Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

One Person’s Weeds

Last year, some romaine lettuce must have bolted.  I have baby romaine lettuce coming up everywhere.  Having reverted to the wild, it is quite bitter.  It is also taking up a fair amount of space, so to be able to plant more appealing things (new herbs and greens) I will be pulling it up.  It has become, in essence, a weed.  Later in the year, I’ll also have a surfeit of volunteer epazote and purslane, which many would pull as weeds.  Those, I actively encourage, eating young the ones that come up over and over again through the bricks and confining in containers a few others to grow larger and to reseed.

Even though it is too bitter to be palatable raw, the now “weed” romaine tastes fine cooked as a tender green.  So it does not get discarded.  I just won’t make myself eat it in its bitter form as the salad green that it is “supposed” to be.  Instead, since it is nourishing and tasty as a cooked green, it is a welcome early addition to the garden.

Just I have challenges and tribulations from whatever is my overall plan for the garden, I have my share of aches, pains, challenges, and disappointments, in life and in my yoga practice.  The question is how to discriminate (viveka) among those that are poisonous, those that are bitter, and those that can be made nourishing and sweet, through the cooking of understanding, practice, and effort.

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Only a little rain (and vimarsha)

My gardening friends have been commiserating and worrying about the abnormally dry weather.   For the past couple of days, we have all been concerned that this storm has brought so little needed rain, although we are grateful to get whatever rain comes.  Other acquaintances were complaining yesterday that it still wasn’t sunny.  When I mentioned drought conditions, they had not noticed.  If they noticed once it was pointed out, they suggested reasons why for them personally, it would still be a better thing for it to be a sunny day.  Part of the reason I garden is to keep me connected with the rhythms of the seasons and the weather.  If we do not grow our own food and depend on the fruits of our labors, nor are taught the relationship between the weather and our survival, there is no reason to know it.  We become disconnected from nature and from the earth.

For me, connection to the earth deepens my connection to myself and to spirit.  How can we know ourselves if we do not know how the earth nourishes us and how we relate to the earth?  How can we recognize the light within ourselves, if we are disconnected from nature?  At the same time, the practice of yoga, with its inward questing (antar-vimarsha — the quest to touch or reveal the true Self), by revealing to us the subtle energies and knowledge of the relationship of body and mind, can lead us back to yearning for a deeper understanding of the world around us and for a healthier relationship between the give and take between us and the earth.  We can thus reach spirit both by being more aware of the outside and seeing where we are disconnected in our practice off the mat and by reaching inward using our spiritual practice (the Anusara principles are designed to be a pulsation of reaching outward and inward for an ever growing expansion and understanding of mind and spirit) and then knowing the outside is not aligned and needs to be shifted.  All this is the process of vimarsha, like a little more rain in the drought to nourish and encourage the unfolding of spring.

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Worrying (and the kanchukas)

This morning, woken by the purring cat from an anxious dream in which I was not doing enough to make things better (I am not making this up), my first thoughts were of escalating war in Afghanistan and deepening economic crisis at home.  It felt almost strange and abstract to be worrying about these things from my warm comfortable bed.

I think worrying can have a positive place in our lives.  If we just get worried or anxious about things and get trapped in not doing or growing or reaching (both inward and outward) for a sense of connection and spirit, then worrying will cloak or limit us.  If we recognize worries as showing us limitations, then we can use them to grow and change and spur us to action.

After the 25 tattvas describing the physical world and our being and understanding of the world that correspond in both the classical and Kashmir Shaivist systems, are Kashmir Shaivism’s six kanchukas — cloakings or coverings.  The kanchukas are niyati (limitation of place), kaala (limitation of time), raaga ( attachment), vidya (limitation of knowledge), kalaa (limitation of action), maya (illusion of individuality/manifestation).

From a tantric perspective, experiencing ourselves as thinking, individual beings in the manifest world, constrained by time and space, only binds us if we think that is all we are.  If we get completely entangled in these constraints, then our sense of spirit is cloaked, just as if we get stuck in worrying, instead of using worries as a spur to work for change, we become miserable.

I meditate and practice asana, as taught by my teachers, to reveal the restraints of physical being as only part of my being.  Spiritual practice can serve to enable us to experience freedom of heart and mind, to bathe in the bliss of the essence of ourselves that is universal and unconstrained by the limitations of individual manifestation.  The point of these practices not to escape our individual selves or to gratify them (that would still be “cloaked”), but to find the strength and stability to serve better and to work for a world in which all beings have an equal chance to seek the spirit and experience the bliss of connection.

