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.”
When I think about the Anusara alignment principles in the context of the tattvas (see earlier posts), I think about “opening to grace” appearing in two places on the tier. As “first principle” it is the first among a larger sequence about how we come to the mat, rather than just the first of the physical principles. “First principle” not only starts the practice and the dialogue, but is already there. It is, in this sense, so fundamental that it is not part of the sequence, but is sequenceless (akrama). If you are fully conscious of “grace” and can embody it in all aspects of your physical, energetic, and mental day to day existence without further instruction, study, or practice, then there is no need for other practice or instruction (this I think is a very rare being, and certainly I’m not such a being).
The next set of tattvas — suddha vidya, ishvara, saddha shiva, and shiva-shakti (see link above), correspond to the Anusara alignment principles of “attitude, alignment, and action,” which although they are themselves described in sequence, are fundamentally sequenceless as they happen all at the same time and are more elemental than the practice of the physical/energetic alignment principles in sequenced practice.
In this way of understanding the play between the sequenceless and sequenced, we have a universal “first principle” that embodies the purpose of all we do on and off the mat. It is followed by how we want to practice, described in a way that becomes less of just a concept (which as a universal concept is akrama) and more of a practical understanding (which applies when we are in space and time and therefore in the krama of embodied existence). As we dance in this play between the sequenceless and the sequenced, we come to practice (or to do any activity) with the “attitude” of wanting to live the “first principle,” to know and experience what is fully present and not bound by time and space. We then (because we must) study and practice specific “alignment” to try and express this attitude with our “actions.”
The physical/energetic alignment principles then come in as a the way of better refining, studying, and practicing the desire to recognize with mind and body the “first principle.” The sequence of “open to grace, muscular energy, inner spiral, outer spiral, organic energy” comes then at the level of physical and mental practice to return us back to “first principle.” “Open to grace” is first in this sequence, too, but as “first principle,” for me, it is something more than the first of the alignment principles. “First principle” is not just the start of how we practice when we practice Anusara yoga, but the whole reason for practice. It is the universal, overarching, blissful element of being that draws us to the practice because of our yearning to know it.
Above (or perhaps beyond, or maybe more elemental, or more universal — words inevitably tangle us in discussing essential philosophical constructs) the six kanchukas (cloakings or coverings) are the five universal elements. These are suddha vidya, ishvara, saddha shiva, and shiva-shakti. John Friend suggests that we think of the first three of these tattvas as corresponding to the principles of iccha (will), jnana (knowledge), and kriya (action).
When I think of the Anusara principles in practice on and off the mat, I think of them in terms of the tattvas, particularly the five universal elements and the five mahabhutas . Those of you who practice and study Anusara yoga are familiar with the principles of “open to grace, muscular energy, inner/expanding spiral, outer/contracting spiral, and organic energy.” As part of the physical practice of asana, I think of these alignment principles as corresponding to the mahabhutas (the five great elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space/ether; see previous posts on how I experience the alignment principles as relating to the mahabhutas). At that level, “open to grace” has physical characteristics. These principles, when applied consciously, help us to align the physical body with the energy body, so that we can more fully delight in our bodies. When we are in alignment and experience expansion through alignment, we can more optimally move in and experience the physical and mental realms in a way that helps us recognize the universal spirit in all beings.
The reason I come to the mat, the ultimate purpose of yoga in an of itself and for me as a practitioner, is informed by the five principles of the universal. The yearning to connect to the spirit is in essence an opening to grace at an elemental, non-physical level (an uber opening to grace). The next aspect of our practice, which is more important than the physical technical details of the alignment principles, are what John Friend terms “attitude, alignment, and action.” These are by definition more universal and fundamental than the physical principles and correspond directly to the principles of iccha (will), jnana (knowledge), and kriya (action). The essence of yoga, especially from a tantric perspective, is the will (iccha) to embody and experience the union of mind, body, and spirit with a radical embrace of our being. Knowledge (jnana), when used as a way to align with our true nature, is not to correct, but to better enable us to align our body, both physically and energetically, and our mind so we best can experience and express our will to connect. The ultimate action (kriya) of a pose or what we do off the mat is a spontaneous offering or an expression of our will to connect, using ever increasing refinement, skill, and knowledge.
This morning, woken by the purring cat from an anxious dream in which I was not doing enough to make things better (I am not making this up), my first thoughts were of escalating war in Afghanistan and deepening economic crisis at home. It felt almost strange and abstract to be worrying about these things from my warm comfortable bed.
