Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

Sunshine?

I was talking to my Dad earlier today.  My parents live on Long Island, where they are in the middle of getting three to six inches of snow.  He said that the weather forecasters indicated that they were just missing having a blizzard, and he was grateful they were not.  For the same reason Long Island is not getting a blizzard, we are seeing sun instead of a couple of inches of snow.  We actually needed the snow.  Last week’s ice was the first precipitation in almost three weeks, and now, once again, a storm has shifted away from us.  It is good to see the sun, but it would be better for the trees to get some rain or snow.

We get what we get and then we have to choose whether to be happy or sad about it.  I am happy not to be shoveling.  And the chard is starting to come back.  Next week, with highs forecast in the 40s and 50s, I’ll be harvesting again.

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Perception and Illusion (maya)

I have been thinking about perception and how as soon as we have more than one person looking at the same thing, each person has a different story, a different truth, a different explanation.  Add to that the mysterious systems humans have created:  information technology, cyberspace, monetary system.  All of these are energy fields.  We can only perceive small pieces of them, and we have varying degrees of skepticism about the reality of what we get from them.  It is not a hard leap from that to understand what the yogis are saying when they say what we receive through the senses is illusory (maya).

We read news articles about the fact that Yo-Yo Ma was not playing at the Inauguration, but just moving his hands over the instrument to a recorded tape.  Why would I believe the news stories more than I would believe what was on the “jumbo-trons” — or if I had been one of the few close in, what I’d thought I’d seen and heard?  Why would I be more likely to believe the Inauguration of President Obama if I saw it on TV than I would the story line of a movie?  How is it that we distinguish between news and fiction, our side of the story v. the other person’s side?

When we emphasize the “reality” of our own perception, we bring ourselves to schisms, disputes, and hurt feelings.  When we let ourselves be skeptical about our own perceptions and know that they are only one aspect of a unity (like the blind men and the elephant), then we can be softer, more open, and less divisive.  I am working on this; it is a challenging aspect of my yoga practice.  What do you think?

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Prithvi (the earth element) and Muscular Energy

The first of the mahabhutas is prithvi or earth.  When I think of the earth element, I think of stability, grounding, earthiness, nurture.  My experience is that I can more deeply connect to this element in ourselves by emphasizing what John Friend has termed “muscular energy” in my yoga practice.

As with all practices from an Anusara perspective, I try to start with the principle of “opening to grace.”  In this context, opening to grace can mean being sensitive to our earthiness and how it manifests energetically in us.  I have found that it can lead to my foundation and connection to the earth and invite a soft weightiness.

Muscular energy has three essential physical/energetic actions:  (1) hugging all of the muscles to the bone; (2) drawing to the midline (our central energetic channel); and (3) drawing energy from the periphery to the focal point of the pose.  See J. Friend, Anusara Teacher Training Manual (Anusara Press, The Woodlands, TX).  These three actions combined help stabilize us; they nurture by inviting us to give ourselves an unceasing self-embrace initiated from our opening to the good in the energies around us (like the loving hug of an “earth mother”); and they bring our focus from the physical extremities to our core, thus reminding us to bring our physical body to the support of the energetic body and spirit.

When I am feeling ungrounded, unsettled, or needing a little love, I remind myself to emphasize muscular energy and open to and invite in the light-filled energy all around me.

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Wintry Mix

As I write, big fat flakes of snow are falling against a pale gray sky that is struggling to turn to daylight.  It is too early to know how much of the storm will be snow or freezing rain or just plain rain, though all are both possible and probable.  If there is mostly snow or mostly rain, some of those I know will be sure to say the weather forecast is never right.  My experience is that the weather forecasters are usually quite accurate about pointing out the probabilities and then sometimes the probabilities at the far end of the spectrum are the ones that happen, which makes the forecast apparently off the mark.

I am always entranced with the anticipation of a storm.  It only takes the slightest shift in temperature in the atmosphere or a move of a degree or two of the pressure system for there to be a dramatic change in the outcome — a day of rain or a half an inch of ice or several inches of snow.  I think all relationships — to places, jobs, people, illnesses, our meditation practices are like that.  Just the subtlest shifts in atmosphere and attitude and the whole thing can seem completely different.  What I continue to work on is to open to the best path that results from the combination of factors.  If because of a less than optimal shift, there is an ice storm with power outages and downed wires and trees, then I try to learn why it happened, see the beauty, and try to shift in a better way.  It is hard, and I do not always succeed, but I continue to make the effort.

