I’d been thinking about going based on the subject matter and the reviews. Studying and practicing yoga from such a Western perspective, I think it is important for me to understand more deeply how much and what of our culture India is embracing, while we embrace its philosophy and aesthetics and use it to supply us with cheap labor. I am conscious that yoga has come to me through the filter of British colonialism (that is one of the many reasons for the name “Rose Garden Yoga”).
I was worried about whether I could sit through the violent images, but I was talking to my sister last weekend, and she had it on the top of her list, so I decided to go after all. The movie deserves its superlative reviews. Don’t be misled, though, by the reviews that say it is ultimately a fairytale. Although it is a story of compassion and loyalty, of the quirks of fate, memory, and the solace of philosophy, it contains candid depictions of abject suffering, unbearable poverty, and unspeakable cruelty. It raises pointed questions about when violence is warranted in the face of injustice or for mere survival. It is certainly thought provoking and eye opening. Most of the thoughts I’ll wait to share with those who have seen the movie.
Many thanks to all who came out, got deep into their practice, and gave support to the Seva Foundation and the Willow Street kula. Per T’s request, here’s the playlist for the workshop:
Mountain Chalisa, Krishna Das, Pilgrim Heart
Sita Ram, Jai Uttal, Kirtan
Sri Ram, Shantala, Sri
Veerapuram Dham, Hanuman Foundation, Songs in Praise of Hanuman
Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Dave Stringer, Japa
Rock on Hanuman, MC Yogi, Elephant Power
Hanuman Chalisa, Bhagavan Das, Now
Good Ole Chalisa, Krishna Das, Flow of Grace
Anjani Putra, Hanuman Foundation, Songs in Praise of Hanuman
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.
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.
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.”
Yesterday I celebrated the bounty of Thanksgiving with my friend Pat and her children, which was just delightful. The food was bounteous and delicious, but not to the point of groaning excess. While I was at the yoga fundraiser in Takoma Park, Pat and the children were cooking.
Jonathan, who is eight, made the cranberry sauce. Being the superb cook that she is, Pat said it’s just the recipe on the back of the bag (one bag cranberries, one cup sugar, one cup water, cook until the cranberries are split and liquid starts to gel), except that she replaced the water with apple juice, replaced the sugar with brown sugar and halved the amount, added currents (nice touch), and then put in orange rind, cinnamon, all spice, cloves, and powdered ginger. Only a true cook would think that is just the recipe on the back of the bag, but I know what she means. As long as the proportions are right you can vary anything to taste. The addition of the dried fruits and spices were just right for the latin-influenced cooking of the rest of the meal.
Rebecca made the mashed potatoes, which we had because she wanted them. They are amazing, they are miraculous, she claimed, mashed potatoes. All you do is mash them and then they are amazing. Ordinary potatoes completely transformed, just by mashing them. Rebecca also offered grace, giving thanks for “food, family, friends, and just for being alive.” Simply said from the heart; no more needed to be said.
I was sent home with the leftover vegetarian rice and peas, which Pat had specially prepared for me to honor my preference to eat vegetarian. As is traditional in her family, I brought home the leftovers with the understanding that when I returned the container, it would have within it a food offering in return.
Pat did cook a turkey as part of the meal. When we were cleaning up (I was carving the rest of the turkey to store for future meals), I asked Pat whether she would be making stock with the turkey bones, so I would know the best way of carving. She said she did not have time, so though I am mostly vegetarian, I took the bones to make stock. I had, then, the leftovers one would never have if you’ve long since stopped roasting birds, and Pat felt more content knowing that we would be using all of the bird that fed us.
Today, when I am home cleaning and cooking and enjoying a precious vacation day, I will make turkey stock. With the blessing of these particular leftovers, I can make what would be traditional to a Thanksgiving meal that I would have cooked: roast winter squash and stuffing (using the turkey stock, the remains of a loaf of bread I baked last week, dried mushroom, and celery). My delicious meal of stuffed roasted squash, will be enhanced by the lingering (not leftover) energy of the friends with whom I shared a delightful meal and the knowledge (that by minimizing what goes uneaten) that we are eating in a more sustainable manner) [yes, it’s all about balance; my vegan friends would no doubt be compelled to remind me that eating vegan would have been more sustainable].