I think worrying can have a positive place in our lives. If we just get worried or anxious about things and get trapped in not doing or growing or reaching (both inward and outward) for a sense of connection and spirit, then worrying will cloak or limit us. If we recognize worries as showing us limitations, then we can use them to grow and change and spur us to action.
After the 25 tattvas describing the physical world and our being and understanding of the world that correspond in both the classical and Kashmir Shaivist systems, are Kashmir Shaivism’s six kanchukas — cloakings or coverings. The kanchukas are niyati (limitation of place), kaala (limitation of time), raaga ( attachment), vidya (limitation of knowledge), kalaa (limitation of action), maya (illusion of individuality/manifestation).
From a tantric perspective, experiencing ourselves as thinking, individual beings in the manifest world, constrained by time and space, only binds us if we think that is all we are. If we get completely entangled in these constraints, then our sense of spirit is cloaked, just as if we get stuck in worrying, instead of using worries as a spur to work for change, we become miserable.
I meditate and practice asana, as taught by my teachers, to reveal the restraints of physical being as only part of my being. Spiritual practice can serve to enable us to experience freedom of heart and mind, to bathe in the bliss of the essence of ourselves that is universal and unconstrained by the limitations of individual manifestation. The point of these practices not to escape our individual selves or to gratify them (that would still be “cloaked”), but to find the strength and stability to serve better and to work for a world in which all beings have an equal chance to seek the spirit and experience the bliss of connection.
After the five mahabhutas (great elements), the five tanmatras (subtle elements), the five karmendriyas (organs of action), and the five jnanendriyas (organs of cognition or sensing), come the three antahkaranas (internal organs). The antahkaranas are manas (mind), buddhih (intellect/intuition), and ahamkara (ego, sense of self as an individual). These 23 tattvas describe the objective world and our place in it as manifest physical beings and as beings who sense and think about our place in the physical world.
The next two tattvas are more in the subjective realm: purusha (nature) and prakriti. In the classical system, the 23 described above plus purusha and prakriti are the sum of the tattvas. In that system, prakriti, is interpreted as “spirit.” It is not the world spirit or the transcendent spirit, but more our individual spirit. Nature is divided from spirit and all of the objective world and individual spirit are different from “Atman” or “Brahma” what is real. In Kashmir Shaivism, there are another 11 tattvas — the six kanchukas (cloakings or coverings) and the five suddha tattvas (pure elements) that describe the relationship between the individualized, diverse, perceptible and perceiving realm, and the purely universal.
Purusha (nature) is a name or way of looking at the 23 earlier described tattvas and prakriti describes the sense we have of there being something more that is unifying and universal among all that is manifest, but still from the perspective of our own individual perception. When we look at nature (purusha) from a more universal perspective, we look at it from how it behaves generally, how it moves, and what moves it, as we look at the laws of nature of physics. In yoga, nature is described from the perspective of the three gunas — tamas, rajas, and sattva.
Tamas is dark, dormant, inert, and heavy. Rajas is fiery, energetic, and impassioned. Sattva is pure, clear, and light. From a classical perspective, tamas is a state we need to transcend to connect to spirit, rajas is the motivating energy that helps us move past tamas to a sattvic state. From the tantric perspective that underlies the Anusara principles, we recognize that tamasic qualities are part of nature and we embrace it where it leads us to a place of balance. At night, for example, it is better to be still and dark for optimal sleep. In this latititude, gardens need a period of dormancy in winter to thrive. When we are sick or exhausted, restorative postures may be more healing and balancing than would be power flow or even meditation. When tamas is out of balance, though, we are sluggish and slothful. We can be stuck in our ways — ways that are unhealthy for ourselves or the planet. We then need to cultivate more rajas. We use fire and passion to transform, to find new ideas, to shift our behavior, to find discipline. If our bodies are weak or inflexible, rajas helps us activate our practice to build power. The rains and warmth of spring make the garden grow. From this perspective, being light and pure based on particular dietary and behavioral strictures is not necessarily the ideal. Rather being sattvic is being in optimal balance; it is knowing ourselves well enough to know when darkness, earthiness, and stillness or light, activity, and “spiritual” practices best serve ourselves, other beings, and the earth. Being sattvic is being clear enough in the multi-faceted relationship between the world around us and our own mind, body, and spirit that our sense of spirit in all things and ourselves is unsullied, and illuminated.
Ether (akasha) is the fifth of the mahabhutas. In science and perception, it is the space between the other elements, it is that in which the other elements reside. It is to some degree, the critical element of how we are able to perceive the other elements. I find focusing on the Anusara alignment principle of “open to grace” is the best way to experience the element of ether in myself. By softening, opening, and inviting spaciousness, I can better experience the subtle elements and appreciate how it is that I experience them.
