Food for the Mind (Yoga Philosophy, etc)

Contemplations on readings and yoga philosophy.

Shiva — By Almost Any Name (Summer Session Theme)

This summer, we will be exploring a very few of the names of Shiva and how they can draw us to a better understanding of ourselves on and off the mat.

According to the sources, Shiva has either 108 names or 1,000.  Each name has a different meaning.  All of the meanings point to aspects of our own being that are worthy of contemplation.  Some aspects will resonate more deeply for us.  Some less so.

For me, besides my almost childlike delight in of lists, words, and myths, contemplating the various aspects is of deep usefulness in exploring my understanding of myself on and off the mat.  The various names describe different aspects  human nature and how we relate to others and the earth.

The multiplicity of the names also highlights that each of us names and experiences spirituality in a unique way and should have the freedom to do so.  (As an aside, I think this multiplicity of forms of worship could be seen as a kind of rebellion within a rigid system of religious laws, but that is a whole other set of thoughts).

In using these forms of meditation as part of our yoga practice or otherwise, whether we meditate on highly abstract notion of “Shiva” representing the auspicious nature of all beings or on one of the names that points to individual aspects of personality, contemplation on any aspect or name can be used to deepen our relation to our best self so that we can be more aligned with our world inside and out.

For class this summer, we obviously cannot get to more than a very few.  Feel free to send to me your suggestions about names to highlight.

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Personal History (and Samskara and Opening to Grace)

A samskara is generally defined as an impression left in us by a past action or experience.  I found myself thinking about the process of samskara yesterday, when I went with long time friends of my family to watch their son taking class at the summer program at the Kirov Academy of Ballet.

I have not watched a ballet class (except on the occasional film) since I was actively studying ballet as a teenager and young adult.  I have long been conscious of how ballet imprinted my body image and way of looking at myself, but have not found a space before where I was able to look at this aspect of my history with fresh eyes.

What was different yesterday, was that I was observing with openness.  I was sitting with people I have known all my life, sharing their warmth, love, and parental pride for their son, rather than concentrating on my own history.  It brought back memories, but not in the same way that sitting by myself or with a girlfriend, watching a documentary has done.

In this open state of reflection, I witnessed something that I knew at some level, but had not given much thought to before:  how much having taken thousands of hours of ballet class has informed the way I teach.  My tendency in my own practice and in my teaching to see the details of  alignment and to try asanas repeatedly until it seems that I or my students have experienced the alignment in the most optimal way for the day is straight out of my experience in ballet class.

Softening and witnessing instead of feeling or judging from past experience gives the possibility of shifting from samskaras, even ones that are very deeply etched into body and mind.  Being with my friends yesterday, of course, gave me the joy of seeing the spectacular dancing of these young men and the delight of connection.  It also gave me the unexpected gift of a moment of understanding how the Anusara principle of “opening to grace” allows us to shift.  When we are open, nonjudging witness consciousness  (an aspect of “opening to grace”), that is when we have the possibility with each thing we repeat, to experience it new without being bound by our samskaras.

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Prana+Yama or Prana+Ayama (and Global Climate Change)

The other day a friend commented that it seemed that a major contributor to global climate change is how we have set out to control our environment instead of aligning with it (my paraphrase).  So much, he said, of what contributes to global climate change is how we heat and cool and light our homes and work places.  For example, instead of honoring the change of seasons, we overcool in summer and overheat in winter, so that we can wear the same clothes and eat the same foods year round in apparent comfort.

This comment resonated with me deeply.  It brought to mind what I have been taught about possible approaches to pranayama — the yoga practice of conscious breathing.  Pranayama usually as translated as breath control or restraint.  This assumes that the conjunction in sanskrit is of the two words “prana” and “yama.”  Prana here refers to the subtle energy of the life force in general, which we can understand best through the breath.  Yama means restraint.  If, however, we think of pranayama as the conjunction of “prana” and “ayama,” which is a reasonable way of looking at the way the word is formed, we can understood pranayama to be the practice of expansion or alignment with prana.

When we seek with our yoga breathing practices on the mat or with our technology and lifestyles off the mat to restrain and control nature at the expense of listening and understanding, we will be at war with ourselves and the earth.  If, however, we seek to align better with nature on and off the mat, to expand and enhance our relationship with the life force, rather than to restrain and control nature, we will expand our awareness of the subtle forces of the earth and live in a more life-affirming way.

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Guru Purnima (without a “guru”)

A yoga teacher acquaintance once said rather dogmatically to me that it was not possible to be a true yoga teacher unless one had a guru.  He meant having a guru in the traditional sense — being devoted to a particular person as the embodiment of the divine and of the true teachings.  I did not engage on the issue, thinking (perhaps unfairly) that he would not listen to another point of view.

