In the tantric yoga philosophy, two key concepts are that of prakasha and vimarsha–light and reflection. Prakasha is the fullness of the light of consciousness itself; vimarsha, the reflection of the light that is our own individual recognition of the light of consciousness in ourselves. The sweetly mysterious joy we get in seeing reflections in a puddle is the reminder we are given of the pulsing dance between the light and the reflection of the light, neither of which we can know without the other.
Ahimsa, which is the first of the yamas in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and thus is the first practice or principle of the eight-limbed path, is usually translated as non-violence or non-harming. Over my years of practice and study, I have read and heard many versions–some general, some personal beliefs–as to what it means to practice nonviolence as part of a path of yoga. As I watch the way people around me are behaving and reacting to the heat and drought, I thought about how, for me, the practice ahimsa is as much about seeking to be in alignment with the movements and shifts around us that we cannot change as about refraining from specific acts of violence (though that is obviously a basic element).
In terms of aligning with the world arounds us and the cycles of our own body-mind, when we are sensitive to what will best serve our own self while having the least impact on the environment, we are practicing ahimsa, in other words, “opening to grace.” How does practicing ahimsa by behaving mindfully incorporate many aspects of the Anusara first principle of opening to grace? Opening to grace, as a practice principle, invites us to be open, sensitive, spacious, and radically affirm what is so that we can expand, shift, and serve ourselves and others in the best way possible under the circumstance. To be open in this way, try not to rage at the heat–or whatever is your weather. Soften, listen, and mindfully discover how you can live at your fullest, kindest, and most generous with what you cannot change.
When the temperature soars above 95F for days in a row, it is an act of violence to rage against it or to consume outrageous amounts of fossil fuels to cool our businesses and homes enough to wear warm clothes, sleep under blankets, cook and eat hot foods, or do an athletic asana practice or workout (lest we feel that we are not fulfilling some externally motivated personal notion of fitness–having external notions of how we should look, act govern us without accepting the actual situation is its own form of violence against ourselves) that we would not do if we could not artificially cool our environment.
Perhaps I have no call to speak on this: my central air conditioning is on, though I’ve been keeping it between 78-82F and I have been moving, dressing, and eating in a way that honors the fact that those temperatures are as cool as it is going to be until the heat wave breaks. Some might argue that using any air conditioning or even an electric fan or a refrigerator is doing excessive harm to the environment. That may in fact be true, but asking for more than we can do just makes things seem impossible, and then we are less likely to make any shift at all.
Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.
When we choose a tantric path, we choose to experience pleasure as an expression of spirit, rather than seeking to transcend such experience as would one who is on the classical renunciatory yoga path. The choice to remain engaged, to honor mind and body as divine, comes with great responsibility.
When we choose engagement, we choose to experience the divine reality not just of pleasure, but also of pain. The true tantric path does not turn a blind eye to ugliness and suffering. Just taking the pleasure without recognizing its opposite is not authentic practice. If the pleasure of the sunrise is “real,” then the garbage on the beach is just as real.
Recognizing the reality of ugliness and pain as part of the play of the real does not mean, though, that it should diminish our joy in the beautiful and in the dance of the play of opposites of life.
Rather, it is our delight in and engagement with beauty that invites us to serve as best we can to alleviate suffering, to try and clean up the garbage where we can. In other words, as we recognize that ugliness and destruction are part of the play (lila), we seek to be heart-full rather than heart-broken when we witness the suffering from violence to others or our living planet. If we let our hearts break, we become blind to the beauty. Like those who only see what brings pleasure, those who only see the painful are also not experiencing all of the real.
As I head back to the world inside the Beltway, I bring the deepened and replenished sense of beauty and the dance that I always get from collective study and practice. I will try to share the privilege of having this experience by doing my best to clean up what garbage I can, while still dancing and loving in the light.
On Friday night, Professor Douglas Brooks offered a satsang that was hosted by District Kula. One of the attendees, who said that she did no yoga, but taught Argentinian tango, wanted to know about what she had heard of yoga talking about the dance of masculine and feminine because that’s what tango is all about.
Douglas gave a quick overview of the idea of the tattvas as a foundation for an answer to the tango dancer’s question. As part of this background, he discussed the numerological aspect of the tattvas, saying that Shiva and Shakti relate like this: one is two becomes three becomes five. The two must separate, and the space between them makes three and teaches us the one. Because of the spaces between, we do not have one to two to four, but two (one because inseparable) to three to five. We know the one only when we know two, and the one is therefore part of three. (“Lovely dance of numbers; that makes perfect sense,” I thought, having a happy geekfest in my own mind. “I’ll enjoy pondering how that might be an explanation for there being five top tattvas and not six or four and wondering whether I had even begun finding an understanding, even though what Douglas was talking about is something I have been contemplating for years in various ways and contexts.)