Many thanks to Pat and her family for welcoming me and for sharing.
Many thanks to all who came and participated in the yoga fundraising class for Oxfam. Special thanks also to Suzie Hurley and Willow Street Yoga for making the space available. True gratitude for the practice of yoga itself. Together we raised $935 for Oxfam, sharing our own abundance with those who are needier. Many blessings on this holiday weekend to all of you.
As I prepare to lead the annual yoga fundraiser for Oxfam and then celebrate with friends the abundance of my life and my gratitude for all I have, I contemplate this writing of Swami Chidvilasananda:
Revere food as God. Revere your own body as a temple. Observe restraint and practice reverence. There are so many great treasures and miracles within you, so many magical possibilities inside you. Through discipline, you can make them manifest for you, and in this way, you can make the earth a greater paradise. Give this earth the opportunity to feel that she is blessed, that she is happy to have you, that she is grateful for your presence on this planet.
The Yoga of Discipline.
I wish all of you the happiest of Thanksgiving days. May you feel abundant and may you share your abundance.
Today, I go to work my one Sunday a month at the Lantern Bookshop. I have been volunteering at the Lantern for over 15 years. My volunteer work there is service, but it is not selfless. The Lantern serves the community in a variety of ways: (1) it provides a place for like-minded community members to meet; we’ve had the same customers and workers for decades; (2) it provides creates scholarship funds for deserving young women to go to college, when they otherwise would not be able to afford to go; (3) by participating in the cycle of don’t throw away and reuse what we don’t need, it is good for the environment; (4) it creates a safe space for older workers to continue to be useful; (5) it keeps open an independent bookstore in a time when small businesses are hard-pressed to survive. The work is not selfless for me because I adore books. I like reading them, looking at them, exploring lightly ones that are far enough from my usual interests that I won’t commit the time to sit down and read. I like being in an environment where all the talk is of books.
I started at the Lantern as a way of giving back to my college. My scholarship came from the proceeds of the New York companion to the Lantern. Having limited my work to just one Sunday a month, I was able to keep at it. If it had been a bigger commitment, I am sure I would have found it too much after a period of years, given all the other things I do. Because I could manage the time commitment, and I enjoy the work, I have kept at it. It is not my only volunteer work, but it is a steady component of my place in the community.
A couple of years ago, I was with a group of yogis who were discussing a potential requirement to engage in seva or “selfless service.” A number of people argued that unless the work made you uncomfortable, unless it stretched your emotional and personal boundaries, the work somehow did not count. I have done volunteer work that has made me uncomfortable. I’ve done work with the elderly sick and the institutionalized neglected. I’ve served on a community board of directors where the focus was on a contentious neighborhood issue. I have grown from that work, but I was only able to do it for a year or two or three before needing to move on to something else.
Is work more “selfless” if it is difficult? Is it less selfless to do work that one frankly enjoys than work from which one derives the satisfaction of “doing good” because it is difficult and dirty? I don’t know the answer. The yoga texts would seem to indicate, I think, that if one does service for any form of gratification then it is not selfless. I would argue that it is best to do the work — with commitment — and forget about whether it also pleases. If the community benefits, the work should be done.
As I read the blogs and commentaries about the transition, I’ve been thinking a lot about John Friend’s exhortation that we should always start by looking for the good. This is a very unsettling time — economic and environmental crisis, two wars, etc, etc. I may disagree with some of the picks for cabinet, but not only am I not in charge, I neither have the desire nor the skills to be in charge. I often have an opinion about a way to enhance action, and then I try to take action to have my voice heard. I am saddened, though, by the onslaught of negativity. Hope for change does not mean instant transformation before even taking office. Why not look for the good, and then raise our voices for what else we think could make things even better. This works, too, for our own personal growth. I’ve personally experienced that when I stopped habitually criticizing myself, came to a level of acceptance and nurture and then worked for progress, that not only did I feel better, but I did change more because I wasn’t wasting energy on both the criticizing and the feeling bad.