Tag Archive: tantric philosophy


In the tantric philosophy, one of the aspects ascribed to the ultimacy of being itself is that it is completely free (svatantriya). Even when elemental being manifests itself as limited in time and space (as humans for example), it is part of the very dance, the play (lila) of existence.

I find it fascinating how much of our advertising uses language that in essence promises that we will realize aspects of our divine nature by owning some material thing or indulging in some activity. What is being sold, by those terms, inevitably fails deliver and must thoroughly disappoint. This thing on offer might be a wonderful technological toy that would be great fun to use, but hardly could bring unlimited freedom. If it did, we wouldn’t want to buy the next version.

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


Learning From Our Demons (Hanuman Leaps to Lanka)

Last month, Sianna Sherman taught a weekend workshop at Willow Street Yoga.  At the beginning of one of the segments of the workshop, she talked about the story of the monkey god Hanuman and his leap to Lanka (he did this to rescue Sita, who had been abducted by her own demons.  Sita sent Hanuman back to India without her, asking Hanuman where was Ram, but that’s a whole different thread in the Ramayana.)

The first demon Hanuman encountered was Mainaka, a golden mountain who rose up out of the sea.  She gave Hanuman a place to rest.  She was helper.  But she was also demon in that she wanted Hanuman to stay and rest with her and to give up his journey.  Some of the stories characterize Mainaka only as a helper, and not as a demon.  If Hanuman had become stuck in the comfort Mainaka offered, though, and failed in his journey, she would have been for him the demon of complacency.  The question Sianna left with us to consider about Mainaka was where have we been too comfortable?  Where do we need to express gratitude and appreciation, but move on?

The second demon, Surasa, was a fierce water serpent who emerged from the water to swallow Hanuman up as he was flying over the ocean.  To escape, he first tried making himself so big that she Surasa could not swallow him, but she just opened her mouth wider and wider, gnashing at him with her razor-sharp teeth.   Hanuman escaped by then shrinking himself to the size of a dust mote and flying out from between Surasa’s teeth.  Being able to make himself immense was one of the powers he needed to be able to fight the various demons, but he needed also to be willing and able to make himself small to complete the journey.  He would have been stuck if he had not been capable of taking on different shapes and approaching things from different perspectives.  Surasa may have tried to swallow him up, but she also taught him perspective.  “Are there places where you could use more perspective?” asked Sianna.

The third demon , Sinhaka, at least according to some versions, tried to eat Hanuman’s shadow.  Inseparable from his shadow, the only way to escape was to turn back to face and claim his shadow as his own to battle Sinhaka.  Running away would have just kept Sinhaka champing at his tail and dragging him back from success.  We have to recognize and face our shadows in order to be complete and to understand the full spectrum of being.  We were invited to ask whether there were particular fears from which we were running.

What stayed with me, and has me still thinking about the workshop, was that the emphasis was on treating ourselves and the obstacles we face on and off the mat with compassion.  We often give lip service in Western tantra to seeing the good or the necessary in our demons.  For example, whereas classical yoga thinks desire needs to be eradicated, tantra recognizes both that we would not get out of bed in the morning without it and that desire is what can lead us to practice and seek spiritual connection.  When we can truly look at our demons (both our own personal ones and those we see in both wider and more intimate relationships), our demons are not evidently nor necessarily to be slain or eschewed or to be seen as only malignant or pestilent.   When we approach our own demons and those of others with true compassion, we open the possibility of change through deeper awareness, connection, and recognition of humanity.


Play of Shadow and Light?

Does it matter whether this juxtaposition of the exhortation to love next to a game of hangman was intended by those holding the chalk?

Even if the juxtaposition was not thought out and done for the purpose of later viewers, it raises much to ponder about how we act and live in relationship to the world.

Just one of the questions that comes first to mind is whether it is more ok to play hangman if you it with love?

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


Abhinavagupta (X-Rated or Not?)

As I get deeper into studying tantric philosophy I have taken the time to pause and reflect on how that philosophy originated and grew and who were the people offering and practicing the teachings.  The tantric teachings I have received and offer are completely chaste.  Put “tantra” into your favorite search engine, though, and you will see that people tend to think it is about intimate physical connection (my first euphemism).  What is tantra?  Is it one or the other?  Is it something one can have without the other?

