Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

The Breath Leads the Way (and Atha Yoga Anusasanam)

I was reminded the other day of a principle of reading the great Hindu philosophical work:  all of the meaning of the text can be understood from not only the first sutra, but the first word.  The first sutra of The Yoga Sutrasof Patanjali’s is “atha yoga anusasanam” — now begins an exposition of the practices of yoga.  Implicit in the “atha,” the now, is that something else has come before.  The translations I have speak of previous study and preparation; the studies offered by Patanjali are not for the novice, but for one who has already been practicing.  If we read Patanjali’s first sutra with the implicit understanding that the first word contains all of the exposition to follow and that we do not need the rest of the explanation and practice if we truly understand the first word and sutra, then I think more must be meant here by “atha” than just this exposition now comes after previous study.

In this latest contemplation of mine what the word “atha” must hold within it for the practitioner, I thought about the Anusara axiom of practice “the breath leads the way,”  which has been the alignment focus in my classes for the past week.  What does it mean to have the breath lead the way?  At its highest level, it serves to bring us back to “first principle” of “opening to grace.” (As an aside, I note that I  believe can apply to the Anusara principles of alignment the same method of understanding:  the principle “open to grace,” and even the first word “open” holds all of the other Anusara principles.  All the other principles and axioms are explanations and methods for living “open to grace.”)

When we let the breath lead the way, we start each pose by a deep listening, an openness to something greater, an openness to the pulsation between the universal energies and our individual self.  We invite the subtle energies to support us and lead us like a great dance partner.  We actively surrender to the dance, while still bringing our own skill to our part of the dance, the way the partner being led in a waltz is skilled both in the dance and in being led.  In letting the breath lead the way in our yoga practice, we come to the very fullness of the present moment even as we move through a sequence of asanas in time and space.  Being open to grace in each moment, in each part of the pose, and allowing our self to be led by the pulsation of the breath even as we move with it, brings us to a recognition that in each moment, we are both part of the sequence of time and space and more than time and space (akrama krama).  We come to the  atha of samadhiWe use the practice of letting the breath lead the way to teach us to open to grace, to find the exquisite timeless fullness of being itself in order to illuminate all of our practice.  If we are already in that atha, that now, then we do not need any of the other practices or explanations, but if we cannot find it on our own, then again and again, the study and practice begins now — atha — so that we can experience in our very heart the fullness (purna) of our selves and better illuminate everything we do on and off the mat with the blissfulness of  that fullness.

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Full Moon

The moon had risen in all her glory when I left Willow Street Yoga in Silver Spring (from a talk with Dr. Manoj Chalam about archetypes yesterday evening and headed for the metro home.  I thought about how the moon shines fully no matter what is below:  a pristine mountain lake, a construction site, a palace garden, a land devastated by one of the Four Horsemen, or the street in front of my house.  What I think is the goal of most “spiritual” practice is to find a place where, being able to see the light all the time, one can live with uncertainty and challenge and have a greater capacity to serve from one’s unique place.

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Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Other Vegetables (and the Goddess of Sequencing)

Cooking is not only an exquisite opportunity to notice and appreciate the various characteristics of the elements of our meal and how they react to heat and fat and cooking times and methods, but a wonderful way to appreciate how everything is ordered in time and space and to honor Kali — the Goddess of Sequencing.

Brussels sprouts seem to be fashionable this year.  I’ve always liked them.  My preferred method is to braise them:  saute lightly in olive oil and/or butter in a heavy pot with a lid, splash some dry sherry, wine, or vermouth into the cooking pot and stir until the liquid is absorbed, add some broth or water (not quite to cover) plus salt and herbs of your choice, simmer until the brussel sprouts are tender and the liquid is absorbed.

My friends are gushing about roasted brussels sprouts.  I think the tenderizing, fat-adding delight of roasting has made the much maligned brussels sprout more accessible:  toss with olive oil, salt, garlic, and herbs such as rosemary and thyme.  Roast at 400F until tender and browned (15-20 minutes).  Use peanut oil, ginger, garlic, and soy sauce or Braggs amino liquids for an Asian meal.  Try safflower oil, turmeric, ground ginger, garlic, and ground coriander seeds to serve with Indian food.  Use just butter (or if vegan a light, relatively flavorless oil such as safflower or canola), salt, paprika, and pepper for an Eastern European flavor.