Douglas then led into a description of the inseparable, inextricably intertwined nature of Shiva and Shakti. “It is like that in tango,” the dancer interjected at multiple points. “The better the leader, the more he is listening to the follower, thus allowing the follower to be the leader.” Each time Douglas refined his response, the dancer offered something else about her experience with tango. “Right, when they are dancing well, the man takes on some of the characteristics of the feminine, and the woman that of the man. The difference between them starts to dissolve into the dance itself.” Her eyes lit up, and she bubbled up with speech, in her excitement at finding in the tantric philosophy what appeared to be an explanation of what she experiences in the tango.
The tango dancer and the yoga texts assign specific roles and attributes to the masculine and the feminine, and we tend to fall into that tradition when we discuss the tantric philosophy. As much as the traditional tantrika or tango dancer might say that the masculine and feminine (when embodied) take on/have characteristics of each other, they have assigned masculine/feminine roles to play, and they are still stuck in a paradigm that keeps real humans in assigned roles. These assigned roles impact how male and female are permitted to act in society, regardless of any recognition that who is actually, rather than technically, in charge may be in flux on different levels.
The paradigm of tango dancing kept Friday night’s discussion within the context of typical and rigid roles for male and female, but I do not think that is a required way for us to think of how to bring the tantric yoga philosophy into our lives. When we think of the tattvas as abstract principles, we do not have to privilege in our lives or own thinking the traditional divide between male and female roles as the basis for understanding the play of opposites (though to be true to the text in its historical context we do).
I believe that the dance of shiva and shakti is as much about the dance between the universal and multiplicitous individuality as it is about the specific play between masculine and feminine in assigned roles. The one is two. The two (one) separates into three; when the two separate we discover the one (two), and after that the three becomes five. I remember a friend saying in our college days, “There are three of us in it: there is me, there is my loved one, and then there is our relationship.” To be in the world and relate fully, the tattvas (and dances with partners of either sex) teach us that two are inseparable by being in relationship. By recognizing the appearance of separation, the dance of Shiva and Shakti tattvas shows us the relationship — the oneness. Thus, all consciousness is one, but two, and then three, and yet still one.
How this informs me, other than enjoyable thoughts in my head, is that when we try to be spaciously and openly aware in all of our relationships of this elemental play of individual identity, separability, and indivisible unity, we see the other in ourselves and ourselves in the other. This helps much to inspire friendliness, understanding, and compassion. It also helps bring understanding of the leader when we are following, which it makes it easier to follow with discrimination, but without judgment. When it is our turn to lead, it helps us know that for those who might choose to or be required to follow us for some particular project, that to lead well we must listen to the followers. As the the Grateful Dead taught me decades ago, “you who choose to lead must follow.”
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.
In classical yoga, maya is the illusion that the tangible world is what is real. Only atman is real; the world we experience through our senses (and our senses them selves) as reality is an illusion. We renounce the world to escape the temptation of being drawn into it as reality. In so doing, though, we ineluctably must come to the conclusion that all that is ill with the world is as much an illusion as that which is tempting. In turning away from the world we would be also turning away from the pain of seeing inequity and suffering and the desire to seek change in the tangible, sense-experienced world.
As I was walking around New York City, ankle-deep in slush and being hyper-stimulated by the lights and the noise and the smells and the bustle and the choices, I found myself thinking about maya and that in its classical sense has two surface temptations for me. The first is the temptation to turn away from the stimulation, to reject consumption of more than needed to exist. In the face of such excessive stimulation, the idea of nothing, of utter simplicity, of quiet seems desirable. If the turning away is another form of seeking pleasure or escaping pain, though, it is still in the trap of maya — the worldly illusion that binds us in the pair of opposites–pleasure and pain. The second temptation, the temptation to withdraw from everything except seeking the light within, is more subtle. If we truly are to turn away from the world of the senses, we turn away from notions of justice and equality and freedom that are based how we live in the material world as much as we turn away from consumption.
The true path of renunciation, of pure meditation, is a rare and beautiful path, but to stay in the world and to withdraw ineffectually in such a way might earn the hackneyed epithet “navel gazing.” My path is not that of the renunciate yogin, nor do I have the fortitude to live a life of Christian poverty, which would reject riches and live for service. Where can we find the support in the yoga path to stay engaged and yet still live mindfully, fostering the expression and recognition of spirit in ourselves and others?
In tantric philosophy, maya is understood somewhat differently than in classical yoga. The maya is not the world itself. When we think that getting and having and avoiding is all that there is and that it is separate from spirit, then our lives are cloaked by maya, and we are ignorant (avidya) of the true bliss of spirit (satcitananda). To know spirit, we must see through maya. To do that requires discrimination (viveka) in what we take into our senses and ethically responsible action in the tangible world to align our lives in a way that expands the opportunity to recognize spirit, which in my mind includes having less material disparity in society, which disparity most assuredly makes the essential truth of blissful consciousness more opaque (due to the play of maya) for both the haves and the have nots. While we make our attempt to live with more discrimination and grace and with less cause of conflict or suffering (doing better some times than others), we still try to recognize and savor the exquisite divine in each sight and taste and sound and creation. How extraordinary always is New York in all its wild manifestation!