To help me think through and contemplate the issue, I read David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body. I followed this with Lilian Silburn’s Kundalinia–Energy of the Depths.”  What seems fairly evident–if you want the details, I invite you to read the books yourself (and also on sri vidya, Douglas Renfrew Brooks’ The Secret of the Three Cities)–is that despite the inclusion of those not twice born and women in the rituals, the community of tantrikas was no less sexist than more traditional society.  The role of women in the secret rituals, as I have read it described, is one that would be wholly unacceptable to me in terms of equality, gender neutrality, and respect for women as human beings and not as archtypes and means to an end for male practitioners.

I did not get into the depths of knowing the historical details before I had been strongly drawn to the metaphysics of Kashmir Shaivism, which has been an integral part of my yoga studies.  As I think about how a feminist, pacifist can find the universal teachings while still acknowledging the historical and social context in other texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, it seemed given tantra’s rap in today’s society, I should see what my answer is for the tantric teachings as well.  In thinking about the issue, I contemplated how I see the teachings in and out of the historical context (as you can see from the link to Swami Lakshmanjoo, the philosophical teachings are presented today without a hint the secret rituals).

I also asked the following, among other questions:  How important is it for the student to take the teacher for the whole of the teachings and his or her human strengths and weaknesses?  Is it ok to just really believe in one aspect of the teachings?  Can we pick and choose what to learn and still be faithful to the lineage? Can we love and respect someone fully even if we disagree with his or her way or life and/or way of participating in society?  Is extraordinary grace and genius enough to make what might otherwise trouble or even appall us seem irrelevant? Is it easier to come to terms with this issue for those teachers from different time periods or cultures and thus for whom our own choices or “modern thinking” might not have been available?

I think that the Wikipedia entry for Abhinavagupta, which mentions that the community would have engaged in secret (my spam-avoidance euphemism) ritual, but avers that “[w]e can only speculate about whether he was physically chaste, and either answer to this question is not very meaningful in the context of his life and teachings” gets it half right.  It seems to me that it would be meaningful when looking at his life, but not of import in the modern receipt of the teachings.  I think, for me, the very resonance of the philosophy and the practices with which I am familiar are not less meaningful for the historical concomitance of the hidden practices.



Artha, Kama, Dharma, Moksha (and Politics)

Last night, Paul Muller-Ortega, as part of the introductory talk for the meditation intensive, spoke at some length about the principles of ardha, kama, dharma, moksha.

As I have written about before, in the classical yoga view, it is the renunciation of the first three–material well-being, love and relationship, and right work or path, that leads us to the fourth–liberation. From a tantric yoga perspective, it is living and having the first three from the perspective of illuminated wisdom and discerning (viveka) insight (pratibha) that makes us free (jivanmukti) in this life.

One of the most exquisite things about a steady practice and study, is that each time we revisit a core concept, we hear and understand new aspects to bring into our lives.

When speaking of approaching these elemental aspects of human being, Paul noted that ardha includes not only material well-being, even wealth, but also the power that wealth brings and how we use it. Although he only mentioned that briefly amidst several other concepts, it really resonated with the current state of my being in relationship to the world and our country.

I have been contemplating deeply about wealth and power in this time of budget debate, and how they can and should be used to bring nurture, peace, and health to the maximum degree possible. (You might guess that I don’t think increasing spending for war and decreasing spending for education and health is going to bring us freedom).

Thinking about the power of money as part of our contemplation of our material well-being is something of critical importance at this time. If we shun or disdain in our minds wealth and power while still yearning for our own comforts, than we have lost an opportunity to bring the yoga principles into our lives as optimally as possible. (Of course, grasping and coveting money and power is completely destructive of the possibility of happiness, but most of us think about that, and it is why some say they are bad — money being the root of all evil, etc.).

If we are really in the world and want to be happy and to share and spread happiness, while living in accordance with the principles of the yamas and niyamas, especially the yamas: ahimsa, satya, aparigraha, brahmacharya, asteya (non-harming, truthfulness, non-greediness, aligning with spirit, and non-stealing), that is when we will start opening up the possibility of true living liberation.

Imagine, instead of thinking about material well-being as a “guilty pleasure” thinking of ways in which you can use your own well-being (and work through your practice to discover greater health and strength) to be a voice and power for good in your own individual way.

