Tag Archive: John Friend

The Importance of Doubt (and Shrada)

I was just led by a friend’s Facebook posting to the website for an upcoming movie about the Siddha yoga ashram (Siddha yoga was part of the teaching and practice lineage of John Friend and Paul Muller-Ortega, and both have told stories about how useful the fierce ashram  discipline was for them, but who adopted too much of the ashram style in their yoga organizations for me ever to have tried to be in the inner circle).   In watching the trailer and reading the background materials for the movie, it struck me that the most important point for me is that the followers who were most injured were those who doubted least and who were the most hungry for an authority and love figure.

As a born and bred doubter (how could I not be one who consistently doubts as part of my spiritual practice, given that I am a culturally jewish, New York intellectual who was raised on the Quaker system of queries and advices, who studied western philosophy and law, and who works inside the Beltway?), I believe that you will always be able to get the good out of teachings without losing your own control, sense of self, and discriminating (viveka) ability to evaluate your commitment to a teacher or organization and the teachings offered, if your faith is in your own intuition and education and not in any one human or organization or specific teaching.

Faith (in Sanskrit shrada), in order to serve us well, needs doubt; it needs questioning; it needs testing at every point of the way or it is superficial faith.  Don’t let anyone–particularly someone with whom you study or engage in religious or spiritual practice ever tell you otherwise.  Sometimes doubting with faith means getting involved or staying fully committed to an organization or teacher despite misgivings or despite troubling  behavior (assuming you are not sticking with being abused yourself or standing idly by when witnessing the abuse of others).  After all, no humans, organizations, or relationships are without their shadow sides.  Sometimes doubting, even with faith, means a radical and complete separation–quietly or loudly.  Sometimes what is best for you is something in between.  Learning to be in community is part of the practice, after all, keeping in mind that you are the company you keep.

All I can say is this:  Please doubt.  Please doubt with sincerity.  Please doubt with love.  Please doubt with respect.  Please educate yourself, and with appropriate doubt, have faith that there is good in connecting and in the teachings, no matter how challenging is getting and sharing the teachings and the practices with and through the filter of others.

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When a Student Asks a Question (and Tensegrity)

When a student asks a question and I do not know the answer, I do not try to answer it then and there.  I do go home and take the time to try and find an answer.  If I find enough information to be useful, I follow up.  Last night, before the William Penn House class, a student asked whether I had received a recent mass e-mailing from John Friend in which he mentioned teaching about biotensegrity.  I knew the answer to whether I had received the email–yes, a friend had forwarded it.  I did not know, though, how John was using the term biotensegrity.  I went and did a little research.

Buckminster Fuller coined the word “tensegrity”as the conjunction of tension and integration.  The idea of tensegrity is being actively taught by anatomy teacher Tom Myers, a student of both Buckminster Fuller and Ida Rolf and a teacher of certain of my yoga teachers.  It also bears a trademark when called “Carlos Castenada tensegrity.”    I never got into the “magical passes” of Castenada’s students turned teachers, but at some point relatively recently found a used copy of “Magical Passes.”  As I had delved fairly deeply into Carlos Castenada in my youth, I picked up the book and made it part of my library, though did not read it at the time.

I am not surprised that John is talking about biotensegrity.  From my few hours of reading, it seems resonant with the “universal principles of alignment” that were the foundation of his Anusara teachings and also consistent with his movement towards the exploration and teaching of “sacred geometry” near the end of his Anusara days.

Yes, I know I haven’t actually said what is tensegrity or biotensegrity in the yoga/body awareness and movement context.  But I do not teach unless I have learned something well enough to integrate it fully into mind and body such that I can articulate it in my own words, and I have not thought enough about the term tensegrity as it relates to yoga practice, though the concept makes initial intuitive sense.  If the links inspire interest, I invite you to look more deeply.  And I’m going to put “Magical Passes” on my stack of reading, though not necessarily at the top.

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What Do You See?

What do you see when you walk down the street or into a room?  Do you see more or less depending on whether the surroundings are new to you or familiar?  John Friend has said that when leading a class teachers need to be able simultaneously to see the whole room (and how everything and the students are in relationship to each other in the room), each student as a part of the whole and as a whole person, and the individual alignment of each student.

What it takes to do this is the ability to be completely soft, spacious, and open in our seeing (“open to grace”) and also well enough educated and experienced to appreciate and understand the details.  I think that when we can see both the big picture and the details simultaneously, we have the greatest opportunity to experience the most of life, are more likely to be able to look for the good, and to make the most positive changes.