Last night in group practice a student asked what she could do to keep her standing leg upper thigh/outer groin from cramping in ardha chandra chapasana (sugar cane pose). I responded that she probably was not using her inner thighs enough; she need to hug more to the midline. Another student pointed out that it is very challenging to hug to the midline in an asymmetrical pose.
Anyone who studies Anusara yoga has heard the teacher say “hug to the midline.” The physical instructions most often given to help the student do so, are “shins in” (coupled with “thighs back and apart”) or “isometrically draw your heels/feet together” (or hands in an arm balance or elbows/forearms in pincha mayurasana or sirsasana). “Hugging to the midline” is one of the three aspects of “muscular energy,” the second of the five “Universal Principles of Alignment” in Anusara yoga.
To help find the midline in an asymmetrical pose, I invited the students to do a partner exercise in ardha chandrasana (balancing half moon pose). One student went into the pose. The other student stood behind the one in the pose and place a hand or forearm underneath the lifted ankle of the student in the pose. The student in the pose then pressed down energetically into her friend’s support. The student was then able to find how to do “shins in” with the lifted leg. What all the students discovered was that by working with far more enthusiasm and power to the midline, it was much easier to open the heart into a deep back bend in the pose. As it was a backbending practice, we also explored the principle in various one-legged backbends, including eka pada ustrasana (one-legged camel pose) and eka pada urdva danurasana (one -legged wheel pose). The students who might not otherwise have been able to find these poses, discovered that if they hugged with heartfelt enthusiasm to the midline, they found an ability to do a pose that they might otherwise have thought beyond their reach.
This alignment principle was a perfect way to illustrate the theme of the practice, which was discipline as discipleship to the light (see yesterday’s blog post). All of the alignment principles in Anusara yoga are designed to get us deeper into our hearts; it is an added benefit that they make us stronger, more flexible, more secure in our bodies, healthier, and more energetic. Hugging to the midline will definitely help us engage our core muscles, thus giving us more strength and tone. As an energetic matter, hugging to the midline draws us into the central channel, the sushumna nadi — the place of grace where the kundalini energy rises.
When we are practicing sincerely, we are not just seeking to achieve a pose or get stronger or even to have kundalini experiences. We do not discipline ourselves for some external goal. Rather, out of the deepest longing to connect, we engage the principles to align our energetic and physical bodies so that we can be more in the flow and find more capacity to soften and expand our hearts and carry that into our lives, lifestyles, and relationships. The physical practice can show us how this works, and then, when we are aware, pulses us back to our true desire. More than the physical act of hugging to the midline makes it easier to do a heart-opener (backbend) and the energetic act of drawing to the midline may stimulate the flow of the kundalini energy, the discipline of drawing in to find the light will help us soften and expand the heart center so that we can reside more deeply there, and thus experience and share more joy, love, and compassion.
Paul Muller-Ortega, who is offering a meditation and philosophy workshop at Willow Street Yoga Center this weekend, says that sadhana (yoga practice, incuding meditation), doesn’t just give us “freedom from, but also freedom to.”
The “freedom from” is freedom from suffering. The freedom to” is freedom to move towards light and blissfulness.
When we first come to the yoga mat or meditation cushion, we are usually coming to discover the “freedom from” we have heard about — perhaps relief from aches and pains or disease, perhaps weight loss or improved body image, perhaps lowering anxiety or easing depression. We discover, when we start practicing, that even if we do not get “freedom from” exactly as hoped within a limited view, that discovery of the “freedom to” itself provides a “freedom from” by making that from which we seek freedom less prevailing as the focus of our being.
After my morning practice, while I was riding on the bus to Georgetown yesterday to volunteer at the Lantern, the sutra “madyama vikasha cittananda labah,” Pratyabijna Hrdayam, 17, started resonating in the forefront of my consciousness. Swami Shantananda in The Splendor of Recognition, translates this sutra as “[t]he bliss of Consciousness is attained through the expansion of the center.” What an elegant reminder of the true purpose of practice and the essential basis for the alignment principle of “stabilize the periphery; move from the core” about which I wrote yesterday.
When we practice, we seek to go inward to discover that of our true nature that is light-filled and joyous. We do so not just to stay in that place still and inert, but so that we can then extend out into every thought and action from a place of illuminated, blissful wisdom. It will not change the fact of difficulties, challenges, strains, etc, but when we stabilize the outside, remember to go inward, and find the inner space of stillness and light, then when we move back outward into the world, we will be better able to respond in the highest.