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


What Does It Mean to Be Yogic? (and “The New York Times Article”)

This weekend, a friend whose marriage of decades is precipitating towards dissolution, said to me, “I am having trouble reconciling being yogic and still needing to do what I need to do in connection with divorce.  How do I deal with that?”  I told her about a yoga principle I learned at the first Inner Harmony Retreat I attended with John Friend in the summer of 2003.  He had asked a student a question that yielded as the answer the four yoga principles of ardha (physical and material well-being), kama (relationship, including intimate and love relationships), dharma (life path or work), and moksha (liberation or freedom).  The fellow student answering the question, who was also my teacher, gave the classic yoga explanation that we try to do the first three elements in alignment so that we can then transcend and go beyond them to become free (enlightened).  John replied that was the traditionally correct answer in dualist, classical yoga, but that from the tantric perspective of a person living in the world as a yogi, we look apply the principles differently.  By living in a way that we have taken care of our physical and material well-being, have happy and loving relationships, and work with delight and passion that we will be embodying a life of the spirit; we will then be living and embodying freedom (jivanmukti).  That encapsulation of tantric yoga resonated deeply and is a significant part of why I have chosen a path of tantric yoga rather than one that preaches renouncing the body and mind (which I think is impossible for one staying in the world).

My friend’s question seemed especially significant to me in light of the dialogue that has ensued following the publication of the New York Times article on John Friend, John’s blog in response, and the Elephant Journal interview.  The essence of the article and the reactions, to me, seem to be about the intersection of our “outer” notions of societal success–fame and fortune–and yoga and whether the two can be reconciled.  The New York Times article is obviously intended to be sensational and to create controversy; that is what makes a journalist who gets fame and fortune.  But the alleged tension highlighted in the article is indicative of a bigger societal confusion of how and whether we can be spiritual or religious beings and also have human needs and wants.  Ours is a society that hungers for panaceas and palliatives.  In “discovering” yoga and its benefits in the late 20th century, far too many have put onto it expectations that have no basis in what is yoga and how it is supposed to aid us.

There is no word in yoga philosophy or in India for “yogic.”  The word “yogic” is a western creation of relatively recent vintage.  Webster’s dictionary does not have it as a separate word, but just has it at the end of the definition of “yoga” as “adj, often capitalized.” What do we mean by being “yogic?”  It seems that we have gotten this notion that if we practice yoga seriously or teach it, that means we must be perfectly pure and good.  We will need only light and air to nourish our bodies (and maybe a little local raw food in season); we will have neither needs nor desires; we will be so suffused with peace, compassion, and equanimity, that we never feel or show anger or grief, even in the face of injustice, violence, pain, or outrageous behavior.  We expect that somehow we will be a perfect monk while still living with family and going to work.

We expect this not only of ourselves, but even more so of our teachers.  In essence, we somehow expect yoga to release us from the realities of being human.  To have such expectations inevitably will lead to disappointment in ourselves and our teachers (for being unable to reach this impossible ideal) or in the practice (both for not yielding this ideal and for, in our delusion, creating this expectation in the first place).  My meditation and philosophy teacher Paul Muller-Ortega would say that to have such expectations is “adolescent” spirituality.  When we practice “adult” spirituality, we take responsibility for ourselves and our own practice.  We expect our teachers to offer us the teachings, but we honor and recognize them as human beings.

To practice yoga sincerely while still living in the world should make us more humane to ourselves and to all around us, not beyond being human.  This is the true essence of Anusara yoga.  To be richly and freely and wonderfully human and feel great love and compassion for that, even as we balance the realities of life with attempts to live in greater alignment.   I am incredibly grateful for the teachings and the community that John Friend has created and the offering to study and get as deeply into the yoga as makes sense for me.  Whether there are things I might do differently in the realm of ardha, kama, or dharma if I were “the yoga mogul” is of little moment because to find moksha we all strive to do our best in our own way (and one thing I know of John is that he always strives to do his best).


The Svadharma of the Pinky Toe (and Radical Affirmation)

Svadharma, from sva (self) and dharma (duty) means our personal path, duty, calling, or place.  The principle of svadharma is a significant teaching in various yoga texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, especially emphasizing the importance in acting in accordance with one’s caste (for example, Arjuna needing to act in accordance with his dharma as a warrior) or one’s sex (consider Sita’s role in the Ramayana).