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Adjusting to the Time Change (and the gunas)

My first reaction to the switch to Daylight Savings Time this early, I admit, was to protest and whine, but still to force myself into the new schedule.  This is a great example of tamas (the protesting and complaining without doing anything productive) and rajas (the forcing myself into the routine) being out of balance.  This resulted in my feeling both sluggish and edgy at times during the day.

By stepping back and observing that the feeling of being out of balance could be related to the time change, as well as the erratic weather, I was beginning to bring the elements back into balance, allowing rajas in the form of mental discrimination to bring me to a place where I could take action.

Last night I practiced seated forward bends andchandra bhedana (alternate nostril breathing, in breath through the left nostril — the moon side — and breathing out the right nostril).  I went to bed at my regular time and slept sweetly.  This morning, it was still hard to get up in the dark, but before meditating, I practiced kapala bhati (skull shining breath) and surya bhedana (alternate nostril breathing, with the in breath through the right nostril — the sun side — and the out breath through the left nostril) in the morning to bring in light and energy.  I now feel energized and light and ready to face a long work day.

By practicing in this way I used rajas, as will, knowledge, and determination, not to force myself to get through the imbalance, but rather to try and balance my energy.  Tamas predominated at bedtime where it was in balance, and the rajas needed to get out of bed with the alarm led me to my seat for pranayama and meditation without forcing.

Better!

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Prakriti, Purusha, and the Three Gunas

After the five mahabhutas (great elements), the five tanmatras (subtle elements), the five karmendriyas (organs of action), and the five jnanendriyas (organs of cognition or sensing), come the three antahkaranas (internal organs).  The antahkaranas are manas (mind), buddhih (intellect/intuition), and ahamkara (ego, sense of self as an individual).  These 23 tattvas describe the objective world and our place in it as manifest physical beings and as beings who sense and think about our place in the physical world.

The next two tattvas are more in the subjective realm:  purusha (nature) and prakriti.  In the classical system, the 23 described above plus purusha and prakriti are the sum of the tattvas.  In that system, prakriti, is interpreted as “spirit.”  It is not the world spirit or the transcendent spirit, but more our individual spirit.  Nature is divided from spirit and all of the objective world and individual spirit are different from “Atman” or “Brahma” what is real.  In Kashmir Shaivism, there are another 11 tattvas — the six kanchukas (cloakings or coverings) and the five suddha tattvas (pure elements) that describe the relationship between the individualized, diverse, perceptible and perceiving realm, and the purely universal.

Purusha (nature) is a name or way of looking at the 23 earlier described tattvas and prakriti describes the sense we have of there being something more that is unifying and universal among all that is manifest, but still from the perspective of our own individual perception.  When we look at nature (purusha) from a more universal perspective, we look at it from how it behaves generally, how it moves, and what moves it, as we look at the laws of nature of physics.  In yoga, nature is described from the perspective of the three gunastamas, rajas, and sattva.

Tamas is dark, dormant, inert, and heavy. Rajas is fiery, energetic, and impassioned.  Sattva is pure, clear, and light.  From a classical perspective, tamas is a state we need to transcend to connect to spirit, rajas is the motivating energy that helps us move past tamas to a sattvic state.  From the tantric perspective that underlies the Anusara principles, we recognize that tamasic qualities are part of nature and we embrace it where it leads us to a place of balance.  At night, for example, it is better to be still and dark for optimal sleep.  In this latititude, gardens need a period of dormancy in winter to thrive.  When we are sick or exhausted, restorative postures may be more healing and balancing than would be power flow or even meditation.  When tamas is out of balance, though, we are sluggish and slothful.  We can be stuck in our ways — ways that are unhealthy for ourselves or the planet.  We then need to cultivate more rajas.  We use fire and passion to transform, to find new ideas, to shift our behavior, to find discipline.  If our bodies are weak or inflexible, rajas helps us activate our practice to build power.  The rains and warmth of spring make the garden grow.  From this perspective, being light and pure based on particular dietary and behavioral strictures is not necessarily the ideal.  Rather being sattvic is being in optimal balance; it is knowing ourselves well enough to know when darkness, earthiness, and stillness or light, activity, and “spiritual” practices best serve ourselves, other beings, and the earth.  Being sattvic is being clear enough in the multi-faceted relationship between the world around us and our own mind, body, and spirit that our sense of spirit in all things and ourselves is unsullied, and illuminated.

