Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

Guru Purnima (without a “guru”)

A yoga teacher acquaintance once said rather dogmatically to me that it was not possible to be a true yoga teacher unless one had a guru.  He meant having a guru in the traditional sense — being devoted to a particular person as the embodiment of the divine and of the true teachings.  I did not engage on the issue, thinking (perhaps unfairly) that he would not listen to another point of view.

I do not have a guru in the technical sense.  It would be unlikely.  I was raised attending unprogrammed meetings of the Society of Friends (Quakers), where services are premised on the idea that there should be no preacher or minister because the light of the spirit shines equally in all and that each person is equally able to connect through his or her own faith and practice to the spirit.  My first major exposure to the teachings of yoga was through the writings of J. Krishnamurti, which a teacher in an alternative program in high school I attended gave us to read, along with the classic yoga texts.  Krishnamurti believed that all change comes from within and eschewed devotion to a guru.

Although I do not have a particular guru to whom I give my devotion (bhakti), I strive to honor and recognize that our true teacher is the light and spirit that is within all beings.  The first line of the Anusara invocation — om namah shivaya gurave — resounds with truth for me.

On this guru purnima, the full moon of July, I honor the teachings that have so shifted my life, my teachers, especially John Friend and Suzie Hurley, and all of my students and friends, who shine with light always, and who inspire me to try each day to live more aligned with the ideals of yoga.

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Choices, A Cardinal in the Grapes, and Viveka

This morning while I was out in the garden, I heard a chirping right above my head.  Within arm’s reach was a bright red male cardinal perched among the grapes effusively talking.  (I planted a tiny red, concord grape vine about six years ago, and it has flourished beyond my wildest dreams).

There were enough ripe grapes for me to pick a handful for myself.  I have bird netting, but I have not put it over the grapes.  They did not do so well this year, many turning brown prematurely because, I think, of the drought-ridden winter followed by the extra wet and cool spring.  I am grateful that I will not be dependent on these grapes as food for myself to survive through next winter (I’m pretty sure; if not, I have bigger things to worry about).

For the joy of having the birds come visit so fearlessly and delightedly, and because the grapes are not fantastic to eat, I leave all, but those I get by the small handful a couple of mornings a week for a few weeks, to the birds.  Maybe next year I will net the grapes, but then I’ll have to have a canning party to make jam.  In the meantime, I’ll marvel that every bird in DC seems to know when my grapes ripen.

We make decisions like this all the time.  With how we shop, what we eat, what work we choose, how we travel, we are making decisions about habitat and environment for ourselves and hosts of other beings.

In yoga, the process of ever refining our understanding so that we can be more in touch with how we act impacts our life force and our relationship with all around us, is viveka, or discrimination.   Just as the more we practice on the mat, the more we develop awareness of what leads us to feel more in tune and more celebratory of life, so too, we want to use that yoga refinement and discrimination to inform our acts off the mat.

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Simulcast, Drama, and Perception

Last night I went to see the National Theater UK’s  simulcast (tape-delayed) of Helen Mirren performing in Ted Hughes’ translation of Racine’s Phedre at the Shakespeare Theater.  The tragedy of Phedre is misinformation, misguided helpers, and passion that has gone beyond sweet engagement to maddened attachment.

A stage production is intimate and designed for the small audience of those present in the theater.  When it is merely filmed (instead of being turned into a movie), it sometimes feels forced because it is watching a film of a stage production, instead of being invited in as one is when one is either at the stage production or the filming is done as a movie, which is designed to include the viewer in a manner for the film.

What was hard about watching the filming of the stage production, was being forced to have the camera’s and director’s perspective; there was no ability to turn my head and shift which part of the stage to give my attention.  At the same time, I felt appreciative of the miraculous offerings of technology:  the filming made something that is usually limited to those who can afford theater of that extraordinary quality and who are able to be in a certain place at a certain time available to tens of thousands around the globe, including me and my friend.  In that way, the filming both took away the intimacy of being physically present, but simultaneously created a unifying experience for a much bigger group of people.

I was inspired to think about the limitations and differences among the perceptions of the characters, of the critics (talking about the play and the film), of the smaller, elite audience (the actual theater goers’ — I’ve been at that theater in London), of the technologically broadened audience, and of mine in response to the essence of the tragedy, the story and substance of the play, the delivery of the play, and my own life as informed by the play.

It seems an interesting lesson on many levels on how we can choose to live with our passions, how we can react to limits and changes in our ability to perceive our own selves and the world around us, and on how and what we invite in through the doors of our perception.