I remember my first big icestorm.  I was in high school and at a big party a few miles from my parents house.  We were teenagers and mostly oblivious.  We just thought it was raining and continued partying.  At some point, we realized that everything was coated with ice, and then we needed to start calling on help to get home.  It was disappointing to have the party end prematurely, but very exciting to have the wild and unusual weather.  And the next morning, when the temperature dropped and the sun came out, the whole world glittered.

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Baksheesh and Brahman

I spent a few hours this weekend reading Joseph Campbell’s  Baksheesh and Brahman, which is Campbell’s journals from a year in India from 1954-55 (I’m now about a third of the way through).  Campbell writes that he went to India to find Brahman and instead found politics.  He approached his visit from the perspective of a mythologist.  In contrast to Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who went to India to find God, Joseph Campbell went to observe religious practices.  Although the journals evidence his own perspective and prejudices, he makes cogent observations on the difference between religiosity and spirituality (not all that dissimilar to the distinctions made in the Bhagavad Gita about the difference between rigidly practicing ritual and truly believing).  He also makes very interesting and still timely and cogent comparisons between the relationship of Hinduism and to the then rather new Indian nationalism and American Protestantism to democracy.

Ultimately, though, it is evident that this year was important for Campbell’s life path and work, as it was for the Beats, and has been for many of my friends who have gone, though not for all.  I think about going to India.  It will be when I have several weeks and don’t have a venerable and ancient cat who cannot be left behind for a long stretch of time.  In the meantime, reading of such journeys can stimulate thought and can be applied to other aspects of my life, though reading and studying (especially in the yoga tradition), is never a substitute for experience.  Just reading of spiritual experiences, but not doing the practices to open the door to one’s own experience is like reading cooking or gardening books, but never going into the kitchen or the garden.


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Mahabhutas (the great elements)

The mahabhutas are the grossest, most physical of the 36 tattvas described in Kashmir Shaivism.  They are:  prithivi — earth or solidity; ap (or jala) — water or liquidity,  agni (or tejas) — fire or formativity; vayu — air;  akasha — space.  When we practice asana, we can focus our practice on discovering one of the elements in our bodies and how we move.  As we get more skillful, we can choose which element seems out of balance and emphasize one or the other to bring ourselves more into balance.  This week, for example, I have noticed that my mind has been scattered and distracted because of all of the excitement of the Inauguration.  After being blown about by the cold and the wind and all the excitement, I had gotten to airy (which is my tendency anyway).  It is a good time, therefore, to explore prithivi (earth) in my practice.  By emphasizing a strong foundation coupled with the Anusara principle of muscular energy, I can literally bring myself to a more solid, stable, and grounded state.

We can work with the tattvas as described above, to realign our energies so that our physical and mental state is more balanced.  We can also explore the more concrete tattvas as we embody them to understand better how they are manifestations of the subtler tattvas — the tattvas that the great yogis who have described them would call more real and we dwelling in our bodies and minds might think of as observably less real.  Where we can best appreciate and experience the relationship between the gross and the subtle elements is in meditation, and our asana practice can help lead us there.

Look forward this week to working with the earth element in your bodies and minds, practicing strong standing poses and shaping your physical and energetic bodies like clay.  Use your earth nature to sculpt the art of your intention.

For suggested readings see my earlier post on the tattvas.

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A Personal God (Ishta Devata)

My earliest exposure to eastern mysticism was through Salinger and the Beats, which I read avidly in high school and even junior high.   The Beats were hipper and smarter than I could ever hope to be (and they weren’t so good to the women, but that’s another avenue to discuss and explore), but I could check out the Beats call to the east.  One of the reasons I found the Beats use of the eastern imagery so compelling, was that I wasn’t expected to believe, I was just expected to understand how the imagery could open me up to new experiences and understandings of the deeper self and how it fits into the web of being.