Extrapolating this teaching and taking it onto the mat, during one of the practice sessions the previous week at the Certified Teachers’ Gathering, John Friend said that “every part of the the body has its own svadharma to increase the pranic flow.”  He then said that if you just took a photo of the feet of an Anusara yoga practitioner in any pose, you should be able to see that the whole body was fully engaged and active.  John Friend’s teaching here was not just using the yoga philosophy as a catalyst to better understand the body.  By using the principle to illuminate the practice, the practice reflectively illuminated the principle itself, without denying or denigrating its original context or getting bogged down in its historical baggage of perpetuating the caste system and demarcated, subservient roles for women.

Thinking about the svadharma of the pinky toe has no such baggage.  The pinky toes are homely looking things, they do not fit well into most women’s shoes, they rather painfully bump into things, and they are hard to move independently.  They are not essential for living and do not have the emotional charge of the heart and brain, the exquisite connection to the world of the sense organs, or the connection to life itself of the lungs.  Despite this, the call to lift and spread the toes, to draw the pinky toe toward the heel, or the hip happens just about every time I go to the mat in my practice or teach a class.  Activating the pinky toe by opening it and spreading it apart from the other toes is a conscious act of opening that helps hug the shins to the midline.  In hugging the shins in by means of activating the pinky toe, the yogi on the mat can then safely move the thighs back and apart, creating an expansion of the pelvic floor that provides room for more strongly tucking under the tailbone to access core power.  The pinky toe thus is an important part of our practice, even if we could manage to get by without it.

But the svadharma of the pinky toe on the mat is not just to be able to help us access the movement of “shins in” so that we can better do “thighs out,” although that is an important physical part of its essence.  The toe does not move on its own.  We have to start by bringing our awareness and consciousness to the toe.  Part of the pinky toe’s svadharma, then, is to invite the infusion of consciousness to show how full participation of even an apparently insignificant part of the body can lead us to a better understanding and personal experience of the pulsation between reaching out and hugging in and affirming ourselves.   By intentionally bringing our awareness to the power we can unleash in the pose by the movement of the pinky toe, we bring the opportunity for greater strength, expansion, and flow of energies.  This is why, I think, John Friend suggested that by just seeing the toes we should be able to know the engagement of the whole body and mind in a particular pose.

As a practical and therapeutic matter, recognizing and bringing into play the svadharma of each and every part of the body serves to help us increase the flow of energy and expand our range of movement.  In addition, activating the parts of the body that are inclined to slack (for example, the pinky toe or the adductor and abdominal muscles) will bring ease to the muscles that tend to overwork to compensate, such as the neck and low back muscles.  We are not just stronger and more flexible when every part of the body does fulfills its svadharma, but we eliminate much pain and suffering.  (More to come on this particular concept in other posts.)

Off the mat, when all parts of the whole are fully conscious of and know their svadharma, the whole will itself have more consciousness, more light, and better experience the bliss of being.  It is easy to see, without judgment or question, that the pinky toe cannot do the work of the heart, although when the pinky toe is working it can help contribute to an integration of mind and body that will further the opening of the heart and thus the whole person.  Finding our svadharma as a whole person within society does not have to be about conforming to preconceived social norms that no longer serve.  The better we are able to understand where we are in time, space, and the interconnected web of being, though, the more fully we can participate in leading society itself to a more conscious and light-filled place, just as bringing our conscious awareness to the actions of the pinky toe can do the same for us as individual yogis on the mat.  When we recognize and live out our true svadharma as such, we radically affirm ourselves, the community, and the very essence of all being.


Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodaha

I slept restlessly last night and woke early with concern for those who were in the metro crash.  Being already a bit agitated, worries about getting things done at work also were arising.  Despite my restlessness, I made sure to sit for meditation.  Thoughts kept arising, but by the time I was into my sit, I was able to find a space, where I was not tangled or unsteadied by the thoughts.  I felt more peaceful and able to meet the challenges of the day.

In times of agitation, I often find myself drawn to contemplate again Patanjali’s sutra 1.2:  Yoga citta vrtti nirodaha. In classical yoga, it means to still the thought waves.  This is meant to be the ultimate purpose of yoga:  to still thought so that what is beyond mind and body can be revealed.

Practicing and studying from a tantric perspective, I think not so much of stilling my thoughts when I practice and meditate, but rather, finding a sense of alignment, an allowing of and making allowance within my being for the rhythm of the thoughts like a sailor getting sea legs on a boat, so that I can be steady (sthira) and have a greater sense of peace (shantaya) and light (tejase), no matter how wild are the thoughts arising and sensations entering in the field of my consciousness.