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In Watermelon Sugar (Starting Each Day Anew)

I have in my library books in which just one phrase or just the very beginning is most resonant.  It is this time of summer, when the light seems endless, and the heat just setting in as if on a permanent basis, that my thoughts turn to watermelon in food, and again in literature.  I think of watermelon differently each summer from the perspective of having lived another year, and the same in having experienced the taste and the thoughts of the taste so many times before.  When it comes the time of year when thoughts of watermelon spontaneously arise,  I revisit these words:

“In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.  I’ll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.  Wherever you are, we must do the best we can.  It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar.” (R. Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar).

Refreshed, I put the book back on the shelf, look forward to eating watermelon from the fresh farm market, and set the intention to start each day with open, receptive, and unjaundiced eyes, ready to learn and experience the same old things as glorious new ones, and to do the best I can.

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Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodaha

I slept restlessly last night and woke early with concern for those who were in the metro crash.  Being already a bit agitated, worries about getting things done at work also were arising.  Despite my restlessness, I made sure to sit for meditation.  Thoughts kept arising, but by the time I was into my sit, I was able to find a space, where I was not tangled or unsteadied by the thoughts.  I felt more peaceful and able to meet the challenges of the day.

In times of agitation, I often find myself drawn to contemplate again Patanjali’s sutra 1.2:  Yoga citta vrtti nirodaha. In classical yoga, it means to still the thought waves.  This is meant to be the ultimate purpose of yoga:  to still thought so that what is beyond mind and body can be revealed.

Practicing and studying from a tantric perspective, I think not so much of stilling my thoughts when I practice and meditate, but rather, finding a sense of alignment, an allowing of and making allowance within my being for the rhythm of the thoughts like a sailor getting sea legs on a boat, so that I can be steady (sthira) and have a greater sense of peace (shantaya) and light (tejase), no matter how wild are the thoughts arising and sensations entering in the field of my consciousness.

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Making the Bed (and Sauca)

I have noticed over the years that I sleep more deeply and peacefully if I have made the bed before getting into it again.  Smoothing out the sheets and the covers and fluffing the pillows after waking, releases the energy of the dreams from the previous night.  This helps make sure that each returning to sleep is a new experience, an opening to the possibility of entering a wonderful state.

The principle of sauca (cleanliness or purity) invites us to be clean and clear before and as part of our physical and meditative practice and all our living.  Imagine trying to practice yoga on a dirty mat and going into savasana (corpse pose/final relaxation) on a tangled blanket.  Would you think it possible to become deeply relaxed?  Probably not.  If we want our space smooth to lie down for a yoga pose, how could we not need the same for a good night’s sleep, for a planned visit to another state of consciousness?

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Gardening, Cleaning, Cooking (and Vinyasa Krama and Kali)

Vinyasa krama is the art of sequencing.  How a yoga practice or flow is sequenced can determine whether it is uplifting or inward going, exhilarating or calming.  When we are trained and attentive, we start to know the most optimal order to open our bodies and our focus to align with the time of day, the season, the weather, our mood, and our health.  This incredible art helps us be positioned and aligned in a way that we feel free in time and space, rather than being constrained by time and space.

This morning while I was out in the garden, I was thinking a lot about vinyasa krama and the goddess Kali — goddess of, among other things, time and change, and thus, of sequencing.  I woke very early, brought to consciousness by the long light of the solstice even through closed curtains.  As I went about my morning, rinsing the sprouts while heating the water for my morning coffee; cutting back the greens and herbs before starting breakfast; doing the major pruning and clean-up before doing more decorative garden work; finishing cooking before taking out the recycling; applying a facial mask before starting to vacuum; never walking up or down the stairs empty-handed; waiting to gather the bills until after I was clean and waiting for friends to arrive, etc., I realized how important sequencing is to the richness of my days.  By knowing the best way to order tasks for my needs, my day is simultaneously productive, unhurried, and enjoyable.

By the time my friends arrived around noon, I had meditated, taken care of the garden, gathered food for my own breakfast and to share with friends, talked to neighbors, cleaned the house and myself, done a little asana, written in my journal, and sorted the mail.  Had I not known from long experience and conscious attention how to sequence all the different elements, knowing which ones went together, which took longest, which ones if done earlier or later would create double clean up, etc, I would have been tired and the tasks unfinished.  Instead, after brunch, I came home to a tended garden, a freshly made bed, and time to enjoy a quiet evening.

These sequencing principles also apply for me on major projects at work.  If ordered one way, the work is exponentially harder, the deadline a fearsome thing; if ordered another way, everything comes together mostly as it should when it should.  When I order my work with attention (this assumes others cooperate with this endeavor), I have time to do a good, careful job and still take breaks, eat well, and leave the office in time to take or teach yoga class.

