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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.