The subtle elements or the panca tanmattras are smell (gandha), taste (rasa), form (rupa), touch (sparsa), and sound (sabda). The subtle elements are not what we sense (which is composed of the mahabhutas) nor are the tanmattras our sense organs. Rather the tanmattras are, as it were, the space in which perceptions arise, the ability to be perceived.
The next sets of elements are the panca karmendriyas, the organs of locomotion, which correspond to how we physically move, digest, and change in the physical world, and the panca jnanendriyas, the organs of perception or cognition, which correspond to our sense organs themselves. Our movement in and perception of the world bridges the physical elements, the perceptability of the physical world, and ourselves as physical beings, beings who move in the physical world, and beings who perceive the physical world. All of this, I think of as needing space or residing in space. As I consciously think of space giving a place for the world, my movement in it, and my perception of it, I become more conscious of consciousness. The physical practice of “opening to grace” and experiencing the element akasha makes possible for me in my practice knowing or experiencing a greater consciousness.
To start discovering your own understanding of akasha, try this meditation: listen to the sounds beyond the room without trying to analyze or change them. Appreciate how far in space your senses and consciousness can be. Then bring your attention into the room and hear the sounds in the room. Then open your ears to the sounds within you — your heart beat, your breath. Then open to all the sounds (don’t try to change or analyze them), both those physically far away and those within your own body, and be aware of them as all residing within your own consciousness. Appreciate that your consciousness is as spacious as the world around you and within you. Rest in the space of consciousness.
See whether spending a few minutes using this meditation technique helps you when your day has gotten too busy with work, errands, family or other demands. I find it very helpful.
Agni or fire is the third of the mahabhutas. Fire does not just give us warmth and light. It also transforms. Just think of what happens to the humble ingredients of flour, water, yeast, and salt when they are baked. When working with agni in our asana practice, using the Anusara principles of alignment, I have drawn on the intersection of pelvic loop and kidney loop (which together create the action of uddiyana bandha, using these principles as I understand them to activate and strengthen my core.
One of the niyamas of Patanjali’s eight-fold path is tapas, which means heat or austerity. We are exhorted to bring fire or fervor to our practice to experience bliss, to know true consciousness.
Fire without balance, without a sense of detachment or surrender, though, will burn us up. We must be careful how we work with agni as the element.
Note: Agni is also the name of the god of fire. Not only do we need to be careful how we draw on the fire element — this town’s culture places perhaps too much value on “fire in the belly,” but we should be wary of how we invoke the gods: India’s nuclear missile program is named “Agni.” Of that invocation of the gods and of fire, I am afraid.
For the past week, I have been meditating on, practicing with, and teaching the water element in classes. Our health and the health of the planet depend on the water element being balanced. When our water element is in balance, we are fluid, open, well-nourished, malleable, and life-supporting. Too much or too little water is immediately a problem. Dehydration and drought wither life; flooding overwhelms.
Yesterday, I developed the symptoms of a rather watery head cold that is going around. Did it come from invoking the water element? Doubtful; probably just a virus. I treat the watery symptoms of not merely with more water (as in plenty of liquids), but more truly with fire: hot soup, hot tea, steam to clear the head, a hot water bottle under the covers. The heat balances the excess of water and the missing fire that comes from a cold in winter.
The first of the mahabhutas is prithvi or earth. When I think of the earth element, I think of stability, grounding, earthiness, nurture. My experience is that I can more deeply connect to this element in ourselves by emphasizing what John Friend has termed “muscular energy” in my yoga practice.
As with all practices from an Anusara perspective, I try to start with the principle of “opening to grace.” In this context, opening to grace can mean being sensitive to our earthiness and how it manifests energetically in us. I have found that it can lead to my foundation and connection to the earth and invite a soft weightiness.
Muscular energy has three essential physical/energetic actions: (1) hugging all of the muscles to the bone; (2) drawing to the midline (our central energetic channel); and (3) drawing energy from the periphery to the focal point of the pose. See J. Friend, Anusara Teacher Training Manual (Anusara Press, The Woodlands, TX). These three actions combined help stabilize us; they nurture by inviting us to give ourselves an unceasing self-embrace initiated from our opening to the good in the energies around us (like the loving hug of an “earth mother”); and they bring our focus from the physical extremities to our core, thus reminding us to bring our physical body to the support of the energetic body and spirit.
When I am feeling ungrounded, unsettled, or needing a little love, I remind myself to emphasize muscular energy and open to and invite in the light-filled energy all around me.