Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

Snowdrops and Crocuses (and Spanda)

Snowdrops have been showing up for more than a week, but crocuses?  They seem a little incongruous with the bitter winds and as much a reminder of global warming as of spring.  I feel a bit confused seeing them, though delighted.

It has been a good winter.  I have learned to appreciate the cold and dark, which gives us time to enjoy the pleasures of home and introspection.  Now, I am looking forward to spring, the effusive colors, the warmth, the ability to get back out into the garden.

This time of year, with the radical contrasts of cold winds and flowers does highlight the play of opposites, the very pulsation of existence — in yoga terms, the spanda.  This time in society seems to have a similar play of bitterness and sweetness.  Staying steady with our yoga practice and our community, we can delight in what we see and what we have, even as we may be worried and working for change.  That too, is part of the play (lila).  To invite in a steady warmth and support from our practice and our community, even as we see difficulties and challenges, want things to be different, and know that our work may not necessarily bring about the change we seek.

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To do list? (Yoga citta vrtti nirodaha)

Twitter?  What would be

The point without an I-phone?

Buy one? Save the nation?

Last night I wrote this “twaiku” (why is it not a “twittiku?”) after having read yet another series of articles on why or why not to Twitter and still more articles on why it is important for a nation of consumers to keep consuming even if that is what got them into trouble in the first place.  One of the articles was lamenting the loss of true communication that comes with being limited to 140 characters, and it set forth some examples of how peculiar, when taken out of context, some twittering can sound, especially to the uninitiated.  In my attempt to keep an open mind about devaluing language while still communicating in language, I was led to think about haikus v. sonnets and other longer poetic forms.   A haiku easily fits into 140 characters.  This led me to wonder whether anyone had created a haiku trend on Twitter?  A quick Google search revealed that I am way behind the times in terms of the twaiku?

One of the articles suggested that Twittering is about being in the moment.  Contrarians say it fosters attention deficit disorder and a host of other language-loss ills.  This led me to think of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali “yoga citta vrtti nirodaha” (yoga is stilling/aligning with the thoughwaves of the mind).  When evaluating what to consume, when to consume, and how to consume (whether it is language and communication methods or electronic goods or anything else), if we are serious about taking yoga off the mat, it is good to think about whether our consumption eases the trials of being embodied or makes daily living more agitating, and whether our consumption brings us more into alignment with nature/spirit (brahmacharya) or turns us away.

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Ether (the Mahabhuta akasha)

Ether (akasha) is the fifth of the mahabhutas.  In science and perception, it is the space between the other elements, it is that in which the other elements reside.  It is to some degree, the critical element of how we are able to perceive the other elements.  I find focusing on the Anusara alignment principle of “open to grace” is the best way to experience the element of ether in myself.  By softening, opening, and inviting spaciousness, I can better experience the subtle elements and appreciate how it is that I experience them.

The subtle elements or the panca tanmattras are smell (gandha), taste (rasa), form (rupa), touch (sparsa), and sound (sabda).  The subtle elements are not what we sense (which is composed of the mahabhutas) nor are the tanmattras our sense organs.  Rather the tanmattras are, as it were, the space in which perceptions arise, the ability to be perceived.

The next sets of elements are the panca karmendriyas, the organs of locomotion, which correspond to how we physically move, digest, and change in the physical world, and the panca jnanendriyas, the organs of perception or cognition, which correspond to our sense organs themselves.  Our movement in and perception of the world bridges the physical elements, the perceptability of the physical world, and ourselves as physical beings, beings who move in the physical world, and beings who perceive the physical world.  All of this, I think of as needing space or residing in space.  As I consciously think of space giving a place for the world, my movement in it, and my perception of it, I become more conscious of consciousness.  The physical practice of “opening to grace” and experiencing the element akasha makes possible for me in my practice knowing or experiencing a greater consciousness.

To start discovering your own understanding of akasha, try this meditation:  listen to the sounds beyond the room without trying to analyze or change them.  Appreciate how far in space your senses and consciousness can be.  Then bring your attention into the room and hear the sounds in the room.  Then open your ears to the sounds within you — your heart beat, your breath.  Then open to all the sounds (don’t try to change or analyze them), both those physically far away and those within your own body, and be aware of them as all residing within your own consciousness.  Appreciate that your consciousness is as spacious as the world around you and within you.  Rest in the space of consciousness.

See whether spending a few minutes using this meditation technique helps you when your day has gotten too busy with work, errands, family or other demands.  I find it very helpful.

