also keeps the earth’s environment clean as well.
Earlier this week, I started cleaning out the “art closet.”  I have always created visual art, and before I shifted to teaching yoga, I spent a number of years creating at a wild pace (partly at the encouragement of a live-in partner), using a room in my house as a studio, and exhibiting and selling my work.  One side effect of that intense period of creation (and one of the key reasons I shifted away from it), was that it created a lot of stuff — for every painting or photograph I sold or gave as a gift, another five or eight accumulated in the house.  When I entered yoga teacher training, I turned the art studio into a yoga studio.  I was unable at that time to make a decision as to what to keep and what to discard.  Thus paralyzed, I put it all in a closet — art works and extra supplies alike.
Having a closet full of stuff long untouched and only some of which was wanted makes a house energetically stale.  Finally, this week, I cleaned out most of the painting materials.  I even decided not to keep images that I did not want to sell or exhibit again.  It was tempting just to break everything up and put it out on the curb for trash.  But the stretchers for the canvas are completely reusable by a working artist.  So I took the paintings apart and and then did a posting on “freecycle dc” offering the art supplies.  If you are not familiar with freecycle, it is pretty simple.  You join the group in your area and let people know what you have to give away.  Nothing is for sale.  Nothing is bartered.  The point is to transfer something you no longer want to someone who wants/needs it.  The recipient is local, so only limited fossil fuels are used to transfer the goods.  What you no longer want is saved from the landfill.
I’ve cleaned my closet.  Another artist will be creating new art with old materials instead of new.  Less goes into the landfill.  That’s a great example of sauca.
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Being a good guest (why not to drink bottled water)

In The Yoga of Discipline, Swami Chidvilasananda says that we should eat in such a way that the earth is happy to have us as a guest.  (See Thanksgiving blog).  As I get ready for the holiday season — a time of being a guest and receiving guests — I continue to contemplate this exhortation.  We’ve all had the house guests who seem to ravage our homes and our larders without any apparent appreciation for our hospitality, leaving us exhausted after they are gone.  We have other guests, who make us feel gracious, whose way of relating to our home and our hospitality makes us want to invite them in further and helps us enjoy our own home and food more.

My favorite guest is the one who makes herself at home, helps herself, and is delighted with offers of specially prepared meals or touches to the guest room.  The ones who invade private spaces and make a mess and, on the opposite side, those who tiptoe around and refuse nearly every attempt to make the visit special, are equally difficult.

How can we be a good guest of the earth?  Not only should we be grateful for what we are given, but we should not take more than is offered from the heart.  Here’s a practical example:  it takes about 60 ounces of water to bring you a 20 ounce plastic bottle of water.  The earth cheerfully offers the 20 ounces of water as nourishment.  Taking the 60 ounces, when 40 ounces is waste and destruction and only 20 ounces is for nourishment, is like being the kind of guest that exhausts you rather than enriches you by honoring your hospitality.  I’d love to hear other practical examples from you about how to be a more gracious guest of the earth.

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Hanuman — Adamantine

When I prepare to teach a workshop, I usually do a fair amount of background reading in addition to preparing the asana practice and contemplating the theme.  Right now, I am getting ready to teach a workshop on the hidden powers of hanumanasana (See Workshops page for more info).  A few weeks ago, I came across a tattered 1987 edition of an Indian publication of the Ramayana by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. I was planning to read other works about Hanuman, but thought that I must be meant to read this one.

It is an interesting little book.  Chakravarti, also known as “Rajaji” was the first Indian governor-general of India and a close compatriot of Gandhi.  The work is interesting from a historical perspective.  It was first published in 1951 in Tamil and then translated from Tamil into English.  The purpose of the work was to make the Ramayana accessible to those who were not educated in Sanskrit and philosophy.  Although purportedly for children, it obviously had appeal for a wider audience (the 1987 edition I found was the 25th).  Rather than a translation, it is a retelling of the story, filled with homilies and somewhat paternalistic commentaries. Although because it is faithful to the story it still has the relentless sexism of the original, Rajaji does tell his readers in his commentary that the commonly held belief (supported by the language of the Ramayana, which is regarded as a religious text) that a woman has sinned or is shamed if “a villain behaves like a brute” to her is just wrong.