Whenever I roast vegetables, I toss in an extra head of garlic (separated into cloves), and serve some with the vegetables and reserve some for cooking something else with roasted garlic.  Include a variety of vegetables.  Just remember that different vegetables need different cooking times.  To recognize the mysteries of the Goddess of Sequencing in time and space — you have two choices in roasting vegetables.  You can cut the vegetables into different sizes (so you would leave brussels sprouts whole, cut winter squash or turnips into cubes a little smaller than the brussels sprouts, and potatoes into wedges or rectangles that are narrower than the brussels sprouts for them all to be golden and tender, but not overcooked at the same time.  As an alternative (as we do with sauteing or stir-frying), you can add different vegetables at different times.  You might need a combination of both techniques.  If you wanted to add mushrooms to the mix, since those would need to be larger than brussels sprouts, you would want to add the mushrooms later lest they get withered — how much later depends on the size of the mushrooms relative to the other vegetables.

Enjoy (and give homage)!

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Madya Vikashac Cittananda Labhah (and moving from the core)

After my morning practice, while I was riding on the bus to Georgetown yesterday to volunteer at the Lantern, the sutra “madyama vikasha cittananda labah,” Pratyabijna Hrdayam, 17, started resonating in the forefront of my consciousness.  Swami Shantananda in The Splendor of Recognition, translates this sutra as “[t]he bliss of Consciousness is attained through the expansion of the center.” What an elegant reminder of the true purpose of practice and the essential basis for the alignment principle of “stabilize the periphery; move from the core” about which I wrote yesterday.

When we practice, we seek to go inward to discover that of our true nature that is light-filled and joyous.  We do so not just to stay in that place still and inert, but so that we can then extend out into every thought and action from a place of illuminated, blissful wisdom.  It will not change the fact of difficulties, challenges, strains, etc, but when we stabilize the outside, remember to go inward, and find the inner space of stillness and light, then when we move back outward into the world, we will be better able to respond in the highest.

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Sunchokes (and Anusara “first principle”) (a bit out of date, but not really)

I realize that this blog entry was in my drafts page; I never hit the publish button.  As I ponder the few intervening weeks of snow (in some ways it feels as if time just stopped, except for the work that piled up and the lengthening of the light of day), I treat this as a reminder to myself to come back to “first principle” to respond with the most light — even in this unusually harsh winter:

On my way to Friends Meeting yesterday, I stopped at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market yesterday to buy whatever was fresh.  When I got in line with a daikon radish, a bunch of turnips, and a couple of leeks, I noticed the way the woman in front of me in line was holding her selection:  sunchokes.  Her hands were held as if she had just received prasad — the offering sometimes made after a puja so that the fruits of worship may actually be tasted and injested, incorporated with our senses and our whole bodies into our being.  “Your hands and those sunchokes are so beautiful,” I said, “may I take a picture and use it for my blog?”  “Sure,” she replied, “and shifted her hands a little so that it would be easier for me to frame the picture.”  We talked while we waited in line about potential ways to cook sunchokes and how happy we were that the farmers (these particular farmers’ must be incredibly good at working with cold frames) were out all year.

Seeing this offering of the earth itself, the farmers who tended the earth and grew the vegetables, the workers who made and repaired the vehicles that enabled the food to be brought into the city, the city and neighborhood for allowing the market to block off a street, the shoppers for supporting it, brought me back to my contemplations this week of what “first principle” means to me.  I mentioned in an earlier post that my focus for winter classes would be Anusara sequencing principles.  No matter what else we are doing or focusing on, it always starts with “first principle.”  The “first principle” is what we call in Anusara “opening to grace.”  For me, a large part of “opening to grace” is a recognition that all the nourishment we receive is a gift.  When we practice such a recognition, then we practice receptivity, openness, gratitude, courtesy, respect, delicacy, and reciprocal desire to serve and make offering.  How could one mindfully receive nourishment such as this fresh, beautiful food on a bitterly cold winter day, and not want to celebrate it by giving thanks, nurturing the earth, supporting the farmers and the market, learning how to prepare it as tasty and healthful as possible, and share it and other things with those around us?

gift

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Winter Gardening, Vikalpa Samskara, and Bhavana

My cherished friend Cynthia for who there will be a memorial service on Wednesday often said that her favorite time of year to garden was winter.  She was not only a passionate gardener who had established an exquisite ornamental garden over a period of decades, but also a scintillating intellect.  In winter, of course, she would tend the houseplants and have flowers from forced bulbs, but that was not “winter gardening;” it was just having some beauty in the house. Winter gardening for Cynthia meant sitting in her nice warm house, reading stacks of gardening books and seed and plant catalogs and planning ways to enhance and develop the garden come the new growing season.  Cynthia did not practice yoga or meditation although she asked about yoga and exhibited her habitual, engaged and polite intellectual curiosity about my practice out of friendship.