 

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“Seriously”

A friend from the DC Sunday contact improv jam (one of my favorite places to play) sent this link showing a clip from a documentary in progress about the importance of play to our health.  One of the things that I love most about Anusara yoga is that John Friend has always described its practice as being “seriously playful.”  I was born serious nature and have worked hard in my adulthood to learn to play spontaneously, and what is being offered here resonates for me.

This is a long clip, but well worth the time.  Anusara yogis, notice how familiar some of it sounds.  Enjoy!

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Happy New Year–Breaking Open (web version of e-newsletter)

Dear Friends,

Midnight of the new year found me sitting in a hotel room near the Chidambaram temple at festival time engaged in intense conversation while listening to wild music and chanting and the cracks and explosions of fire crackers.  Quite a change from my long-standing practice of making a healthy meal, doing a long yoga practice, taking a hot bubble bath by candlelight and going to sleep well before midnight so that I can start the year rested and refreshed (an excellent way to spend New Year’s Eve if you haven’t tried it).  Though I did not start this new year well rested, I wouldn’t have traded the experience I had for the world.  Sometimes we need to radically break out of our old patterns to discover how much we can expand.

One of the practices at the temples we visited on the India Pilgrimage with Douglas Brooks is to take a coconut and break it open.  The coconut symbolizes your head and all the preconceived notions and rules we set for ourselves that bind us into our old habits.  The symbolic act of breaking open the coconut is to remind us that we sometimes need to break ourselves open in order to get at the true meat of our existence and to drink the sweet nectar of life.

Many times during the trip I thought about my first experiences attending “Advanced Intensives” with John Friend.  I, like many others I know, showed up at my first Advanced Intensive wondering how I got there, asking myself whether I was worthy, and worrying that I was in way over my head and would get injured.  Though I have now been to a number, each time I still have had to practice with both an absolute willingness to be open to the possibility of expansion while being impeccably mindful of my own limits.  It is a subtle dance of consciousness, and part of the learning is finding the exact balance point where we can both break out of our preconceived limitations and still honor that we in fact have some.

I approached going to India with much trepidation.  A friend whom I met in Peru and who I later visited in South Africa, having seen my emotional reactions to the deep poverty of developing nations had warned me off of India.  As one who likes things to be quiet and clean and thrives on healthy meals and regular sleep, I knew India would be physically and emotionally challenging.  But I wanted the visions.  I wanted to see and experience its very “otherness,” its beauty, and the source of the yoga teachings.  I packed my bags with emergency supplies, some of which I turned out to need, some of which served others on the trip, most of which I ended up donating to a village that the trip helps to support.  I had to ask people to help me (one of my hardest practices) by being close when we were in dense crowds.  I confess that I wore earplugs when it got really loud in the temples, which it does.  And having prepared and taken care, I was exhilerated.  I experienced radically more with my heart getting fuller and fuller in a short time than I thought ever possible for me.  Like discovering one can do a wild yoga pose that one thought totally out of reach and then sensibly stopping before blowing past physical limits, I broke myself open and was able to drink deeply of the nectar.  And yes, I did actually hurl a coconut to the ground to break it.  And yes, it took two tries.

I was lucky.  This time, I got to choose when and where to break open the coconut.  Sometimes life does it for us and then we have the choice either to despair or to rise to the occasion.  This year, I invite you to the yoga to find where you can break open and find ever more sweetness, nourishment, and delight than you ever dreamed possible.  For me this includes not just the exhileration of advancing the intensity of poses, but the deepness of meditation, the precise use of alignment for therapeutics to better experience life, and the emotional depth of a long restorative practice.

Come join me as regular classes continue at William Penn House on Tuesdays, invitation group house practice for charity on Wednesdays, and gentle/therapeutics at Willow Street on Saturdays at noon in Takoma Park.  All info on the classes page of the web site.  Mark your calendars, too, for:

Finding the Warmth Inside: Relax Into Optimal Alignment with Anusara Restoratives, Saturday, February 25 2012, 2:30 PM – 5:00 PM, Willow Street Yoga, Takoma Park Studio, $35.00, click to Register Online or download a paper form to bring to Willow Street in person.  After a little gentle stretching and self-massage to bring awareness to the breath and body, we will enjoy the exquisite application of Anusara’s Universal Principles of Alignment to restful and supported restorative postures to release old patterns and invite in the new to find greater ease of body and mind. A great workshop and practice for all levels.

