Tag Archive: Patanjali

Found Exhortation (and Tapas)

image

What does it mean to excel, to do well?  I think there is no excelling in yoga, at least not the way we conventionally think of excelling in school or career or sports.  But to practice in a way that is more than casual, there must be ardor–tapas. 

Tapas is often translated as fire, and the texts are full of stories of outrageous physical exertions done to prove the tapas of the practitioners looking for boons from the gods.

There is a fiery aspect to tapas, but I question whether it must necessarily be burning from physical exertion, though that is a path that calls out to many. 

The fire of tapas could be thought of as doing what it takes to manifest the will to know something deeply enough to be able to experience the fluency and grace and delight of expertise.   It could be the ardor to show up in a disciplined and committed way for hours and days and years of practice, always still wanting deeper, fuller knowing.

Share

Furlough Week Two — Sutras

First too hot, now cool.

It wasn’t until the weather cooled and the reality of a second week of work not being done that needs to be done to meet deadlines that the impulse arose to make the first batch of homemade granola of the season.  This batch could be called maple nut granola with raisins.

Harvested last of the sweet banana peppers and a fire engine red cayenne pepper.  Also picked as a baby one last eggplant before pulling the plant to make way for tat soi.

Most of the tomatoes I found on the ground still unripe.  With a generous portion of red wine and nice herbs, and the traditional way of cooking them for hours and then running through a food mill, and then reducing until reaching the desired thickness, it won’t matter that the tomatoes ripened on the counter.

Assorted apples from the farmer’s market.  Dried fruit is different when it goes into the dehydrator within a couple of days of having been picked and early in the season when the apples are best.  An upside of being required to stay around home is that I have been able to experiment with the dehydrator that was a most generous birthday gift.

There’s a bunch of difficult stuff going on, but there is no need to write about it anywhere except possibly in my journal, for much of it.  And as for the shutdown and its impact on real people around the globe (and all that interconnectedness stuff), I prefer today to write about granola and stuff from the garden.

Anyway, I’m thinking I would just be preaching to the choir if I wrote another blog post about the importance of trying to keep up and understand as much as possible, speaking with others to shape your understanding and your voice, being in contact with your elected officials and signing petitions, and reaching out to friends and family open to such discussions to invite them to be engaged.

It is times like these when I think of Patanjali’s sutra:  heyam duhkham anagatam (the pain that has yet to come can be avoided.)  I have contemplated this sutra much over a long period.  It is a good one for when I am reaching into the yoga teachings for insight into how I might respond more optimally under the circumstances at hand, especially that which is entirely out of my control.

furlough 1a furlough 1b furlough 1c furlough 1d

Share

Disobedience and Isvara Pranadhana

MoveOn just posted this Howard Zinn quote on Facebook:  “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

It spoke my mind and resonated with what I wrote about yesterday with regard to how to be open to yoga’s invitation to practice humility without ceding power to authoritarian structures.   This quote is spurring me to think aboutPatanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga, and particularly the niyama (observance) of ishvara pranadhana (surrender).  I  don’t see why a true, radical yogini could not simultaneously surrender to the mysterious outrageousness of being while still being appropriately disobedient to authoritarian structure.  But maybe that is because I was raised a Quaker; there’s quite a bit of overlap between some of the tantric yoga principles and the teachings of Quakers.

Share

Atha Yoganusasanam (and “Opening to Grace”)

Earlier this week I was talking to a long-time friend of the family (my father has known him and his wife for over 60 years; they have known me since I was riding around in the womb).  My parents had sent me an email while I was on the meditation intensive with Paul Muller-Ortega last month, to tell me that our friend was in intensive care recovering from an operation.  I waited until I knew he was home to call because it can be so tricky to get the right time at the hospital.  When we spoke, I told him that my father had said that his intrepid cheerfulness was a complete inspiration.  “What choice do I have,” he asked, “what can you do when you wake up in intensive care on your 82nd birthday, but look for the gift it will have to bring?”

In the past several weeks, a number of other friends and family members have been seriously ill or lost loved ones or home or work or more than one of these.  The outrageous suffering from a seemingly relentless series of natural disasters and war and the financial crisis is a staple in the news.  In trying to stay present for my friends and community, while still taking care of my own needs and emotions, I found myself led to practice bhavana on (deeply contemplate)  the first sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutrasatha yoganusasanam–now begins the practice of yoga and how it relates to the Anusara first principle of “opening to grace.

Teachers and commenters say of the Yoga Sutras that it was not meant for beginners, but was meant for students who have already established a practice and reached a level of initiation (diksha) that  established they were ready to be given the teachings.  I have also often heard said that one is drawn to the practices because of other experiences in this or a previous life; in some sense, the first time we show up, we are not a beginner and are ready for the teachings.  Whatever knowledge and skill we bring to our studies and practice on any  given day, they start new.  They are starting “now.”