I just finished reading Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand, The Beats in India, which is an unsentimental, not particularly flattering, but most interesting account of the Beats and their time spent in India and how it influenced their work.  This particular passage resonated with one of the issues that I wrestle with as study yoga and its underpinning philosophy and its relationship to my personal experience of “spirit”:   “Mr. Jain explained to Allen [Ginsberg] that all gods are unreal, but most Hindus choose one and use the image of that god (either a picture or a statue) to focus on during prayers, to quiet the mind and soak the heart in the gentle vibes it radiated.  Or, after taking your measure, your guru might assign you a god.  Apparently, there was a personal god for everyone, Allen [Ginsberg] reported to Jack [Keroac], tailored to your temperament, desires, or inclinations.”

Have you found that the characteristics or image presented by one of the pantheon resonates more deeply with you than the others?

Other interesting books about the Beats experiences in India:  Indian Journals, Allen Ginsberg, Passage Through India, Gary Snyder

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“This confused war”

My dear friend from college, Dan Harper, just posted the following on his website.  I feel fortunate to have a friend who inspires me to me more learned and more concerned.

Martin Luther King would have been 80 today. On February 25, 1967, not long before he was killed, he spoke about the Vietnam War and its effects on our country. The following excerpt from that speech could easily be delivered today, with just a few minor changes:

“This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies.

“Despite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of the Great Society [anti-poverty program] have been shot down on the battlefield of Viet Nam. The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed domestic welfare programs, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home.

“While the anti-poverty program is cautiously initiated, zealously supervised and evaluated for immediate results, billions are liberally expended for this ill-considered war. The recently revealed mis-estimate of the war budget amounts to ten billions of dollars for a single year. This error alone is more than five times the amount committed to anti-poverty programs. The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Viet Nam explode at home: they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.

“If we reversed investments and gave the armed forces the antipoverty budget, the generals could be forgiven if they walked off the battlefield in disgust.

“Poverty, urban problems and social progress generally are ignored when the guns of war become a national obsession. When it is not our security that is at stake, but questionable and vague commitments to reactionary regimes, values disintegrate into foolish and adolescent slogans.”

Full text of the speech on Stanford’s Web site. Crossposted on PaxPac.

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Hot Water Bottles and Wristwarmers

One of my father’s joke bits of wisdom is “everything in moderation, including moderation.”  When I first studied philosophy academically, I was very much taken with Aristotle’s concept of the “golden mean,” which (this is a gross oversimplification) advocates living in moderation as a way of right living.  Pantanjali in the niyamas in his Yoga Sutras invites the yogin to balance effort (tapas) and surrender  (ishvara pranadhana) in our practice.  The Bhagavad Gita suggests that extreme austerities are just as indulgent as wildly excessive consumption of food, sleep, and comforts.

What does that mean in our modern, middle class lives in a time when we are being confronted head-on with the impact on the earth and our fellow beings of the way we, as a society, have been consuming?

In part, I think it is mindfulness.  It is not denial, but balance — choosing ways to consume less, but still not feel deprived.  I am fortunate in that much of what we are learning now about both lifestyle and impact (the stuff under the “green living” umbrella) is not new to me.  My parents were children of the Depression and my father had a modest income. I went to Quaker youth camp in upstate New York in the 1970s, and I did volunteer work for the first Earth Day when I was in college.  We turned the lights off when we weren’t in the room, we turned off the faucets when we were brushing our teeth, or lathering our hair in the shower.  We creatively changed what we cooked out of Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Virginia Lee, or Diana Kennedy or the New York Times Food Section with what we learned from Diet for a Small Planet.  We wore warmer clothing inside to be able to keep the heat down.  It is important for me to try to live mindfully, but I also very much like to be warm and comfortable, love the feel of beautiful fabrics, and one of my greatest pleasures is eating well.

I have a number of reasons I like to keep the heat down in the winter:  it feels better on my sinuses because the air is not as dry and I do not like to have to run a humidifier (yet another electrical appliance); it costs a lot of money to keep an old row house at even 65F in the cold months; and I am concerned about my carbon footprint.  I can get really cold when I am working at my desk or getting ready for bed.  I don’t like being cold, and it seems silly to insist on being miserably uncomfortable just so I can feel better from the perspective of some perceived moral ground.  So I try to create a balance.