I do not have a guru in the technical sense.  It would be unlikely.  I was raised attending unprogrammed meetings of the Society of Friends (Quakers), where services are premised on the idea that there should be no preacher or minister because the light of the spirit shines equally in all and that each person is equally able to connect through his or her own faith and practice to the spirit.  My first major exposure to the teachings of yoga was through the writings of J. Krishnamurti, which a teacher in an alternative program in high school I attended gave us to read, along with the classic yoga texts.  Krishnamurti believed that all change comes from within and eschewed devotion to a guru.

Although I do not have a particular guru to whom I give my devotion (bhakti), I strive to honor and recognize that our true teacher is the light and spirit that is within all beings.  The first line of the Anusara invocation — om namah shivaya gurave — resounds with truth for me.

On this guru purnima, the full moon of July, I honor the teachings that have so shifted my life, my teachers, especially John Friend and Suzie Hurley, and all of my students and friends, who shine with light always, and who inspire me to try each day to live more aligned with the ideals of yoga.

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Choices, A Cardinal in the Grapes, and Viveka

This morning while I was out in the garden, I heard a chirping right above my head.  Within arm’s reach was a bright red male cardinal perched among the grapes effusively talking.  (I planted a tiny red, concord grape vine about six years ago, and it has flourished beyond my wildest dreams).

There were enough ripe grapes for me to pick a handful for myself.  I have bird netting, but I have not put it over the grapes.  They did not do so well this year, many turning brown prematurely because, I think, of the drought-ridden winter followed by the extra wet and cool spring.  I am grateful that I will not be dependent on these grapes as food for myself to survive through next winter (I’m pretty sure; if not, I have bigger things to worry about).

For the joy of having the birds come visit so fearlessly and delightedly, and because the grapes are not fantastic to eat, I leave all, but those I get by the small handful a couple of mornings a week for a few weeks, to the birds.  Maybe next year I will net the grapes, but then I’ll have to have a canning party to make jam.  In the meantime, I’ll marvel that every bird in DC seems to know when my grapes ripen.

We make decisions like this all the time.  With how we shop, what we eat, what work we choose, how we travel, we are making decisions about habitat and environment for ourselves and hosts of other beings.

In yoga, the process of ever refining our understanding so that we can be more in touch with how we act impacts our life force and our relationship with all around us, is viveka, or discrimination.   Just as the more we practice on the mat, the more we develop awareness of what leads us to feel more in tune and more celebratory of life, so too, we want to use that yoga refinement and discrimination to inform our acts off the mat.

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Simulcast, Drama, and Perception

Last night I went to see the National Theater UK’s  simulcast (tape-delayed) of Helen Mirren performing in Ted Hughes’ translation of Racine’s Phedre at the Shakespeare Theater.  The tragedy of Phedre is misinformation, misguided helpers, and passion that has gone beyond sweet engagement to maddened attachment.

A stage production is intimate and designed for the small audience of those present in the theater.  When it is merely filmed (instead of being turned into a movie), it sometimes feels forced because it is watching a film of a stage production, instead of being invited in as one is when one is either at the stage production or the filming is done as a movie, which is designed to include the viewer in a manner for the film.

What was hard about watching the filming of the stage production, was being forced to have the camera’s and director’s perspective; there was no ability to turn my head and shift which part of the stage to give my attention.  At the same time, I felt appreciative of the miraculous offerings of technology:  the filming made something that is usually limited to those who can afford theater of that extraordinary quality and who are able to be in a certain place at a certain time available to tens of thousands around the globe, including me and my friend.  In that way, the filming both took away the intimacy of being physically present, but simultaneously created a unifying experience for a much bigger group of people.

I was inspired to think about the limitations and differences among the perceptions of the characters, of the critics (talking about the play and the film), of the smaller, elite audience (the actual theater goers’ — I’ve been at that theater in London), of the technologically broadened audience, and of mine in response to the essence of the tragedy, the story and substance of the play, the delivery of the play, and my own life as informed by the play.

It seems an interesting lesson on many levels on how we can choose to live with our passions, how we can react to limits and changes in our ability to perceive our own selves and the world around us, and on how and what we invite in through the doors of our perception.

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In Watermelon Sugar (Starting Each Day Anew)

I have in my library books in which just one phrase or just the very beginning is most resonant.  It is this time of summer, when the light seems endless, and the heat just setting in as if on a permanent basis, that my thoughts turn to watermelon in food, and again in literature.  I think of watermelon differently each summer from the perspective of having lived another year, and the same in having experienced the taste and the thoughts of the taste so many times before.  When it comes the time of year when thoughts of watermelon spontaneously arise,  I revisit these words:

“In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.  I’ll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.  Wherever you are, we must do the best we can.  It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar.” (R. Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar).