After I took care of the house plants this morning, I sat down with a gardening book and read it while I had my morning hot drink and thought of Cynthia saying this was the best gardening time.  This time last year, I was marveling that I had chard to eat from the garden and espousing the joy of sprouting indoors in order to have fresh food year round (still sprouting and recommend it to all especially this harsh winter).  This year I cannot even see the containers (see picture below after five days of melting and before another coating to come this afternoon), much less any plants outside, so spring gardening will be a completely different experience than it was last year.  I go back, then, to my books.  I read about edible container gardening for climates where spring starts later than is typical for DC.  I think about what I can start indoors and whether I will want to start with different plants.  In the space of time when I cannot actually garden, I develop my intellectual knowledge so that my garden skills and experience can still develop.  When I am out in the garden this spring, digging in the dirt, watching things grow, I will experience with joy in my very being the subtle and not so subtle differences from a dry, warm winter and a cold, snowy one throughout the whole growing season.

This pulsing relationship among practical experience, study, and joyous understanding is our true practice (sadhana).  Steady practice includes not just actual doing of postures and meditation, but also repeated study for enhanced intellectual understanding of what we are experiencing (vikalpa samskara), and joyous, non-intellectual contemplation with heart and spirit (bhavana) of the burgeoning of combined experience and study.  When we appreciate on the mat and off that there will be times for practical experience, times for study, and times just to rest with a rich fullness of contemplation of the fruits of experience and study for the joyous recognition of beauty and consciousness, then we will never be empty.  We will not suffer from the confinement of a blizzard or an injury because we will know that it is time to shift our focus from being on the mat or on our meditation cushion or out of the garden (or whatever it is that is your work or hobby or course of study) and more to studying what others can teach us in words or demonstration.  We will know that the more we enhance our practice with both practicum and book learning, the more we can move towards an ever refined and steady abiding of whatever is our passion in our hearts.

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Tatah Dvandavah Anabhighatah (and “winners and losers”)

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.48, tatah dvandaha anabhighataha is translated by B.K.S. Iyengar as “from then on [after the yogi through steady practice has absorbed him/herself in the practice of yoga), the sadhaka (practitioner) is undisturbed by dualities.”  This sutra follows the only two in all of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that specifically discuss asana, which Patanjali describes as a controlled and perfect ease and steadiness of mind and body.

I was thinking about the freedom from the “pairs of opposites” — pleasure and pain, etc. — when I read an article in the Washington Post yesterday dividing everyone who was impacted by the blizzard as a winner or a loser.   Children off from school were winners, frustrated parents, travelers who were grounded from flying, and politicians sure to be blamed for not having planned in a Southern city to have the snow removal equipment, personnel, and budget of a city like Buffalo, NY, were losers.  I am fairly certain (based on the harangues on the blogs) that the author was not alone in seeing everything as winning or losing.  To me, though, it feels like one of the “afflictions” described by Patanjali.  I was a grounded flyer.  I was much looking forward to a trip to San Francisco to see a dear friend from college and then to attend the weekend workshop with John Friend.  It would have been great fun to be there.  I was disappointed.  But it never would have occurred to me to label myself a loser.  Do so so would just had me hold onto unhappiness.

Yoga teaches us to look for the good, to accept what we cannot change, and to seek to respond in the highest.  In essence, we are changing what we can change, which is how we react.  If my only reaction to the storm was pain and sadness from having the pleasure of my planned trip taken away from me, then I would in fact be a loser.  If I just accept that no one can anticipate when record-breaking winter storms are going to arrive and then have the best day I can under the unavoidable circumstances, then I am a winner.  I am not a winner in a game where someone else is a loser.  I am not a winner in that I did not let Mother Nature win.  Rather, I have learned that the steady practice of yoga makes life more easeful and delightful even in challenges and disappointments.  I am motivated to practice more.  The lessons learned from being confined a blizzard when I was warm, well fed, and surrounded by friends are a hopeful prelude for how the yoga will serve when I really face a challenge.

