Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

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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Hard Freeze Forecast (Heyam Dukham Anagatam)

My favorite sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s is, II.16, “heyam dukham anagatam.”  This translates roughly as “the pain that is yet to come can be avoided.”  What does this have to do with a forecast of a hard freeze?

My chard, beets, and turnip greens are still flourishing.  They can manage with a night or two in a row in the high 20sF, and that is all we have had so far.  The forecast for later in the week, though, is for the first true cold snap since 1994 (you may remember that as the year when lots of people’s pipes froze).  My winter garden (which does not have a cold frame due to lack of space — maybe I’ll get more creative next year, and I’ll try an experiement with plastic bags on Thursday night) cannot survive lows in the low teens highs in the twenties.

I could suffer today by bemoaning the coming cold, worrying about the garden, and remembering that I don’t like cold.  That would be present suffering in anticipation of potential future suffering.  I certainly can avoid that.  I can also do what I did yesterday, which was harvest lots of the chard and most of the beets, put the beets into cold storage (vegetable bin in the refrigerator) and make pasta with sauteed garlic and chard.  Between now and Wednesday night, I’ll harvest most of the remaining greens.  I’ll make a big vegetable soup with the beets and the chard, maybe make chard pie or calzones (truly delicious), and eat the rest over the following days.  I’ll feel grateful that in the bitter cold, I can be eating fresh garden greens.  I’ll be even more grateful that I can just shop at the grocery store or the farmers’ market and don’t need to rely on my garden feeding me year round.  I’ll also be happy for the hard frost.  Part of the reason the aphids and the mosquitoes have been so bad is the absence of a hard frost in winter.

Some bitter cold in winter in a temperate zone is inevitable, as are sickness and death.  We can avoid suffering by not just getting anxious and unhappy and suffering in the present, but not taking action to alleviate potential suffering.  With preparation and practice, we can avoid some suffering.  Just has preparing for winter in the garden can allow it to be productive for greater parts of the year, so too, with a steady practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation we can avoid some physical and emotional pain and suffering.  Most important, with steady preparation (preparing for the potential for difficulties in the future is not the same as being anxious about it), when the inevitable comes, we will likely suffer less, at least in our hearts, if not in our bodies.

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Winter Reading on the Tattvas (the elements)

I am returning to a contemplation of teachings about the tattvas (the 36 elements in Kashir Shaivism; in Vedanta only 25).  Each time I go back to study, practice, and contemplate the tattvas, a new understanding arises about how I am in the world and how I might want to shift my alignment to be better able to serve, for want of a better word, the good.  The tattvas provide a way of understanding the structure of consciousness [Consciousness], from the most metaphysical, universal elements to the most diverse, individual, physical elements and the relationship between the two.  Practicing asana with the Anusara principles of alignment at the same time as reading these teachings has, for me, helped bridge the space between the intuitive and concrete understandings of being in the world.  The point of trying to understand these extraordinary philosophical ideas is not for the sake of acquiring academic learning, but rather is an invitation to use the joyous experience of wrestling intellectually, intuitively, and physically to illuminate understanding, as a way to dwell more consistently in the heart.

Reading Sources:

Kashmir Shaivism, The Secret Supreme, Swami Lakshmanjoo, ed. John Huges, Universal Shaiva Fellowship (2003)

Kashmir Shaivism, J.C. Chatterji (SUNY Press, 1986)

The Triadic Heart of Siva, Paul Eduardo Muller-Ortega (SUNY Press 1989)

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Perihelion

Yesterday was this year’s perihelion — the day of the year the earth is closest to the sun in the earth’s annual orbit around the sun.  I find in interesting that the perihelion is at the coldest and darkest time of year.  The relative proximity of the earth to the sun is of far less import for warmth and light than the tilt of earth away from the sun.  So, too, with matters of the spirit.  It does not matter how close we are to sources of illumination and learning, if we turn away from them.  When we turn towards the light, even if the sources of light are farther from our reach, (the aphelion is in July, our hottest month), we are more likely to become illuminated.

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Krishnamurti’s Daily Thought

Three or four weeks ago, I came out of my morning meditation thinking about the teachings of Krishnamurti.  (I read a lot of Krishnamurti when I was in high school, so his teachings have influenced me with varying degrees of subtlety).  Two or three days later, I was “spammed” with Krishnamurti’s Daily Thought.  Someone, apparently somewhere in Europe, somehow got access to an email list to which I subscribe.  As I had just been thinking about Krishnamurti, though, instead of hitting “unsubscribe,” I read the thought for the day.  I’ve been reading it since, and I am exploring how much my readings in high school have been part of my foundational thinking.