Refreshed, I put the book back on the shelf, look forward to eating watermelon from the fresh farm market, and set the intention to start each day with open, receptive, and unjaundiced eyes, ready to learn and experience the same old things as glorious new ones, and to do the best I can.

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Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodaha

I slept restlessly last night and woke early with concern for those who were in the metro crash.  Being already a bit agitated, worries about getting things done at work also were arising.  Despite my restlessness, I made sure to sit for meditation.  Thoughts kept arising, but by the time I was into my sit, I was able to find a space, where I was not tangled or unsteadied by the thoughts.  I felt more peaceful and able to meet the challenges of the day.

In times of agitation, I often find myself drawn to contemplate again Patanjali’s sutra 1.2:  Yoga citta vrtti nirodaha. In classical yoga, it means to still the thought waves.  This is meant to be the ultimate purpose of yoga:  to still thought so that what is beyond mind and body can be revealed.

Practicing and studying from a tantric perspective, I think not so much of stilling my thoughts when I practice and meditate, but rather, finding a sense of alignment, an allowing of and making allowance within my being for the rhythm of the thoughts like a sailor getting sea legs on a boat, so that I can be steady (sthira) and have a greater sense of peace (shantaya) and light (tejase), no matter how wild are the thoughts arising and sensations entering in the field of my consciousness.

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Making the Bed (and Sauca)

I have noticed over the years that I sleep more deeply and peacefully if I have made the bed before getting into it again.  Smoothing out the sheets and the covers and fluffing the pillows after waking, releases the energy of the dreams from the previous night.  This helps make sure that each returning to sleep is a new experience, an opening to the possibility of entering a wonderful state.

The principle of sauca (cleanliness or purity) invites us to be clean and clear before and as part of our physical and meditative practice and all our living.  Imagine trying to practice yoga on a dirty mat and going into savasana (corpse pose/final relaxation) on a tangled blanket.  Would you think it possible to become deeply relaxed?  Probably not.  If we want our space smooth to lie down for a yoga pose, how could we not need the same for a good night’s sleep, for a planned visit to another state of consciousness?

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Gardening, Cleaning, Cooking (and Vinyasa Krama and Kali)

Vinyasa krama is the art of sequencing.  How a yoga practice or flow is sequenced can determine whether it is uplifting or inward going, exhilarating or calming.  When we are trained and attentive, we start to know the most optimal order to open our bodies and our focus to align with the time of day, the season, the weather, our mood, and our health.  This incredible art helps us be positioned and aligned in a way that we feel free in time and space, rather than being constrained by time and space.

This morning while I was out in the garden, I was thinking a lot about vinyasa krama and the goddess Kali — goddess of, among other things, time and change, and thus, of sequencing.  I woke very early, brought to consciousness by the long light of the solstice even through closed curtains.  As I went about my morning, rinsing the sprouts while heating the water for my morning coffee; cutting back the greens and herbs before starting breakfast; doing the major pruning and clean-up before doing more decorative garden work; finishing cooking before taking out the recycling; applying a facial mask before starting to vacuum; never walking up or down the stairs empty-handed; waiting to gather the bills until after I was clean and waiting for friends to arrive, etc., I realized how important sequencing is to the richness of my days.  By knowing the best way to order tasks for my needs, my day is simultaneously productive, unhurried, and enjoyable.

By the time my friends arrived around noon, I had meditated, taken care of the garden, gathered food for my own breakfast and to share with friends, talked to neighbors, cleaned the house and myself, done a little asana, written in my journal, and sorted the mail.  Had I not known from long experience and conscious attention how to sequence all the different elements, knowing which ones went together, which took longest, which ones if done earlier or later would create double clean up, etc, I would have been tired and the tasks unfinished.  Instead, after brunch, I came home to a tended garden, a freshly made bed, and time to enjoy a quiet evening.

These sequencing principles also apply for me on major projects at work.  If ordered one way, the work is exponentially harder, the deadline a fearsome thing; if ordered another way, everything comes together mostly as it should when it should.  When I order my work with attention (this assumes others cooperate with this endeavor), I have time to do a good, careful job and still take breaks, eat well, and leave the office in time to take or teach yoga class.

Whether you are doing your home yoga practice or cooking or working, choose to sequence the elements of your practice, your activities, or your day, with attentiveness, reverence, love, and respect, and Kali will support you and not show you her most fearsome face.

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