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A Moment of Insight (and suddha vidya)

A rather conservative co-worker, who was one of the people who would have to go grocery shopping last night lest the family be without perishable food for a few days, was talking to me about the impending snowstorm (including me advising him of the one forecast for next Tuesday/Wednesday).  “It shows,” he said, “how easily our infrastructure and food supply can be disrupted.”  I gave it a little pause, and then replied, “this is why I talk about gardening in our own yards and switching away from agribusiness to a more sustainable and self-sustaining way of living and seek to shift myself, though it is difficult.”  He said, “hmmm,” letting the idea stick in his mind, but not wanting to carry the discussion further.  I know him well enough to have dropped it for the time, but also know he will think about it and perhaps over the years, for his beloved daughters or out of perceived necessity, start making small shifts.

In yoga practice, the concept of suddha vidya — illuminative wisdom — is both revealed and practiced.  When we start practicing or even before, we may have occasional and early insights into fundamental truths of being, but without steady practice and contemplation they will be fleeting and not shift our way of living.  If we practice and study continuously, though, our insight will become steadier, more consistent, and will start to illuminate all states of our being on and off the mat.  The more I practice, the more it is illuminated for me the connection of all beings and my need to live in a way that is more open, tolerant, loving, and aligned with the complex web of our interconnection.  My co-worker’s insight might not have been “yoga,” but it was indeed a moment of illuminative wisdom in its recognition of a misalignment of society that tears at the fabric of our being.

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It Takes a Snowflake

It is almost inconceivable to my limited mind how many snowflakes it took to whiten our world yesterday morning.  This weekend, there will be far more snow (alas, it will be too cold to stick to the trees and create such a beautiful canopy; instead we will have howling winds and heavy going).  I might catch the first of the snowflakes tomorrow morning on my walk to work before the storm really comes in with all its wild fury.  When there are only a few, it is easy to see the individual flakes.  Once there is a storm, though, we tend only to see the storm.

Just as it is hard to remember that the snow is about both each individual flake and the whole snow fall together, we forget about the simultaneous place of ourselves as individuals as part of the whole, or we get caught up witnessing ourselves as individuals and forget that we are all a part of a much vaster energy.  The reality is that we are all both all of the time — we are completely individual and part of a vast, interconnected web.  When we can remember and witness both aspects of ourselves, then we can most deeply witness, participate in, and appreciate the extraordinariness of being.

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Starting with the Foundation (and Samtosha)

Last night, at his workshop at Willow Street Yoga, Todd Norian discussed the niyama samtosha — contentment.  “Perfect,” I thought, because I had been contemplating the practice of samtosha all day.  When I had sat to meditate in the morning yesterday, it was hard for me to stay with my mantra or any sense of peacefulness, light, or delight.  Thoughts of the horrendous repercussions of the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance kept arising.  Time to get back to the foundations of practicing!  As I began walking to work (past the Capitol), I brought myself back to the practice of samtosha, which I find one of the most useful practices for me.

Samtosha is the second of the niyamas set forth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The yamas and niyamas are ethical precepts for living and for practicing.  In Patanjali’s eight-limbed, dualistic path of raja yoga, they precede the practices of asana (the physical postures), pranayama (breathing), and the various stages of meditation, which culminate in samadhi (equinimity or bliss).  When I am struggling with what I witness in the outside world, I always come back to the practice of samtosha. Some people may be naturally lighter-hearted than others, but contentment is indeed a practice, and it is a foundational practice.

When I practice contentment, I remember to be grateful for all that I have.  When I fully practice contentment, instead of becoming bleak and cynical (it is easy enough for me), I not only feel more naturally cheerful, but find I have have more strength to continue acting in accordance with my beliefs, even when I am confused, alarmed, outraged, and disgusted by what is going on outside.  When practicing contentment, I try to find my own light, I seek the love and company of friends, I join with like-minded persons to be moved to work for change, even if I do not trust it will make any visible change to anyone other than me.

FYI, Todd Norian will be at Willow Street Yoga Center all weekend.  If you are local and reading this in time, try to come for some of the weekend.  He is wonderful.

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