Tag Archive: Anusara invocation

It’s a Fine Line Between a Grimace and a Smile (and satcitananda murtaye)

The New York Times just published a blog entry on the perils of faking happiness.   The first problem with the article was that I could not get to the study to see if I agreed that the actual premise was that “faking a smile” was what led to a deterioration in mood or feeling unduly pressured by a need to do so regardless of what was going on inside was the problem.  The second is the definitional problem of what it means to “fake” a smile.  I think it not unlikely that contorting the face into a fake smile (i.e., grimacing) because one feels one has to do so does not improve mood when one is in physical or emotional pain.  According to the little cover blog, though, those that made an attempt to smile from the inside by thinking a positive though–even though it was a conscious effort– did experience an improvement in their mood.

Any good method actor will tell you that to make an outer expression believable, one has to cultivate inner thoughts to go with it (though that is still “acting”).  Having been taught by my mother by age six in preparation for my first school play performance, that to act I should try to “be an apple” a la Stanislovski, I disagree that intentionally putting a smile on your face cannot help improve your mood. It’s all in how you fake it ’til you make it.  I have long advocated to my yoga students, based on my personal experience with the practice of smiling whether I think I mean it or not, to try smiling on the outside improve mood.  Even leaving aside the inner experience, just walk down the street with an open posture and a smile on your face and see how people respond, though I caution to do this at your peril in New York.  When you smile at people and be polite, they generally respond in kind.  You are then much more likely to feel good than if you are scowling and rude and people respond back in kind.

What on earth (or in heaven’s name) does faking a smile until you feel one have to do with satcitananda, you may find yourself asking yourself at this point.  The second line of the Anusara invocation is “satcitananda murtaye.” Murtaye, from the same verbal root as murti or statue, here is usually translated as saying that Siva (from the first line) embodies the characteristics of satcitananda, being (what I like to call is-ness), absolute consciousness, and bliss.

Another way of looking at this phrase, though, is that when we open to the possibility of discovering our siva nature, which is the reason we practice yoga, and when we use the principles of alignment to help do so, then we discover how to be, if even for a moment, simply present, fully conscious, and blissful with the consciousness of the ultimacy of being.  In a word, when we soften and look within, using the knowledge and experience of our teachers and our practices, a smile of recognition lights us up.  If we start out having a bad day, feeling stressed or anxious or in pain, or just plain grumpy from reading the news, we just have to practice with more depth and sincerity to find the smile and not beat ourselves up if we are struggling to find the smile despite our desire and the intensity of our practice.

Is that faking a smile or being the smile?  Does trying to smile when we are feeling blue really make us more unhappy?  I think it is all in how we do it.

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Should I Be In Alignment or Should I Relax Completely? (and Namah Shivayah)

For the first few years I was teaching, one season a year, I would have as my overall session theme the Anusara invocation (for the words written out, click on “invocation” in the menu bar above).  In so doing, I invited myself and others to contemplate at the heart level the meaning of each word, of why we were making the invocation, of how the invocation might inform not only our practice, but how we bring our practice off the mat and into our daily lives.  Each time I chant the invocation–and it has been hundreds of times now over the years I have been studying, practicing, and teaching Anusara yoga–I seek to invoke into my practice the deepest qualities of the heart that it represents.

Over the winter break, when I was preparing for this session, the invocation called to me.  I decided it was time to make it as a specific offering again.  Last week and this week, including in the restorative workshop offered at Willow Street Yoga last Saturday, I have been exploring namah shivayah from the first line.  Namah–which has the same verbal origins at the English word “name”–means to bow, to honor, to name.  It forms the basis of the greeting namaste–with the light in me, I bow to the light in you.  Sivayah here is our siva nature.  It is variously the light within, auspiciousness, spirit, divine nature, elemental goodness.

When I was practicing in preparation for teaching the week’s classes and the restorative workshop and contemplating (practicing bhavana on) namah shivayah, I thought about a question I often get when I teach restoratives:  “should I be maintaining the alignment principles or should I be relaxing completely?”  When I get the question phrased this way, I look the student straight in the eye and respond, “yes.”  I get a quizzical look; how could the answer be “yes” to an “either or” question?  The answer is “yes” because in each pose, we are seeking to embody the fullest expression of namah shivayah. Taking the time to make sure to be in alignment when setting up for a pose, moving into a pose, reaching the pinnacle of a pose, and then moving out of or dissolving a pose, is out of loving respect for your body and the energy that courses through your body.  We seek to be fully in alignment in all stages of each pose, not only to minimize the likelihood of being in pain or getting or aggravating an injury and to increase the likelihood of healing any existing injuries and expanding our capacity to feel free in our bodies, but also out of a profound respect and honor for the self, the teachings, and the practice.

Sometimes people think that focusing on getting the alignment just right is fussy or rigid and the antithesis of relaxation.  In the case of restoratives especially, everyone coming to the practice wants to be at peace and feel free of effort.  In the hunger to get to a place of relaxation, some hurry into the pose without honoring the alignment.  Oftentimes, it is the hurry to relax and the loss of attention to the details of alignment (of both the mind-body and the props) that leads to pain or discomfort in a pose that is meant to be held for a long time, as are restoratives.  When a student tells me that they are in pain in a particular posture, I invite the student to back off, set up the pose again, and far more often than not, all discomfort disappears, and the student is able to move into a blissful place.  The student then experiences for herself how much the alignment enables the surrender to the exquisite opening to siva and the blissful attributes of siva (satcitananda).

One of the reasons I find restoratives to be such a powerful practice is because they require such focused attention on alignment to enable full relaxation.  As such, they are a great way to understand the need for the perfect and simultaneous balance of effort (tapas) and surrender (ishvara pranadhana).  So the answer is “yes;” the answer is “nama shivayah.”  In everything we do, in every aspect of our practice on and off the mat, we want to be consciously in alignment.  We want to use all the knowledge that has been imparted by our teachers and experienced in our own practice as a way of honoring and naming and helping to enable an unceasing, simultaneous, and full surrender to our own siva nature.

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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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