Whether you are doing your home yoga practice or cooking or working, choose to sequence the elements of your practice, your activities, or your day, with attentiveness, reverence, love, and respect, and Kali will support you and not show you her most fearsome face.

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Ganesha (Deity of the Marines?)

A senior colleague and I spent several hours today working together on a very challenging aspect of a long-term project.  When we were wrapping up for the day, I showed him a murti of Ganesha that another co-worker had brought me from the Norton Simon Museum when she had gone on a business trip to Pasadena, where our Los Angeles office is located.

I said that I do not believe in the Hindu deities as gods, but find them helpful for contemplation as archetypes (in the Jungian sense).  I said that being on this project has taught me much about yoga and about Ganesha.

“Ganesha,” I explained, “is not so much the remover of obstacles, but the one who places obstacles in your way to teach you the wisdom to grow and find a more enlightened path from having confronted the obstacles.”  “Oh,” said my colleague, “like the Marines:  adapt, improvise, and overcome.” “Well, sort of,” I replied, enjoying that we found a way to share laughter after our difficult afternoon.

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“I’ve Got My Life Back”

I was at a business meeting yesterday that started with people introducing themselves around the table.  The participants were all either members or staff of a prominent lobbying group or government officials.  One of the men said that he was now a consultant.  “I used to be general counsel of [lobbying group], and now that I am consulting,” he said, “I have my life back.”  The introductions continued around the table.  The new general counsel, when he introduced himself, claimed, “it’s my life he has taken to get his back.”

I found this all interesting in light of my blog yesterday.  These men are very successful.  They both are married with families.  They seem to be pleasant and smart.  Their definition of “not having a life” was not having failed to be fully engaged in doing what society expects them to do — they have clearly done very well indeed — but not having time to play golf or hang out in addition to being “successful.”

Is the difference between being male and female?  Or were the two different contexts of the same social, linguistic tic just exemplifying a the view point of a superabundant and privileged class that we are not living fully unless we do and have everything the collective society admires and we simultaneously feel like we have lots of leisure time to enjoy as we see fit?  It’s a hopelessly unrealistic standard.

Every moment we breathe and our heart beats, we are living.  One of the keys to tantric yoga is to come to a place where we are living fully and abundantly whatever we are doing, whether it is working or playing, being challenged or relaxing.  When we can do that, we realize we “have a life” and one worth living, no matter where we are in our journey.

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World Wide Knit in Public Day (and Vikalpa Samskara)

World Wide Knit in Public Day is this weekend — June 13th (and 14, 20, and 21).  What will you be knitting?  I have started a pair of leg-warmers.  The pattern was really for ankle warmers, but I have chosen to make them longer than the pattern suggested.  The nice farmers who raise the sheep, spin and dye the yarn, and sell it at the Dupont Fresh Farm Market, called them “yoga socks.”  The yarn is beautiful.  The sample pair looked like something I would want on my feet in colder weather.  The project was small enough to tuck into my carry bag.  Definitely a go for summer knitting (unlike the three-quarter finished mohair shruggy that has become a lapful of furry stuff).

“Why are they so short?” I asked.  “We had originally designed them to be longer, but our teacher said we might need to grab our ankles?” they explained.  “When would you do that, when it would not matter whether you were touching fabric instead of your skin,” I puzzled out loud, not out of criticism, but really wanting to know, thinking maybe in Pilates.  The farmers could not really think of a reason.  I bought an extra skein along with the kit to make the — oh, let’s call them footless socks — calf height.  The yarn has a bit of a stickiness to it, so they are not slippery.  They will be good to wear for yoga.

I’ve never knitted on double-pointed, size 2 needles, in the round before, though I happened to have four in the house (picked up at a yard sale for a $1 a decade or two ago and put in the sewing box).  I tend not to knit from patterns for whole projects.  So I had a little learning to do.  The pattern did not explain how to use the double-pointed needles; that knowledge was assumed.  I am not used to the contraints of following a pattern.  Doing so, on occasion, though, forces me to learn a new technique.  It took my a couple of hours to get into the rhythm, but now I’ve eased into the project.

I sometimes seek the same type expansion with cooking.  Though easily able to cook something delicious without a recipe with most ingredients, sometimes I pick out a complicated recipe just to expand my skills in the kitchen.

Yoga, most of all, benefits from a combination of free exploration and attentive development to the knowledge imparted by a teacher.  We are most full and expanded when we combine experience and teachings.  We receive the teachings and then we practice again and again to make it not just our own experience, but part of our being.  This process is called vikalpa samskara.

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