I have been sharing photos and experiences of India on the blog (if you have missed them, do check them out and enjoy).  Some of you have asked how you can subscribe to the blog in addition to the newsletter.  Please just click here and follow the instructions to get the blog posts by email.

I look forward to seeing you through the new year and sign off expressing my ever growing love, appreciation, and gratitude for all of you and the deepening and expanding connection through the yoga, neighborhood, and all that life here in DC and in the greater yoga community brings us.

Peace and light,

Elizabeth

 

 

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Expanding to Receive the Beauty, Opening to Grace, and the Isha Upanishad

In Anusara yoga, one of the ways the first principle of “opening to grace” can be experienced and practiced  is as a radical expansion of the capacity to receive and appreciate the very wonder of being.  During my visit to India with Professor Douglas Brooks, I found myself repeatedly thinking of the concept of radical expansion and also the preamble to the Isha Upanishad (long a favorite of mine; Shantala on their first CD, Love Window, have done an exquisite rendition), which can be roughly translated as saying that adding fullness to fullness is itself fullness (fullness can also be translated here as perfection).

What I believe this is saying that being itself is infinitely full; thus, we cannot make it more infinite by adding to it.  Human consciousness of the infinitude of being, though, is limited by the filters of space and time.   One of the key reasons to practice yoga (including meditation) is to expand both our capacity to appreciate the fullness and to receive its full wonder by uniting our own consciousness with the infinitude.  When we can appreciate ever more the wonder of our being, we will naturally be more joyous, and I believe, led to be more compassionate and generous with ourselves and others.

Day after day on the India pilgrimage, just when I thought my heart and mind were already full to bursting, there were yet more experiences of the beauty and extraordinariness of life and creativity and nature.  I found myself chanting the Isha Upanishadpurnamadah, purnamidam, puranata purnamudatacyate.  Fullness and fullness is fullness.  “Let me expand still more to appreciate to its utmost yet more beauty,” I thought to myself again and again.  Though I already thought I’d developed a fairly full understanding of the concept through study and practice, I thought, “this is what John Friend means when he is talking about radical expansion.” I look forward to studying and practicing to experience and share ever more beauty.

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Discomfort v. Pain

My friend Reya posted a good blog entry today on pain.  What John Friend says of pain is that it is nature’s way of showing that we are out of alignment.  I am in full agreement with Reya that intentionally causing ourselves pain is not what brings the most gain.

We sometimes have to go into discomfort, though, to get out of pain, when we are practicing therapeutically.  What I tell my students, when they are seeking to use the physical practice of yoga to heal injuries, is that they want to practice mindfully enough to notice and back away from stabbing, pinching, tearing, or cramping sensations (you might think of other words to add to the list, but you get the idea).  On the other hand, intentionally embracing some level of therapeutic discomfort can be necessary to heal and grow.  An obvious non-yoga example is getting an operation to remove a tumor or fix something that is broken.  The operation is going to be a challenge, but it is better than not healing.

If we are not used to holding poses for a long time or balancing on one foot or on our hands, our muscles may think they would rather slouch on the couch–though slouching on the couch may be what precipitated injury or ill-health in the first place.  The discomfort of working muscles more than we usually do, but to the right degree and in alignment, is radically different than the pain of forcing our body to do something beyond its current capacity that exacerbates existing injuries or causes new ones and does not sufficiently heed proper alignment.

I invite you to practice slowly and with sufficient attention to know deeply whether you are just bringing on discomfort from right effort and changing old patterns that no longer serve or whether you are making yourself suffer for no real purpose.  No pose or distance or timing is worth injury, but healing and getting stronger and more flexible (as well as more courageous and expansive for what life brings to us) is most definitely worth some intentional discomfort.

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On My Way to New Jersey

I was not able to attend the mid-week intensive in New Jersey with John Friend. It was hard enough to make room in my schedule for the weekend workshop.

I can, though, be with my teacher and friends not just in spirit, but in intention. Knowing that the focus of the intensive was sadhana (practice), I selected The Philosophy of Sadhana to read on my way to the weekend, so that when I arrive I can be more in alignment mentally with those who already have been immersed this week in deep study of what sadhana means for ourselves and in community. Choosing to study in a way that connects us with our friends on the path, even when we cannot physically be present with them is, of course, one of the ways we support relationship in sadhana.

Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.