Now begins the practice of yoga (yug)–of uniting ourselves with each other and with spirit and linking our mind and body one-pointedly to the fullness of the teachings.  The teachings are methods for knowing and experiencing this perfect union.  In that regard, I think that an essential element of the teaching conveyed by  the Anusara first principle of “opening to grace,” is this now, this beginning anew both to know what already is in our hearts and to learn how the practices can make it ever more accessible, whether we are beginners to what we understand to be yoga or meditation or have been practicing seriously for years.  We want this “now” in every moment.  As we get more skilled, and part of developing our skills is challenging ourselves deeply in the controlled environment of class and our own practice so that we will spontaneously open to grace in the moment when, as my friend said, there is no viable choice but to be cheerful (to “open to grace”).

The “now” of Patanjali, the practice of “opening to grace” in Anusara yoga, is a way to teach those of us (like me) who do not otherwise learn or intuit from living itself that there is no viable choice other than cheerfulness in the face of the most difficult of challenges. The  “now”  conveys that it is now time to go deep, time to expand understanding and practice, time to discover truly how the practices can connect us to spirit and alleviate suffering.  Now is the time to be and to  learn better how to stay grounded in and connected to the flow of energies, not just so that you can face what you yourself might be experiencing, but also to have ever more space for love, compassion, support, and service for others who are in need.  Now is the time to open to grace.

Photo from exhibit in San Francisco on the 10,000 year clock project.

Share

June Greetings (Web Version of June E-Newsletter)

Dear Friends,

One of the yoga practices in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is sauca, which means cleanliness or purity.  It does have a basic aspect of physical cleanliness, which has lead me this year to do an especially vigorous spring cleaning.  I think following the principle of saucra also applies to the clarity of our intention for the practice of yoga:  are we seeking to experience and act from a place of deep connection to spirit (or good or oneness or divine or whatever you name it)?  In practicing sauca, I think the most basic question is whether we have dust on the mirror that reflects the good in ourselves obscuring our vision, whether there are blockages to the energy flowing to bring us to optimal physical and emotional health, or whether anything is getting in the way of our manifesting our intention?

When it has been too hot to go into the garden over the past month, I have been reorganizing and sorting through old papers.  As a once every five or ten years spring cleaning, it is lasting longer than usual.  I tend to be good about keeping on top of these things, but there are crevises of old records of my life that seem to just get stuck back into a folder to be decided on some other time.  This afternoon I came across intimate letters from a friend who, not long after we went our separate what had become cross-continental ways with regret on both sides, discovered he had brain cancer.  There were a few notes not in envelopes.  I reread those, but did not open the envelopes.  Back into the miscellaneous file until the next time.  The same with the print-outs of emails to and from Peru right after 9/11.  It wasn’t avoidance.  Over time and distance, regret and grief have faded.  I did not have the need or the time to read them now.  They went back into the file because I am curious what will be my reaction to these documents when I am 87 should I be around in this body then.  I find that when I see them after again more years have passed, I can see how much the yoga (asana and meditation) as a steady practice over time has shifted how I relate to my past, to all the decisions better or worse that brought me here today.  I am more at peace with the various detours and convolutions for the teachings and the good at the time, even if they do not appear to have been squarely or most efficiently on the path.

Just as most of us have pieces of paper or things that for some reason get saved, but spend most of their time in a drawer or a file cabinet or a closet, we have thoughts and emotions around past experiences that can emerge into memory at what can seem to be the oddest of times.  With a strong meditation practice, it can sometimes feel like we are cleaning out the closets of our mind.  With a therapeutically focused asana practice, it can seem as though we have found old energetic entanglements, and it may feel that it would have been easier never to have practiced at all.  If we stay steady and keep coming to class and our own practice, we witness how much change can be wrought.  When we remember to bring our clear intention to the yoga mat, the meditation cushion, the garden and the kitchen, the laundry, work and commuting and everything we do, then we in an ever more refined and deepening way open to grace, the fundamental AnusaraR principle.

I am happy to let you know that I am now E-RYT 500.  My spring cleaning on the physical level motivated me to do the paperwork with Yoga Alliance.  My carrying the designation E-RYT 500 means that teachers taking my classes and workshops can get Yoga Alliance continuing education credits, in addition to Anusara study hours.

I am looking forward to studying with Christina Sell at Willow Street Yoga next weekend.  Come join fellow yogis for what promises to be a joyously challenging weekend of classes.  The following weekend, I head up to Vermont for the Anusara Grand Gathering.  If you are going, let me know and we can try to connect.