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Walking and Shopping in the Neighborhood (and brahmacharya)

Yesterday afternoon when I came home from teaching I wanted to be out for a walk in the neighborhood more than I wanted to be alone in the garden, but I also wanted to be serving the garden.  I combined the two by walking the ten blocks to Gingko Gardens — our wonderful Capitol Hill nursery.  It is a little more expensive than some of the nurseries out in the burbs, but I know the owner and have friends in common, I always bump into neighbors when I am shopping there, and they are experts in what grows and works in our little urban gardens.  I was thrilled when they opened a number of years ago and want them to continue to thrive, so I make a point of shopping there.  I bought some seeds and some planting medium for starting seeds indoors and ordered a few containers and organic potting soil for delivery.

In addition, after having done a bunch of research on rain barrels over the week, I also asked whether Gingko would deliver and install rain barrels from Aqua Barrel, which is located in Gaithersburg.  Answer, “yes.”  (For those of you in the suburbs, Amicus Green also carries and installs them).  It took me a long time to assess what style barrel would work for me and where it should be placed.  I was hoping to support a local manufacturer to cut down on wasteful transportation.  I also know that given my circumstances it is critical that it be installed correctly with a good diverter system.  It is good for me to do the research but then bring in a professional to make sure it is right.  I made an appointment and am looking forward to being able to align a little better with nature (by using rain water run-off instead of scarce, potable water for the garden) and to support the neighborhood (by buying locally and hiring resident professionals).  And I bumped into a fellow yogi and gardener while I was shopping; inspired by the chat, she, too, made an appointment to discuss rain barrel installation.

To me, this is one way of bringing yoga off the mat.  One of the key principles in Patanjali’s yoga sutras is the practice of brahmacharya, which literally means aligning with Brahma.  The classical translation is celibacy.  Many modern translators substitute “moderation.”  This way of living, is of course, moderate.  It is living a western lifestyle on the grid, but choosing to consume in a way that supports friends, neighbors, and manufacturers who use recycled materials to create products that will help us all to be a little kinder to the environment, while nurturing my home and self.

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Knowing Your Garden (and svadyaya)

This will be my 20th season in my garden.  I know that my back garden — where I grow my herbs, flowers, and vegetables —  is easily 4-5 weeks earlier than the gardens of my friends’ in Potomac and Silver Spring and the outer suburbs.  It is even almost that much earlier than my front garden.  I have a brilliantly sunny, south-facing, protected back garden with a brick patio that is against an unpainted brick house and a densely shaded, north-facing front garden.  Not only is the back garden sheltered from the wind by the house on one side and the fence on three sides, but the bricks retain enough heat to change the temperature by a a couple of degrees.  I have a special micro-climate.  My climbing rosebush (pictured in the header) is already in leaf.

What does this mean?  While my friends in the suburbs or those with east/west facing houses are starting seedlings for kale and spinach indoors, I can put seeds into outdoor containers in the next week or two without compunction.  The seedlings I would need to start (if I don’t instead choose to purchase them from the organic farmers at the market) are peppers and tomatoes for planting in mid-April.  If I start with strong 8″-12″ plants in mid to late-April (depending on the 15-day forecast), I can have and have had for at least 10 of the past 20 years, cherry tomatoes in May and peppers in early June.  My greens, obviously, bolt earlier.  I’ve figured out that certain varieties of chard do better in these conditions, and that spinach and lettuce do better sheltered by the fence where they get afternoon shade, so that I can have them farther into the season.

This kind of knowing by combining general book and teaching knowledge with personal observation of my little space, is much like the yoga practice of svadyaya (self-knowledge), which is the fourth niyama of Patanjali’s yoga sutras.  Svadyaya is literally study of the self through the scriptures.  Implicit in that is the guidance of a teacher or guru.  Ultimately, though, self-knowledge or awareness must be experiential.  We make the effort to study and we listen to our teacher, but then we practice.  We soften and open to who we (or our garden) truly are — another way of practicing and experiencing the Anusara principle of opening to grace — and then in the context of the teachings, accept who we are.  As gardeners, that means accepting what zone we are in, how much shade, water, space, and sun we have.  As yogins, it means accepting our strengths and our limitations.  We can shift our zone by treating certain plants as indoor/outdoor or as annuals rather than perennials; we can enhance our water flow by storing it in rain barrels, but that is merely expanding the edge rather than making a complete change.  We can expand the edge of our practice, but still need to accept the bodies with which we were born.

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Pre-Season Gardening (and diksha)

In yoga practice the concept of diksha — initiation or threshold — carries with it a sense of right timing and conscious understanding of readiness for the next level.  For example, knowing I was not yet strong enough, this past weekend I chose not to try to jump from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) to svanasana (headstand), but instead concentrated on doing the poses one at a time, even though I was surrounded by people who could do the transition with ease and my ego was challenged.  Until I am stronger and better able to hold the alignment in poses at that level, I would be too much at risk of hurting my neck and shoulders.