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Expanding Your Edge

Thursday night,  I took a dance improvisation workshop at Dance Exchange, the second in a series of three workshops.  One of the exercises we did was in groups of two.  The game was to do simultaneous improvisation.  Without designating a particular person as a leader, each dancer was to try and stay in synchronized movement with his or her partner.   When we were done with the exercise, some of the dancers talked about their goal having been to be in control of the lead or trying to push their partner past his or her edge.  I had been innocently (or perhaps naively) unaware of these dynamics, as I had been seeking to find where the dance could be the leader rather than either partner.

After the workshop, when I was walking to the metro with the teacher and another participant, both of whom are performers in their 20s, I raised the issue of people trying to push others past their edge (I’d held off raising it in the group as it seemed too many were in a different space).  I said that knowing that my partner was a lot less flexible than me, though lots stronger, and knowing his competitive edge, I never would have tried to push him beyond his physical limits.

The teacher said he liked being pushed past where it seemed like a good idea; it made him get to another place.  I agreed that it is good to try to expand, to go beyond what we think are our limits.  I have been taught, though, by my teacher John Friend, not to blow past my limits.  Rather, in the practice of Anusara yoga, we seek to be intimately and exquisitely aware of our edge at every moment, and then expand it.  The game with the partner using this paradigm would have been to find the edge and then see if the dance could expand it rather than to try and exert control or see if we could push our partner past his or her limits at our partner’s risk.   When we operate in a paradigm of straining and striving, or we push for control or try to compete with ourselves or with others, that is where we get injured.  I’ve had my share of dance injuries, I added, but to continue dancing through the decades, I cannot be blowing past my limits, though I am still growing.  I was not sure that what I said felt relevant, but I could also tell that it was information that went into the thought mix for later.

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“If there were lights to turn on…” (and Purna) (at the Anusara Grand Gathering)

The first two days, including the Solstice, of the Anusara Grand Gathering were bright and blue and sunny and pleasantly cool in the morning and warm in the afternoon–“perfect” New England summer days.  The third morning dawned cloudy.  By the time the morning session was underway, a pleasant drizzle had turned into a deluge.  Rain started coming in from the sides where the tent was open, and then the roof started leaking.  The clouds were sufficiently dense that the light was no more than at dawn or dusk.  It was getting pretty dark and wet in the tent.  At one point, after having told stories about rain being regarded as blessings in Hindu rituals and exhorting us in surya namaskar to jump forward and splash in a puddle like a kid, John said, “I would turn the lights on, but there aren’t any lights to turn on.  So this is perfect!”

One of the conundrums in explaining the philosophical principle of purna, which means “perfect” or “fullness” is reconciling it with the evident fact that our divine perfection or fullness aside, we are still working to shift and realign our minds and bodies through the practices.  The divine consciousness, which is everything, say the yogis, is utterly perfect as it is and completely full (or fully empty and thus all potential, depending on how you look at it).  We are told that we (and all of being) are the divine consciousness manifest and then given a slew of techniques and instruction to help us change ourselves.

If we are completely perfect and full, what is the point of learning all the technique and seeking to expand and shift our bodies and minds?  The yoga teachings say that we forget that we are this fullness and perfection, and it is our forgetting that leads to suffering (which is different than pain, but discussing that distinction will have to wait for another blog entry).  The practices are not to perfect or improve us, but rather to shift our alignment (mind and body) so that we remember the perfection of ourselves as spirit.  When we remember, we are better able to recognize the perfection in ourselves, other people, beings, things, or events, even what we find challenging or difficult.  From this space of recognition, in my experience, we naturally become happier and more generous of spirit.

I think that moment at the Anusara Grand Gathering is a perfect (word choice intentional) illustration of the apparent dichotomy of seeking change and appreciation of the perfection of every moment.  If there had been lights to turn on, John would have turned on the lights so that we could have observed the alignment better during the demonstrations and he and the assistants could have seen the students more easily.  The universe did not have it in store for us to have a light-filled dry day; we were getting a wet and dark one whether we liked it or not.  Having no lights to turn on, John reminded us in a light-hearted way that the teachings and practices would invite us to fully embrace and enjoy the weather we got and practice space we had (while staff were busily making alternative arrangements for classes later in the day), getting the most out of it.  I thought it was pretty fun to practice in the cool rain, though it’s easy for me to say since I and my things stayed dry, and the rain was a welcome respite from the worsening drought in the DC area.

 

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