Hot water bottles and wrist warmers are part of the balance.  Two hot water bottles taken to bed (and then I use the water on the plants the next morning) makes going to bed toasty and delightful, but not too hot in the middle of the night.  If I am working at home and it is midday, I can warm myself up with a two-minute handstand or a few sun salutes or some abs work or other arm balances. That’s not an option if I am on a conference call or at the office.  Nor does it make sense after dinner when it is time to get energetically quiet.  The wrist warmers, though, make an amazing difference (I also enjoy wearing them when I start practicing until I warm up as another layer that easily can come on or off.  I kind of like the way I look and enjoyed all the complements I got when I was meandering around New York over the holidays.  They are a great way to use scrap yarn (especially if you don’t have the time, yarn, or inclination for a larger project — see my post on “Sauca (and the blanket).”

If you want to make your own wrist warmers and you are a fantastic knitter, you can go for four double-pointed needles, multiple colors, and add a thumb section.  For those of you who are newer to knitting or who want wrist warmers very quickly, here’s all it takes to make the one’s shown above.

1.  Two needles of appropriate gauge and less than a skein of yarn.

2.  Measure loosely around your knuckles.  That’s the right width for your wrist warmer (notice that the girth of your knuckles and your forearm a couple of inches below the elbow are about the same).  Then knit about a two-inch square to make sure you know how many stitches you get per inch horizontally.  When you have your gauge correct, unravel your test square to use that yarn in your wrist warmers.  I recommend rechecking the gauge about an inch or two into your first wrist warmer to make sure you were right.  It is easier to start over at that stage than to try and fix it later or have to give them away to someone larger or smaller (unless you want to).

3.  Cast on the correct number of stitches for how many stitches per inch you get with your yarn and needles and the width you measured around your knuckles.  It is OK to round to the nearest half inch.  First two rows are simple rib — k1, p1.  Then do basic plain knitting (k first row, p return row) until the first wrist warmer is about 6-8 inches long and reaches almost the desired length up your lower arm.  Then do 6-8 rows of moss stitch (row 1 — k1, p1, row 2, p1, k1) [or you could just do more ribbing].  Cast off.  Measure second wrist warmer against the second.  Turned inside-out, using the knitting yarn, sew into a tube, leaving a whole for the thumb a the end with just the double row of ribbing.  The sewn part at the knuckle end should be about 2/3 to 3/4 inches, then there should be about a 1 1/2 to 2 inch whole (just hold it up on your hand to make sure it fits).

4.  They will stretch out as you wear them, but if they are a little too wide or tight, you can wet them and then make them either longer and thinner or shorter and wider by blocking.

4.  Bored with the colors you have at home?  It’s pretty easy to swap with a fellow knitter.

5.  Want to be just a little fancier?  Do stripes by alternating colors when you change rows.  Want to practice cables.  Do one center cable, just remember that it won’t be in the center if you want it to go on the top of your hand; it will start a quarter of the way in.

6.  New to knitting?  Go into any yarn store, tell them that this is your project, and they’ll tell you a good yarn, what needles you need, and show you how to cast on, knit and pearl.  There are farmers at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market on Sunday who have beautiful homespun, hand-dyed yarns.  They might not show you how to knit, but they include patterns for hats.

7.  Have fun.  Be creative.  Be part of a fashion wave.  Stay warm.

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Akasha (space)

When we can connect to the essence of the element of akasha, space, within ourselves, we feel less crowded by things pressing in on the outside, whether it be actual confinement or overcrowdedness or the sense of crowding from having too many pressing things to do.  For those of us who live in the District of Columbia, this weekend, with the extra million or two or three people in our neighborhoods and using our transportation systems is a great opportunity to discover the spaciousness within.

Practice dwelling in a supremely spacious place in your heart when you meditate this week.  Start by visualizing a vast space just beyond your third eye (the point between the eye brows).  Once you can visualize that space, the chidakasha, draw the space into your heart and rest there.  Then, when you go out onto to the Mall or onto the metro or onto crowded streets, bring enough of your consciousness into the vast inner space that you can feel comfortable with the crowding outside.  When dwelling in the inner and outer at the same time, it will be easier to marvel at the outside crowds.

For those of you who are extroverts who get exhilarated by crowds, of course, this practice would seem less critical.  I invite you to give it a try anyway.

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