In the garden, it is easy to be fooled by a beautiful weekend to move right to activities that are still 3-4 weeks premature.  Even though it will hit 70F this weekend, it is not time to plant (other than perhaps an experimental row or pot of kale, chard, or beets, which like the cold).  The best gardening you can do in the beginning of March when the weather is swinging wildly from below freezing to unseasonably warm is to read and plan and start seedlings indoors, just like it is best to warm up and work on strength, alignment, and flexibility before going for harder asana in your yoga practice.  It will be tempting to get out this weekend, but do the prep stuff and the clean up.

Here are some favorite books of mine to get ready for planning.  It is mostly more practical stuff (rather than the super glossy, beautiful garden as splendid art and architecture picture book reading) with some food and yoga overlap and a bias for small urban gardens.

The Yoga of Herbs — An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine, D. Frawley and V. Lad (Lotus Press, 2d Ed. 1988)

Gardener Cook, C. Lloyd (Willow Creek Press 1997) (OK — this one is kind of cooking, gardening porn)

The Edible Container Garden — Growing Fresh Food in Small Spaces, M. Guerra (Fireside, 2000)

The Bountiful Container, McGee and Stuckey (Workman Publishing Co., 2002)

Small-Space Gardening — How to Successfully Grow Flowers and Fruits in Containers and Pots, P. Loewer (The Lyons Press, 2003)

Kitchen Herbs — The Art and Enjoyment of Growing Herbs and Cooking with Them, S. Gilbertie (Bantam, 1988)

The New Kitchen Garden, A. Pavord (Dorling Kindersly Ltd., 1996) (Also pretty and glossy, but still practical)

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Home (and sauca)

It was wonderful to visit another city, to enjoy a change in climate and scenery, to see friends, and to study.  I am happy to be home, though, even with the responsibilities and obligations.  That I am always happy to come home from a trip away (even when I have gone to places perhaps more spectacular or interesting than where I live and met people who are able to do things that are outside of my reach) is one of the things that reminds me that my unassuming life suits me well enough.  Part of this delight in coming home is my having for the past decade steadily practiced the principle of sauca or contentment.

I remember having a talk with a friend a number of years ago about practicing sauca.  She expressed surprise that contentment could be a practice.  She said she had always thought that happiness was something that just came to you.  Happiness may come more easily to some than others, just as some are born with physical beauty or material comfort and others are not.  It is my experience, though, assuming our basic needs are met, that by practicing sauca, we will be happier both with what we have chosen and what we have been given.

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Kleshas (and the absence of helicopters)

Last night when we walked out of William Penn House from the Tuesday night yoga class onto East Capitol Street, we could see a convocation of police cars in front of the Capitol — presumably in preparation for the President’s speech.  Karen asked, “where are the helicopters?”  “Maybe, Obama doesn’t need them,” I replied, “maybe he is choosing not to live in fear.”  There weren’t any army or police helicopters all night.  This was the first Presidential speech in eight years where helicopters did not relentlessly drone overhead, calling people to be afraid and to act from a place of fear.

Patanjali’s yoga sutra II.3, says:  avidyha asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesah.  BKS Iyengar translates this sutra as follows:  “The five afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are:  ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of ‘I’, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life.”

The world is far scarier now than it has been for most of the past eight years.  In some ways, though, at least in my neighborhood, it feels less frightening because the signs of being afraid are not being emblazoned everywhere to call all to share in the fear.

We can practice choosing to turn to a place of strength rather than fear on our yoga mats.  When we choose to do the difficult poses that are at our edge that bring up fear and aversion, we can notice the fear and aversion, but not become fully engaged in it.  By using the Anusara principle of opening to grace, we can accept fear and aversion as part of human being, but then soften and open to the full range of being, and not just cling to the fear.  Instead of avoiding the poses or beating ourselves up for being afraid, we can choose to use the yoga principles we know to invite a full experience of the moment and the possible poses.  Remaining open to witnessing the full range of our being through the pose, we next engage muscular energy (strengthening by embracing the muscles to the bone, hugging into our center [midline], and drawing from the periphery into our core).  Having found our strength, we expand more fully (expanding/inner spiral).  We then have space to draw more deeply into our core power (contracting/outer spiral).  With this balance of embrace and expansion of ourselves, we then can fully embody strength by reaching outward (organic energy) and making offering.  This pulsation of principles in poses has led me to discover physical and energetic abilities in my middle age I had not dreamed possible.

Off the mat, the same principles can lead us to move from love and strength instead of fear and clinging.  As I got into bed with the peace of the night uninterrupted, I pondered how these principles can manifest and gave a profound thanks to whomever decided the harbingers of fear — the helicopters — were unnecessary.

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