Sunday, April 26, 2009

Whole.

Gee, Ma, I can’t believe I ate the WHOLE THING!


In yoga there seems to be an implicit search for that illusive sense of being whole (Ahhh, whole, at last…Home, at last.). A place of stillness, a sip of the holy nectar… But just like the gnome in the above picture, who has lost his nose, the tip of his hat (and who knows what else…), we always seem to be missing something—at least from a particular mood or perspective.

At times, I have been confused, or even misled by this pull towards wholeness because, when I rely on the mind to see the whole thing, the process must break down. The mind can only quantify things that are quantifiable. And the wonder of our universe simply cannot be understood in these terms. Experience must also be felt deeply to tap into a sense of being connected. This is where yoga helps by tuning a person into the rich content of their own body!

We can also be confused by all the smaller “wholes” in one’s experience. “I ate a whole apple,” one could say, or, “I blew a whole day.” This is the intellectual level of wholeness, and we can never experience the spiritual sense of wholeness in merely intellectual terms. Again, it must also be felt.

Another snafu shows up in the second definition of whole: in an unbroken or undamaged state. On the physical level (the place where we interact with one another on a daily basis) this is simply not possible. The body has illness. Our environment is decaying due to our active consumption of it, and relentless pollution. Feelings get hurt in the world of space and time.

At its best the quest for wholeness asks us to look outside of our narrow definitions of ourselves into the great beyond. At its worst wholeness represents a fantasy of perfection, almost a sort of denial. And I think some yoga teachers get caught up in this: thinking that we have to be perfect to sell yoga, and to get and to keep people interested in yoga. And the truth is that nobody can sell yoga. We can sell instruction, but the insight comes from inside each person.

The essence of yoga in within you, just as it is inside every conscious being.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hi Tech Tadasana

Dr. Jay of Yoga for Cynics wrote a delightfully eclectic post, including a very flattering reference to this blog! Here is the post that he is referring to about the article by Wendell Berry in The Sun magazine.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bits of Slowly Falling Gold


Here it is, the last post of my assignment to myself to write about all eight limbs of yoga from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. And the funny thing is that I feel like I am exactly where I was with the first post, because here I get to talk about how I became ungrounded in my yoga practice and life:

I think it was eight years ago when after an Ashtanga yoga class (at what was then Priya Yoga in Chicago), feeling hot and amazing; I had already changed into my street clothes, and was grateful. I stopped on my way out the door to say thanks and good-bye to my instructor. He was smiling and looking into my eyes, unguarded. A smile bloomed on my face that didn’t stop there. It kept expanding. I was locked into this moment, slightly paralyzed. I would have disengaged, if it had been possible because love was pouring out of me, and I (sadly-I judge) have been embarrassed of my love. But I was stuck. This smile expanded until there was no separation between me and other things. The walls of the yoga studio, as well as everything else was permeated with love. Bits of slowly falling gold came down and filled the space around me.

I came back to my self in my body. I put my hand on the side of my head, turned away from my teacher and paused. He put his hand on my back. I left.

The story of my life was the same as it was before this event, but things inside me had changed. I had experienced an all-encompassing love. The world had a goodness that I had directly experienced.

This IS great. But in the story of my life it caused a rupture because the foundation of who I thought I was had changed. I had based my life on some things that no longer seemed true. Like the idea that the world is a bad place to be afraid of, and the idea that the only hope of having satisfaction is to create a little bit of it in your own house. I now had a wider sense of goodness in the world.

So it felt like I needed to start a whole new life to accommodate this, and I ended dumping more aspects of my life as it was up to then than I probably should have. That said; I also trust that the structure of my life as it actually happens has its own wisdom that deserves respect. No regrets! I had just experienced the best thing! And to follow that seemed like the most important thing in my life, so that’s what I did.

During this time of confusion (that lasted for years), I had a conversation with a trusted teacher where I shared this story and asked what he thought had happened. The unhesitating reply was, “Samadhi.”

Samadhi is the eighth limb of yoga according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is yogic bliss.

Just a couple of years ago at a yoga retreat a different respected teacher took me aside and told me about how some yogis get complacent. They get a taste of yogic ecstasy and cool off there, sort of a ‘been there, done that’ attitude, or just ignorance. And apparently there are many kinds/levels of Samadhi already documented by yogic masters. So we have to keep going!

I did feel much better than I had before that experience of yogic bliss, and maybe I wasn’t pushing as hard as I once had. So there it is. Must keep going…

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Instance and the Multitude


Knowing my point of view in any given moment is an instance in understanding. As I know this, my own singleness and differentiation, this can be seen as ekagrata or one-pointed awareness. I am aware of the fullness of myself. When I direct my awareness toward a more inclusive view of the world, consciousness expands.