When I was volunteering at the Lantern yesterday, one of the other volunteers called and reminded me that there were books put aside for me.  It is not my habit to put books aside, and I had no recollection of so doing, so I was curious to discover the books were there.  One of the two books was a slightly water damaged paperback of Krishnamurti On Right Livelihood.  The universal energies are obviously suggesting I examine this early influence.  I am contemplating what the following question means for me in today’s current context of multiple wars, a deep recession, and burgeoning environmental degradation:

Is it not necessary for each one to know for himself what is the right means of livelihood?  If we are avaricious, envious, seeking power, then our means of livelihood will correspond to our inward demands and so produce a world of competition, ruthlessness, oppression, ultimately ending in war. Krishnamurti, Ojai, July 1944

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Sauca (and the blanket)

There are lots of ways to clean out a closet.  Partly, it depends on what is in the closet.   Per my earlier post about freecycle, I think that part of the practice of sauca or cleanliness, is making sure that the hidden parts of our homes are not overfilled with stuff we do not use.  Cleaning out the closet, does not mean throwing everything out.  It can mean creatively rethinking where things should be and how we should use them.  It also means for every artist, cook, crafts person, periodically making use of all those things you picked up or saved because they would be of use in something.

I was raised to save things that possibly could be used later, and to try and make every scrap usable.  I was taught this because my father was born in 1929 and my mother in 1936 of Jewish peasant immigrants.  Now, we are re-learning how to maximize the use of objects and minimize waste for ecological, rather than financial reasons, though the two are inextricably intertwined.  As the recession progresses, it will be interesting to see whether financial constriction will foster more environmentally conscious living.

About four years ago, when I was engaged in a periodic review of what was in the hall closet, I came upon my big box of leftover yarn.  In the late eighties and early nineties, I traveled extensively for business, and spent many hours in airports and evenings in hotels.  I found it comforting to have a lapful of mohair, homespun, or other delicious to touch yarn.  Airport security was less invasive, and it was possible to knit in the airport and take knitting needles on board the airplane.    As I love working with multiple colors, that resulted in a leftover skeins from each project.  Over a 10-15 year period, even with only a couple of aborted projects and no yarn bought for imagined future projects (unlike a really serious knitter), I ended up with enough yarn for a queen-sized blanket (shocking, really).  As you can see, I designed it like a crazy quilt.  It took an educated sense of color and line — imagine this as a painting or pastel and you can see the influence of the Washington Color School, but it did not require much in the way of knitting skills (the whole blanket knit in panels of “mistake rib” — (k2, p2), end k2, p1 — about 50,000 times).  The patch of fire engine red and the grape juice purple next to it, came from my friend Sara, who is a fabulously talented knitter.  I felt the need for those colors, so we swapped for some of the teal and green that I had.

The blanket took almost four years to knit because I only did it in fits and starts.  Finally, last year, I decided that I needed to finish it in time for Becky be able to curl up on it.  As you can see, she thinks it is great.  Now my closet is not stuffed with a big box of yarn, I have an extra warm blanket that helps me keep the house just a little cooler, I made a thing of beauty where I might have been tempted to go out and buy something new, and Becky has a new happy spot.

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Sauca (and freecycle)

The first of the niyamas or ethical restraints set forth by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras is sauca, which means cleanliness or purification.  BKS Iyengar in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says that sauca is both internal and external and that mastery of yoga is unrealizable without observance of the ethical principles of the yamas and niyamas [non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, aligning with the good, greedlessness, cleanliness, contentment, fire for practice, self-study, and acceptance — my definitions] is not possible.
What does cleanliness mean in this time in our society?  Scrubbing the kitchen and bath with toxic cleaners and slathering ourselves with chemical products and taking long showers may make our house and body look and feel clean, but it is soiling the earth.  It is definitely easier to practice in a neat room than a messy one, but we need to learn how to be clean also keeps the earth’s environment clean as well.
Earlier this week, I started cleaning out the “art closet.”  I have always created visual art, and before I shifted to teaching yoga, I spent a number of years creating at a wild pace (partly at the encouragement of a live-in partner), using a room in my house as a studio, and exhibiting and selling my work.  One side effect of that intense period of creation (and one of the key reasons I shifted away from it), was that it created a lot of stuff — for every painting or photograph I sold or gave as a gift, another five or eight accumulated in the house.  When I entered yoga teacher training, I turned the art studio into a yoga studio.  I was unable at that time to make a decision as to what to keep and what to discard.  Thus paralyzed, I put it all in a closet — art works and extra supplies alike.
Having a closet full of stuff long untouched and only some of which was wanted makes a house energetically stale.  Finally, this week, I cleaned out most of the painting materials.  I even decided not to keep images that I did not want to sell or exhibit again.  It was tempting just to break everything up and put it out on the curb for trash.  But the stretchers for the canvas are completely reusable by a working artist.  So I took the paintings apart and and then did a posting on “freecycle dc” offering the art supplies.  If you are not familiar with freecycle, it is pretty simple.  You join the group in your area and let people know what you have to give away.  Nothing is for sale.  Nothing is bartered.  The point is to transfer something you no longer want to someone who wants/needs it.  The recipient is local, so only limited fossil fuels are used to transfer the goods.  What you no longer want is saved from the landfill.
I’ve cleaned my closet.  Another artist will be creating new art with old materials instead of new.  Less goes into the landfill.  That’s a great example of sauca.
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Being a good guest (why not to drink bottled water)

In The Yoga of Discipline, Swami Chidvilasananda says that we should eat in such a way that the earth is happy to have us as a guest.  (See Thanksgiving blog).  As I get ready for the holiday season — a time of being a guest and receiving guests — I continue to contemplate this exhortation.  We’ve all had the house guests who seem to ravage our homes and our larders without any apparent appreciation for our hospitality, leaving us exhausted after they are gone.  We have other guests, who make us feel gracious, whose way of relating to our home and our hospitality makes us want to invite them in further and helps us enjoy our own home and food more.