Special June Location Information for William Penn House Classes:  June 14 and 28, William Penn House will be completely taken over by conference groups.  Class will be held at the house location.  RSVP’s are required.  For those who have been regulars, but who have been full up with other things in life than class, it is a sweet way to get back.

Hope to see you soon.

Peace and light,

Elizabeth

Share

Bare Bones of the Trees (and Pratyahara)

One of the things that I appreciate most about winter is being able to see the bare articulation of the shape of the tree in the absence of its leaves. A dormant tree looks very different from a leafless, lifeless tree. The dormant tree still has a vibrancy to it.

As I enjoyed the beauty of the trees in Stanton Park this morning on my walk to work, I thought about pratyahara (withdrawal of or from the senses), which is the fifth step of Patanjali”s eight-limbed path of yoga and the bridge between life and physical practice (the first four limbs consist of ethical observances and restraints, asana, and breathing practices) and meditation. I have been led to contemplate the practice and meaning of pratyahara since the last meditation retreat I attended.

From a renunciate perspective, pratyahara entails withdrawing from that which stimulates our senses. A renunciate would simplify and restrict what he or she takes into his or her system to free the mind from stimulation and make it easier to go into a space of meditation.

Being careful to eat lightly, avoiding the stimulation of electronic entertainment, finding a quiet place to sit, and shutting our eyes before we begin meditating is part of the practice of pratyahara that all of us who practice meditation do as a matter of course.

From a tantric perspective, I think pratyahara fits into our practice a little differently than for someone seeking to be on a reunciate path. We may definitely choose to minimize undue or excessive stimulation because certain types or amounts of stimulation feel out of alignment with our practices. For me, more than a certain amount of sense stimulation and certain types of stimulation can numb my celebration of and experience the spirit. Refining what I take into my system so I feel better able to live fully and celebrate and see the play of consciousness is different than renouncing objects that stimulate the senses or sense impressions themselves, as being less real than spirit. It is not renouncing things as unreal; it is picking and refining what to experience to better recognize and remember spirit. For the great siddhas, withdrawal from stimulation would not be necessary because they do not lose sight of spirit by either the cravings of the senses or being overwhelmed by reactions to stimulation of the senses.

The trees seemed to me this morning to help elucidate this principle. The trees aren’t acting out of ego or greed or yearning to find happiness from the outside because of an emptiness on the inside. They are always open to the light and the rain. In winter, when they are dormant, they are not reaching for the light and rain or hungering for spring. They are there in all of their beauty open to receive nourishment when it comes. In spring, when the leaves start to bud and open, it is because of the light and the rain, but the essence of being a tree does not change or get distorted by going inward and resting or by opening to burgeoning growth.

When we can simply open to all that is around us as spirit (beyond my capacities except at the rarest of times), then we can be open to the fullness of what stimulates the senses and still be practicing pratyahara. As long as we are swayed from the recognition and delight of spirit by stimulation of the senses, then we need to practice withdrawing on a grosser level to help us find the space of still being where we can be in the world of the senses without being tangled up and bound by it as such.

Share

Ecstatic Serenity

When I was eight or nine, a teacher asked everyone in my class to say what they wanted to be when they grew up.  The other children named the various jobs or professions that appealed to them at the time.  I responded that I wanted to be independently wealthy.  At that age, I was expressing something I already knew from family issues.  Though I did not have the words for it or a clear understanding, what I was saying was not just false precocity.  I knew at a basic level what is taught in yoga:  I would need enough material support (ardha) to follow my heart in love (kama) and work (dharma); then my life could be free (moksha).

When I was 22 and visiting my friend Dan, he asked me what I really wanted to do with my life.  We had just graduated from college.  Dan was working for a sculptor who was a professor in the art department; I had just moved back to New York, had just gotten over a failed attempt to serve as an office manager for an off-off Broadway theater, was in a place of deep emotional and financial struggle, and was trying to determine what work and corresponding further education I wanted.  “I want to be content,” I said.  “That’s too passive,” he replied.  “No, that’s not what I mean,” I tried to explain.  “For me being content being satisfied and engaged with my work and life, but still working hard and having goals.  It’s not just hanging out.”  I had all sorts of things that I found interesting and possibilities for a life path, but I didn’t have one specific career or life plan that I was certain would be more fulfilling than any of the others.  They just would have satisfied me in different ways.  Because of the dilemma of too many choices, I wanted to be able happy with whatever choice I made, even if it seemed like a compromise.  I was conscious that once I picked, because of the inherent limitations of time and space, that I would either have to be content with my choice or be unhappy.  I have since learned to think of contentment (samtosha), which is one of the niyamas of the path of yoga expounded by Patanjali, as a practice rather than a goal (and it is a very important and continuing practice for me).  Contentment is not an end, as I had thought when I was 22; it is just one part of the path to a goal of living liberated (jivanmukti), experiencing self as spirit in all that one does.