In yoga practice I might break it down differently: ekagrata might represent my single-pointed awareness on the work of my little toe in a pose. And I enlarge my perspective as I tune my awareness to all parts of my body.

Another instance in understanding is reaching out to really understand a friend’s point of view. To grow further one would reach beyond one’s circle of close friends.

These examples all represent ways of working with consciousness. The journey of yoga teaches a practitioner to tune in with the workings within ones self, and how to harmonize with the world at large.

The sixth and seventh limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga are Dharana and Dhyana. Dharana is ekagrata, one-pointed concentration, and Dhyana is meditation, expanded consciousness.

When I was walking around this morning, I tried to find something that was one-pointed, and couldn’t: even a single stem can have many blooms. Above, I used the example of my little toe as a possibility for a singularly focused attention, and it is if I make it so, but if I focus there suddenly I become aware of the inner toe, outer toe, extension of the toe, and so on. The single-pointed awareness blossoms into a multifaceted entity.

Because it is Easter Sunday, I am thinking of the biblical story of Christ in Christianity. In the story, Christ dies for the people. He sacrifices his singularity for the multitude, and through this he transcends this worldly experience, and comes back to earth on Easter Sunday, closer to God.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mysterious Gifts


A couple of weeks ago, I received a mysterious gift! I had just finished talking to students after teaching a group yoga class, and I looked over to where my bag was and saw that a shopping bag from Anthropologie was sitting on top of it. I was astonished. There was a box inside, wrapped in a ribbon, with the gift tag shown above signed, “Your Student.” It wasn’t Christmas or my birthday, and I had received an anonymous gift!

I was reading The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter at the time. There is a part of the book that explains that the best way to give a gift, according to Cherokee tradition, is to just leave it for the person you are giving it to. So receiving the gift like this at this time had a tang of relevance it wouldn’t have had otherwise. So my mind reeled as I accepted the gift as mine.

Inside the package was an elegant spring sweater-top. A nice gift!

My mind enjoyed this thrill for some time. Then I let it go.

The following week in the hallway of my apartment building there was an empty basket outside of my downstairs neighbor’s door. It seemed like a metaphor. …Or a tradition I heard about once. So I went upstairs, into my place to choose a gift for the basket. I chose a beautiful hardcover book about birds with a bright pink cover. It was fun to run down the stairs to place my mysterious gift into the empty basket! At the time I didn’t connect this act of giving with the mysterious gift I had received the previous week. It was a spontaneous act.

Earlier this week, at the end of a class I taught, a student asked me if I had received the gift she had left for me a couple weeks ago. I was dumbfounded. Here was the giver of the gift! She was wondering if I had received it. I told her that I had, and that I liked it. “Thank you,” I said. And I found myself speechless to describe how wonderful it was to receive that gift.

Afterwards, as I was walking in the cool, high-energy, early-spring air outside, I felt high with the wonder of a mystery solved.

Thank you (I thought) for the mysterious gifts of nature. Thank you for my life, and the flowers, trees, and animals—all mysterious gifts!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Honoring the Inside


The five senses are used to quest outward, tasting, touching, smelling, hearing and seeing our way through the world. Even as we are learning about the first four limbs of yoga (and their components) we are using our senses going outward to integrate ourselves peacefully into the world. In the first limb, Yama, we watch ourselves acting in the world, and ask, are we harming, lying, stealing, etc.? It requires that we watch the outer world to get feedback and see how we are doing. Similarly with the second limb, Niyama, we must watch and see, are we expressing purity, contentment, discipline, etc.? Are we doing these things? Are we living life according to these tenets? The third limb, Asana, is what we do with our bodies, as in posture. And the fourth limb, Pranayama is breath control. How are we breathing? How are the ribs moving? How is the belly moving or not? These four limbs have landmarks in time and space, directly related with the physical world, and looking to it for feedback towards the aim of growth.

The fifth limb in Ashtanga yoga is Pratyahara, sense withdrawal. It calls for us to turn the senses away from external stimulation. We relax the eyes, not looking outward. Release the tendency to listen outward when practicing Pratyahara. Can we use the sense of touch to feel internal and subtle sensations? As the yogic explorer we ask, what is inside? What is there besides the world of external stimulation? In Pratyahara we devote the sense organs to who we are apart from the external life. It honors the inner self, prepares the space for going deeper into practice, and sets the stage for the next three limbs.

Pratyahara also informs my experience of myself, by teaching me to go inward. Instead of only a recorder and absorber of life’s energies, I also become a generator. I begin to consider and see what I want to put out there, instead of only wondering what I can take. Looking inward aligns us with our highest goals.