What was most interesting to me about this particular telling of the Ramayana, aside from its historical and social context, was how it resonated with my Anusara studies.  When Hanuman first battles the demons, Rajaji says the demons “showered missiles on him which mostly glanced harmlessly off his adamantine frame.”  Rajaji uses the word “adamantine” to describe Hanuman elsewhere in the work. Here, Hanuman is adamantine because his devotion and steadiness make an energetically impermeable boundary.  Hanuman is able to love deeply and to engage in battle fully, but is protected from the inside out by his practice and his devotion.  John Friend speaks often of using one’s practice to become “adamantine.”  He suggests that the practice of opening to grace, and then pulsing a perfect balance between drawing in and reaching out energetically (muscular and organic energy), gives us an adamantine core that enables us to be open to a full range of experience without being harmed by negative things.  I have experience myself from six steady years of Anusara practice, how the principles can indeed help me be open, while keeping negative energy from invading my space.

A used copy of this edition would likely have been around when John Friend was traveling in India when he first went to the Siddha yoga ashram.  Did reading this particular edition lead him to use the word “adamantine” in the context of his teaching of the energetics of asana?  I do not have an answer to that question, nor should I conjecture.  What I do know, is that regardless of how I feel about some of the exterior social influences and teachings of the great Indian texts (think how I might feel about the Spanish Inquisition as it relates to the Bible), there is much to learn about meditation, yoga practice, and personal integrity interwoven in the stories.

Other readings:

The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki by Swami Venkatesananda (much more scholarly — the translation you would read if you were taking a university course, but didn’t know Sanskrit)

The Ramayana retold by William Buck — easy to read; like reading a novel-length fairy tale rendition for adolescents (changes the ending to make what happens to Sita more palatable)

The Ramayana — A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon.  Great novel.  Cannot recommend highly enough, but probably won’t resonate as much unless you are familiar with the Ramayana and other Indian epics and philosophy.

The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz, trans. from the Spanish by Helen Lane.  From the back cover:  “Hanuman, the red-faced monkey chief and ninth grammarian of Hindu mythology, is the protagonist of this dazzling prose poem — a mind journey into the temple city of Galta and the occasion … to explore the nature of naming and knowing, time and reality, and fixity and decay.”

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Thanksgiving

As I prepare to lead the annual yoga fundraiser for Oxfam and then celebrate with friends the abundance of my life and my gratitude for all I have, I contemplate this writing of Swami Chidvilasananda:

Revere food as God.  Revere your own body as a temple.  Observe restraint and practice reverence.  There are so many great treasures and miracles within you, so many magical possibilities inside you.  Through discipline, you can make them manifest for you, and in this way, you can make the earth a greater paradise.  Give this earth the opportunity to feel that she is blessed, that she is happy to have you, that she is grateful for your presence on this planet.

The Yoga of Discipline.

I wish all of you the happiest of Thanksgiving days.  May you feel abundant and may you share your abundance.

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The Lantern

Today, I go to work my one Sunday a month at the Lantern Bookshop.  I have been volunteering at the Lantern for over 15 years.  My volunteer work there is service, but it is not selfless.  The Lantern serves the community in a variety of ways:  (1) it provides a place for like-minded community members to meet; we’ve had the same customers and workers for decades; (2) it provides creates scholarship funds for deserving young women to go to college, when they otherwise would not be able to afford to go; (3) by participating in the cycle of don’t throw away and reuse what we don’t need, it is good for the environment; (4) it creates a safe space for older workers to continue to be useful; (5) it keeps open an independent bookstore in a time when small businesses are hard-pressed to survive.  The work is not selfless for me because I adore books.  I like reading them, looking at them, exploring lightly ones that are far enough from my usual interests that I won’t commit the time to sit down and read.  I like being in an environment where all the talk is of books.

I started at the Lantern as a way of giving back to my college.  My scholarship came from the proceeds of the New York companion to the Lantern.  Having limited my work to just one Sunday a month, I was able to keep at it.  If it had been a bigger commitment, I am sure I would have found it too much after a period of years, given all the other things I do.  Because I could manage the time commitment, and I enjoy the work, I have kept at it.  It is not my only volunteer work, but it is a steady component of my place in the community.