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Ardha, Kama, Dharma, Moksha

Friday, when I was traveling through New York City on my way home from a business trip, I detoured to the Metropolitan to see the Walker Evans’ postcards and the Bonnard, Late Interiors.  The curator chose this quote to inform the viewing of the paintings:  “Material concerns and worries about the future are troubling me a lot, and I’m afraid that painting may abandon me because of a lack of mental freedom.”  Pierre Bonnard to Henri Matisse, September 1940.

The quote made me think of the yoga principles of ardha, kama, dharma, moksha. In classical yoga, in order to reach liberation (moksha), we need to have our material life — how we eat, consume, dwell, etc. (ardha), our love and relationships (kama), and our work/life path (dharma), in right order.  From a tantric perspective, when ardha, kama, and dharma are aligned so that mind, body, and spirit are united in our day to day being, then we are living liberated — jivan mukti (moksha).

In 1940, the Nazis were growing in power and World War II was impending.  Bonnard had lost his love, Marthe, was ill and aging, and was in some financial difficulty.  He was afraid of losing his vision, his creativity (dare I interpret “painting may abandon me” as “loss of connection to spirit”) because ardha and kama were out of alignment.  The late paintings carry a sense of yearning of spirit — perhaps because of the consciousness that struggling physically and emotionally challenges our ability to truly see, to feel connected to spirit.  The paintings are lovely with color and light.  The subject matter makes them accessible at a surface level.  Shadowy figures and ambiguities, though, give a sense of longing and seeking.  Although there is a certain basic prettiness because of the color and the subject matter, they are not comfort paintings.  They invite one to think about whether color is enough, whether home is enough, what we need to be in a place where we can rest at one with ourselves.

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Take a Moment (and be in it)

On unexpectedly beautiful days like yesterday, I make sure that I get out during the workday.  I’ll ask a co-worker, “did you go out?”  Often the response is, “I couldn’t go out; if I went out, I wouldn’t have wanted to come back in.”  This is not an uncommon response.  I so treasure the spaces of delight in the midst of any day, that it is hard for me to appreciate that response on an emotional or visceral level.

But what my co-worker is saying is that she will get so caught up in longing (pain) that pleasure for a short time is not worth the pain.  Thinking about it in that way, I understand.  Patanjali cautions us not to get caught up in the “pairs of opposites,” pleasure and pain.  Both the longing for pleasure and the avoidance of pain take us out of the moment and make it hard for us to connect to the essence of being.  If we are always yearning and avoiding, we cannot rest in the bliss of being.

When we take a walk outside, or stop to eat a nourishing lunch, or pause for five minutes to meditate during the work day, it will only have fleeting benefits if we do it just for the pleasure.  If we can consciously bring ourselves into the moment and simply rest in our own being, then it will help us just be (in the state which is free from pleasure and pain/longing and avoidance) while we are in the whirlwind of activity and challenges of our day.

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Sthira-Cara (of the stationary and moving living beings)

A number of years ago, I attended a week-long workshop with Rod Stryker.  He invited us to meditate on absolute stillness — cara sthira — meditation.  Sitting comfortably, still the skin, the muscles, the bones.  Draw the attention to stillness.  The breath and heart will still move, but the concentration is on stillness rather than on any movement.  Rod Stryker discussed the next day the challenges of this meditation, especially for those who are intellectual, who enjoy being active in the mind.  I found it difficult at the time and even dreamed about the issues the meditation brought up for me.  Meditating on stillness can be very challenging in a way that meditating on a mantra or the breath would not necessarily be.

I believe the origin of the meditation comes from the principle of sthira being  the absolute unmovable, the essence of being (not dissimilar to Kant’s unmoved mover).  We invoke pure stillness, pure potential out of which movement comes because that is part of our essence and a place where we can rest our spirit.  See, for example, the Srimadbhagavatam.

I discovered absolute joy in this meditation a couple of years after I learned it.  I was suffering from a severe sinus infection and bronchitis simultaneously; I joked that I was fine as long as I didn’t breath through either my mouth or my nose.  In the midst of my suffering, I remembered the teaching.  For a few days I stayed in the meditation for hours at a time.  I found the place where I did not really need the breath.  Enough came to survive, but I forgot about wondering how to breath or finding a place for it or my struggles with it.  In the stillness, there was space and peace and supreme bliss.  Ever since then, I have chosen this form of meditation when I have a cold, a sinus infection, or other challenges with breathing.  Meditating on the breath, obviously, will not be soothing when breathing is a struggle.  But when even breathing is a struggle, peace can be found in complete stillness.

