Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

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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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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