A couple of years ago, I was with a group of yogis who were discussing a potential requirement to engage in seva or “selfless service.”  A number of people argued that unless the work made you uncomfortable, unless it stretched your emotional and personal boundaries, the work somehow did not count.  I have done volunteer work that has made me uncomfortable.  I’ve done work with the elderly sick and the institutionalized neglected.  I’ve served on a community board of directors where the focus was on a contentious neighborhood issue.  I have grown from that work, but I was only able to do it for a year or two or three before needing to move on to something else.

Is work more “selfless” if it is difficult?  Is it less selfless to do work that one frankly enjoys than work from which one derives the satisfaction of “doing good” because it is difficult and dirty?  I don’t know the answer.  The yoga texts would seem to indicate, I think, that if one does service for any form of gratification then it is not selfless.  I would argue that it is best to do the work — with commitment — and forget about whether it also pleases.  If the community benefits, the work should be done.

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Looking for the Good

As I read the blogs and commentaries about the transition, I’ve been thinking a lot about John Friend’s exhortation that we should always start by looking for the good.  This is a very unsettling time — economic and environmental crisis, two wars, etc, etc.  I may disagree with some of the picks for cabinet, but not only am I not in charge, I neither have the desire nor the skills to be in charge.  I often have an opinion about a way to enhance action, and then I try to take action to have my voice heard.  I am saddened, though, by the onslaught of negativity.  Hope for change does not mean instant transformation before even taking office.  Why not look for the good, and then raise our voices for what else we think could make things even better.  This works, too, for our own personal growth.  I’ve personally experienced that when I stopped habitually criticizing myself, came to a level of acceptance and nurture and then worked for progress, that not only did I feel better, but I did change more  because I wasn’t wasting energy on both the criticizing and the feeling bad.

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Seva

Now the real work begins!  That is what President-Elect Obama, the headlines, the pundits, the commenters, all said, hardly pausing to savor “victory.”  Unlike 1992, no one is suggesting that it is now time to party like it’s 1999.  I am elated by the result, but personally most encouraged by the earnestness of the reaction, the call for selflessness and effort to begin.

In yoga, one of the primary practices is seva or selfless service.  I think a critical aspect of seva is joyousness.  This is not a call to knuckle down soberly as a puritanical denial of pleasure.  Rather, it is a call to discover the pleasure in giving of oneself without asking anything in return. I begin, this morning, by giving financial support to certain groups that are hard at work to end war and torture and support the environment, but in dire need of support because of the financial crisis.  I have celebrated this morniong with heart-opening asana, and plan to take a lunchtime walk in the neighborhood and prepare delicious food from the garden, while most of my day will be devoted to working and teaching.

Each day, as this new path opens and work continues, I will strive to remember the words of Hafiz:  “[Spirit illuminates] the affairs/ Of the whole universe /While throwing wild parties/ In a tree house — on a limb / In your heart.” (The Subject Tonight is Love, 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz, Versions by Daniel Ladinsky).

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Adhikara

I was first taught that adhikara meant “studentship.”  Although that is not a literal translation, adhikara implies a dedication and steadiness in the student that makes the student worthy of receiving the teachings (of yoga).  As I was steadying myself during this momentous time and working in the garden, I was thinking about how the principle of adhikara applies to so many aspects of life, including gardening and being a citizen.

One of the literal translations for adhikara is “competence.”  What is the competence one needs to have in order to participate in the study?  As I harvested the last of the peppers and eggplants and pulled up the plants, making room to sow another round of greens (not too late in my sunny, protected yard in the city), and decided to leave the orchids out for another week, I thought about how I knew what to do when in my garden.  By being present and observant for two decades in my yard alone, I have grown competent to know what will likely grow in my little patch of earth and for how long into the season, depending on the year’s weather.  My initial competence, when I started this garden almost 20 years ago, was some basic training in other gardens, reading technical books, and enthusiasm.  My consistent efforts to learn yielded results delightful to me from the beginning.  As I have continued my studentship in the garden, my appreciation grows.  The same is true for me also with cooking, relationships, and my participation in the community (not necessarily in that order).