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Intention

When I came out of my afternoon asana practice and meditation, I picked up the John Friend Teacher Training Manual to look up one of my favorite passages.  In describing the “attitude” that brings us to our deepest practice, John Friend writes that there are two reasons to practice yoga:  “1.  Co-create in the art of life.  2.  Realize and awaken to our divine nature.”  John Friend, Anusara Yoga Teacher Training Manual (9th Ed., Anusara Press 2006).  He explains that sometimes we come to our mat because we are happy and we want to celebrate.  Other times, we are sad or confused and we want to remember our essentially divine, blissful nature.  This particular teaching has continues to resonate for me.  I find great comfort in it because it recognizes that we do forget; we will not always act perfectly.  All life, though, is part of our practice, and we can keep trying to co-create and remember the light in all beings in our daily lifes just as we keep can coming to the mat.

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Agni (the fire element)

Agni or fire is the third of the mahabhutas. Fire does not just give us warmth and light.  It also transforms.  Just think of what happens to the humble ingredients of flour, water, yeast, and salt when they are baked. When working with agni in our asana practice, using the Anusara principles of alignment, I have drawn on the intersection of pelvic loop and kidney loop (which together create the action of uddiyana bandha, using these principles as I understand them to activate and strengthen my core.

One of the niyamas of Patanjali’s eight-fold path is tapas, which means heat or austerity.  We are exhorted to bring fire or fervor to our practice to experience bliss, to know true consciousness.

Fire without balance, without a sense of detachment or surrender, though, will burn us up.  We must be careful how we work with agni as the element.

Note:  Agni is also the name of the god of fire.  Not only do we need to be careful how we draw on the fire element — this town’s culture places perhaps too much value on “fire in the belly,” but we should be wary of how we invoke the gods:  India’s nuclear missile program is named “Agni.” Of that invocation of the gods and of fire, I am afraid.

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Jala or Ap (the water element)

For the past week, I have been meditating on, practicing with, and teaching the water element in classes.  Our health and the health of the planet depend on the water element being balanced.  When our water element is in balance, we are fluid, open, well-nourished, malleable, and life-supporting.  Too much or too little water is immediately a problem.  Dehydration and drought wither life; flooding overwhelms.

Yesterday, I developed the symptoms of a rather watery head cold that is going around.  Did it come from invoking the water element?  Doubtful; probably just a virus.  I treat the watery symptoms of not merely with more water (as in plenty of liquids), but more truly with fire:  hot soup, hot tea, steam to clear the head, a hot water bottle under the covers.  The heat balances the excess of water and the missing fire that comes from a cold in winter.

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Yoga of Housekeeping

Last week Orie suggested that as I have a “Yoga for Gardeners” workshop, I should also do a “Yoga of Housekeeping” workshop.  A blog post isn’t a workshop, but here are a few preliminary thoughts on yoga and housekeeping.

From an alignment perspective, I have found that the Anusara principles of alignment make safe everything I do off the mat, as well as on.  Overwhelmed by all that needs to be done? Doing heavy lifting?  Bending and stooping?  Reaching for something way up high?

First, soften (open to grace).  Appreciate that you have a home and things to clean.  Honor each item in the house.  Things have energy, too., and they like to be touched and cleaned.  If you have anything that you do not appreciate or does not fit in the house, give it a new life in a new home (freecycledc is a great way to pass things forward).

Use muscular energy, drawing the muscles to the bone, hugging into the mid-line, and drawing energy into the focal point (for most housecleaning activities, this will be the pelvis).  Using muscle energy will definitely help to keep you from tweaking a muscle or straining the low back or shoulders. When you are reaching, keep the arm bones integrated by hugging the shoulder blades onto the back and then reach from the waist, though each rib to extend the length of your torso (organic energy).

Especially for bending and lifting, after you bend your knees, hug your shins in (muscular energy), take your inner thighs back and apart (inner spiral) and then tuck your tailbone (outer spiral).  If you just bend from the knees but hunch your back, your low back will still be vulnerable.

Switch sides for activities like sweeping, vaccuuming, and scrubbing.  Yes, it can be difficult and awkward, but it’s worth it to shift sides.  Imagine doing all of your yoga practice only on one side.  How much imbalance would you be encouraging?

The first niyama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is sauca, which means cleanliness or purity.  It is easier to think and live and be hospitable in a clean home.

The first yama is ahimsa, or non-harming.  Do your best to use safe, biodegradable cleaning products.  Your skin and respiratory system will be grateful.  So will the earth.  Try to make cleaning your own space and act of honoring your self, your home, and the greater home of the earth.

Fully absorb yourself in the task of cleaning.  Make it a meditation.  Integrate fully the act of cleaning, the item being cleaned, and you as the cleaner.

Finally, be playful.

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