My favorite guest is the one who makes herself at home, helps herself, and is delighted with offers of specially prepared meals or touches to the guest room.  The ones who invade private spaces and make a mess and, on the opposite side, those who tiptoe around and refuse nearly every attempt to make the visit special, are equally difficult.

How can we be a good guest of the earth?  Not only should we be grateful for what we are given, but we should not take more than is offered from the heart.  Here’s a practical example:  it takes about 60 ounces of water to bring you a 20 ounce plastic bottle of water.  The earth cheerfully offers the 20 ounces of water as nourishment.  Taking the 60 ounces, when 40 ounces is waste and destruction and only 20 ounces is for nourishment, is like being the kind of guest that exhausts you rather than enriches you by honoring your hospitality.  I’d love to hear other practical examples from you about how to be a more gracious guest of the earth.

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Hanuman — Adamantine

When I prepare to teach a workshop, I usually do a fair amount of background reading in addition to preparing the asana practice and contemplating the theme.  Right now, I am getting ready to teach a workshop on the hidden powers of hanumanasana (See Workshops page for more info).  A few weeks ago, I came across a tattered 1987 edition of an Indian publication of the Ramayana by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. I was planning to read other works about Hanuman, but thought that I must be meant to read this one.

It is an interesting little book.  Chakravarti, also known as “Rajaji” was the first Indian governor-general of India and a close compatriot of Gandhi.  The work is interesting from a historical perspective.  It was first published in 1951 in Tamil and then translated from Tamil into English.  The purpose of the work was to make the Ramayana accessible to those who were not educated in Sanskrit and philosophy.  Although purportedly for children, it obviously had appeal for a wider audience (the 1987 edition I found was the 25th).  Rather than a translation, it is a retelling of the story, filled with homilies and somewhat paternalistic commentaries. Although because it is faithful to the story it still has the relentless sexism of the original, Rajaji does tell his readers in his commentary that the commonly held belief (supported by the language of the Ramayana, which is regarded as a religious text) that a woman has sinned or is shamed if “a villain behaves like a brute” to her is just wrong.

What was most interesting to me about this particular telling of the Ramayana, aside from its historical and social context, was how it resonated with my Anusara studies.  When Hanuman first battles the demons, Rajaji says the demons “showered missiles on him which mostly glanced harmlessly off his adamantine frame.”  Rajaji uses the word “adamantine” to describe Hanuman elsewhere in the work. Here, Hanuman is adamantine because his devotion and steadiness make an energetically impermeable boundary.  Hanuman is able to love deeply and to engage in battle fully, but is protected from the inside out by his practice and his devotion.  John Friend speaks often of using one’s practice to become “adamantine.”  He suggests that the practice of opening to grace, and then pulsing a perfect balance between drawing in and reaching out energetically (muscular and organic energy), gives us an adamantine core that enables us to be open to a full range of experience without being harmed by negative things.  I have experience myself from six steady years of Anusara practice, how the principles can indeed help me be open, while keeping negative energy from invading my space.

A used copy of this edition would likely have been around when John Friend was traveling in India when he first went to the Siddha yoga ashram.  Did reading this particular edition lead him to use the word “adamantine” in the context of his teaching of the energetics of asana?  I do not have an answer to that question, nor should I conjecture.  What I do know, is that regardless of how I feel about some of the exterior social influences and teachings of the great Indian texts (think how I might feel about the Spanish Inquisition as it relates to the Bible), there is much to learn about meditation, yoga practice, and personal integrity interwoven in the stories.

Other readings:

The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki by Swami Venkatesananda (much more scholarly — the translation you would read if you were taking a university course, but didn’t know Sanskrit)

The Ramayana retold by William Buck — easy to read; like reading a novel-length fairy tale rendition for adolescents (changes the ending to make what happens to Sita more palatable)

The Ramayana — A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon.  Great novel.  Cannot recommend highly enough, but probably won’t resonate as much unless you are familiar with the Ramayana and other Indian epics and philosophy.

The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz, trans. from the Spanish by Helen Lane.  From the back cover:  “Hanuman, the red-faced monkey chief and ninth grammarian of Hindu mythology, is the protagonist of this dazzling prose poem — a mind journey into the temple city of Galta and the occasion … to explore the nature of naming and knowing, time and reality, and fixity and decay.”

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