The fundamental competence of a student is having the basic skills to participate at the level of the teachings.  For a gardener, it is recognizing our climate, our space limitations, and our soil, and being open to learning what can be changed in a particular space and what must be accepted.  For a citizen, it is knowing basic civics, what are the most relevant issues for us and society at large, and what we can change and what we must accept (I think knowing the subtle differences between what we can change and what we must accept is incredibly difficult).  For yoga, it is much the same:  we must know what are true limits and what are false ones and be consistently present, practice steadily, and be ever open, not only to studying, but to the fruits of study (expected or not).

I cannot change the weather, nor guarantee how other voters will vote, but I can continue to maintain the adhikara necessary to be a fully engaged student of this life on all days and not just the days it is fun or gratifying.  The yoga, on a day like today, is to act fully, accepting, and perhaps even appreciating, the limits on what I can control.

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Dharma without Karma (Please Vote Next Tuesday)

It’s no surprise:  I find myself more and more consumed by thought and activity regarding the state of the country and what I can do as a citizen (including voting) to make things better.  As I seek to stay engaged, but grounded and without anxiety, I find solace of the teaching in the Bhagavad Gita that true yoga is action without attachment.  To be detached is not the same as withdrawing from action.  In fact, the Gita suggests that the path of action is better than the path of renunciation.

What is actionless action?  Given the Gita’s fundamental premise that we must act in accordance with our duty (what that means is the subject of much debate that is beyond a simple blog), actionless action does not mean disengaging from the process.  It also does not mean not caring.  Rather, it means that we should act fully in accordance with our principles (which principles should be shaped by the yoga guidelines of non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, alignment with nature, non-greediness, cleanliness, contentment, fervor, self-study, and surrender), but with the mental understanding that we are ultimately not in control of the outcome.  We act because not to act is a cop out.  We offer the fruits of our action to forces beyond ourselves.  We act out of love — not selfish love for personal gain — but with loving gratitude for being able to act at all.  We engage fully and then still seek to be free of being unsettled by either pleasure or pain from the outcome.  Whatever the results, we keep acting, we keep doing our duty, fully and with loving engagement.

See:  BG IV.19-20:  He whose undertakings are free from anxious desire and fanciful thought, whose work is made pure in the fire of wisdom:  he is called wise by those who see.  In whatever work he does such a man in truth has peace:  he expects nothing, he relies on nothing, and ever has fullness of joy.  (trans. Juan Munoz)

He who has abandoned all attachment to the fruits of action,/ Always content, not dependent,/ Even when performing action,/Does, in effect, nothing at all./ Performing action with the body alone, / Without wish, restrained in thought and self,/ With all motives of acquisition abandoned, He incurs no evil.  (trans. Winthrop Sargeant)

P.S.  I will have voted in the morning and will be teaching at Wm Penn House on Tuesday so come join me resting in yoga before going home to watch the returns.

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Fall Reading — The Yoga of Discipline

Each Willow Street session, I choose an overall philosophy topic or book to inform the themes for my classes.  I choose them based on something that I believe is relevant to what is going on in the world, something that has captured my interest, or something that I believe supports the growth of the groups of students attending my various classes.

When exploring particular readings for this purpose, I do more than read.  Rather, I contemplate, journal, practice asana (in a sense choreographing the philosophy using the principles of alignment), and meditate with the reading in mind.  Paul Muller-Ortega calls studying by going beyond book knowledge and continuously contemplating, refining, and exploring its living meaning for us is vikalpa-samskara — the practice of study.  (Siva Sutra Pravesana, An Introduction for Practitioners of Yoga).

This session, the central text I am reading is Swami Chidvilasandana’s The Yoga of Discipline.  The book contains a series of lectures discussing how being steady and constant in our yoga practice (including bringing yoga principles to our daily lives) will help us become more gracious, happy, and able to serve society.  The lectures draw on teachings from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and from the Bhagavad Gita (suggested translations in another blog entry to come).  I am freely drawing on those as well, even those sections not discussed in The Yoga of Discipline.

I picked this text at this time because I am feeling such a deep need and such gratitude for my yoga practice, study, and community in this time of uncertainty.  It has been my own personal experience that longer I have had a steady practice, the better able I am to come from a place of light in times of flux, pain, or complexity.

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