On a recent telephone seminar, Paul Muller-Ortega, my meditation and philosophy teacher, in the midst of a broad dialogue regarding various studies and practices, spoke a little of ecstatic serenity.  Memories of the discussions I had had long ago about what I wanted welled up in the forefront of my thoughts.  In thinking about what is my intention now, especially with regard to my practice (sadhana), I witnessed my previously stated intentions as just stages on the path to this discovery.  As soon as I heard Paul say the phrase, I thought, “that’s what I want; I want to be ecstatically serene.”   I seek to be always in some part of my conscious being still and peaceful, while simultaneously being passionately engaged in what life brings to me and I bring to life.

Share

Track Work on the Red Line

I am writing this post as I sit on the Metro platform at Takoma, waiting for a train back to Union Station. There were already dozens of people waiting when I got here. I have been here for ten minutes or so, and there is no time posted on the board yet for the next train.

Some people are talking on their phones or socializing with each other. Some are pacing back and forth. Some look resigned. Some are going into tirades about the problems with Metro. Some are reading and have made themselves more or less at home where they are.

I sit cross-legged, basking in the sun, blogging for now, and if time permits also in my journal. I could be angry or impatient or annoyed, but it would not get me home any sooner. So I just find enjoyment of the waiting time with the materials at hand.

Although there are circumstances where physical pain or suffering cannot be avoided, yoga can help us find a greater sense of equanimity when we are challenged. As John Friend reminded us this week in a different context, “in a large part, it will be seen that the suffering is optional.”

I now approach Union Station. Perhaps when I get home I will supplement this post with appropriate citations to Patanjali. Or maybe I will play with the cats and pick some grrens from the garden for dinner.

Share

I hate [insert name of pose or class of poses] (and the kleshas)

One of the aims of yoga, according to Patanjali’s classic eight-limbed path of yoga, is to be free from being torn between the pairs of opposites — pleasure and pain.  We cannot be free if we are always grasping at pleasure or acting to avoid pain.  From a tantric perspective, we are not trying to disengage or transcend body and mind and the natural arising of pleasure and pain, but we still want to be engaged without an attachment or aversion that leads us into entanglement and suffering rather than towards openness and light.

One of the kleshas (afflictions) is dvesa, which can be translated as hate, dislike, abhorrence, enmity, avoidance.  Why wouldn’t we want just to avoid something that we dislike?  Sometimes we have no choice, and one of the benefits of yoga is helping us make peace with having to face or be engaged with things that are painful or distasteful.

I often hear students say, “I hate [insert name of pose].”  Last night, I heard it twice.  I am no stranger to the “I have to go to the bathroom poses,” the poses which are so challenging or uncomfortable, that I feel the need to leave the room. One of the most profound ways I have grown with yoga, though, is staying present for the poses that did not initially appeal to me, usually those that pushed my fear, trust, strength, anxiety, worthiness buttons.  One of the obvious superficial benefits of staying present and practicing the “I hate” poses is that they can yield an extra sense of accomplishment when we get them.  We can also learn more about our friends and colleagues by starting to understand why the poses are the ones that naturally draw them and thus expand our perspective on the fullness of life.

For example, arm balances are still most challenging for me, partly because I am more flexible than I am strong, and partly because I am fearful of falling.  I’ve started to appreciate how another person could be drawn to them for the exhilaration, the rush of danger, the excitement, the challenge, the very topsy-turvyness of the poses, although those aren’t sensations to which I am naturally drawn.  But I have learned how much practicing arm balances fuels the energy in my core and heart and when I get them, what it must feel like to fly.

The teacher’s duty (and I have been blessed with wonderful teachers who have given me this gift) is to offer the full range of experiences (within the parameters of the class level, style of yoga, and class description), so that every student gets to practice both favorites and least favorites.  This is not so much to make sure that every student gets a favorite sometimes and so is happy in the class when the favorite shows up, but so that the students are invited to be present, grounded, and open to his or her own light through the full range of delights and challenges.   On a day when I just get my favorites, I feel like I have been to the spa.  The real pleasure from yoga has been from the challenging poses over the long term.   It has been steadily coming to the challenge that has started easing my reactions off the mat to the inevitable challenges, pain, and losses of a full and active life.  In being less reactive to challenges, I also find I crave specific pleasures less, and so enjoy the pleasures that come all the more.

Yoga home practice challenge: pick one pose for which the phrase, “I hate…” usually proceeds it and make it an element of your weekly home practice for a month.  Witness your reactions on and off the mat.  Enjoy what happens next time the pose comes up in a class.  Maybe the phrase “I hate” will stop arising as soon as you hear the teacher name the pose.

Share