Author: brooklyn yoga club

Living Like a Buddha with Dan Zigmond

Thank you all so much for coming. It’s so nice to be back here at the Brooklyn Yoga Club. I’ve only been once before, for a very different event, and have been hoping to return ever since. I was so happy when Eddie offered to have me speak here tonight.

I’ve studied and practice in the Buddhist tradition for many years, ever since college. I was ordained as a Zen priest about twenty years ago. It’s a special privilege for a Buddhist like myself to speak at a temple like this, because Buddhism and yoga grew out of the same ancient Indian traditions. Our spiritual ancestors are the same.

And a couple years back, I co-wrote a book called Buddha’s Diet, about food and fasting and Buddha’s teachings. It’s a strange set of topics, and in some ways it surprised even myself when my friend Tara and I wrote it. I’ve just started a new book now, but I thought in my talk here today I would expand on one of the last chapters of that first book. It’s called “Living Like a Buddha.” It’s actually hardly about food at all.

And it makes sense that a book with Buddha in the title shouldn’t be just about eating. Buddha certainly wasn’t a diet guru. He wasn’t teaching about mindfulness to help people lose weight, or get in shape, or reduce stress. He wanted us all to aim much higher than that. He preached what he felt was an entirely new path based on his newfound “middle way,” which he said “gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment,” and ultimately to Nirvana. He wouldn’t be content with anyone merely shedding pounds. He wanted us to shed greed, hate, and delusion.

Many Buddhists are happy to see mindfulness find broad acceptance in the secular world today. And certainly mindfulness is everywhere, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Companies offer mindfulness trainings to employees; hospitals teach meditation to patients. I think this is largely good news. As one monk and Buddhist scholar wrote, “if psychotherapists can draw upon Buddhist mindfulness practice to help people overcome anxiety and distress, their work is most commendable.” But other Buddhist teachers have been skeptical, and even hostile to taking mindfulness out of Buddha’s original context. One cynical observer noted that “there is considerable enthusiasm for mindfulness these days, as long as it does not threaten to make us wise.” These critics argue that mindfulness can’t really be understood without the original context of everything else Buddha taught.

I worried about this when writing our book. Even in many Buddhist temples, when we teach new students the basic forms of meditation, we sometimes stop there, explaining how to position your legs and arms and maybe a bit about breathing, but not so much about living. We talk about the how of meditation much more than the why. Some feel this keeps our practice pure, untainted by crass goals and superficial striving. But others would insist again that Buddha taught these practices for a reason, and they can’t be so easily separated from that original context.

So what was the original context?

Buddha spoke about mindfulness in his very first lecture after his great awakening. He spoke to a small group of wandering ascetics who had gathered in a deer park outside the village of Sarnath in northeastern India. Right from the start his main focus was on his middle way, the way between the “unbeneficial” extremes of self-mortification and pure sensual pleasure. He mentioned mindfulness, too, but it was just one piece of his Eightfold Path that all needed to be practiced together. There were seven other pieces, too. To be sure, we needed to practice what he called “right mindfulness”. But we also needed right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right concentration. Mindfulness actually came toward the end, sandwiched there between effort and concentration.

If these eight seem like a lot to remember, they are. I can never quite recite them all from memory myself, even after studying them for nearly thirty years. Buddha had various ways of summarizing the Eightfold Path, like grouping the items into the three broad categories of wisdom (which combined right view and intention), ethics (which was right speech, action, and livelihood), and meditation (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration). But there’s no getting around the fact that this list includes basically everything. How you speak, how you act, how you work—it all matters. It’s not just what you do when you’re meditating—that just gets you three out of eight. And it’s not just being mindful—which is only one. It’s everything.

And why should you do all this? Why should you try to remember this confusing Eightfold Path and apply it to your daily life? Not because Buddha said so. And certainly not because I’m telling you to, or because you heard from any other teacher you’ve met, no matter how wise. (Sorry, Eddie.) Buddha wasn’t relaying the commandments of any god or supreme being. He claimed no authority over any of us. Instead, he was sharing a discovery he had made about how to relieve suffering. In his mind, he was explaining a natural law. It’s a bit like Isaac Newton discovering gravity. Two objects don’t attract each other in relation to their mass because anyone decreed it—they just do, because that’s the way the universe works. The Law of Gravity wasn’t created by Newton or passed by Parliament or ratified by the King. Gravity was there before Newton, and it would still be here if he had never described it. It exerts its force on believers and non-believers alike. Buddha felt the same way about his Eightfold Path. When we “speak or act with a peaceful mind,” he explained, “happiness follows.” It just does, as naturally and automatically as an apple falling from a tree.

So you should do the “right” thing because that’s what reduces suffering in the world. All the things we know are wrong—lying, cheating, stealing, killing—they all cause suffering. Even our minor missteps, our everyday slips of carelessness—these also cause suffering. And Buddha even took this line of reasoning a step further. It’s not just that acting immorally causes suffering—it’s that an act becomes immoral because it causes suffering.

But don’t take his word for it—try it yourself. Don’t try killing, of course. Definitely not. But how about lying? At one time or another, we’ve all tried that already. How did it turn out? Probably not so well. And not just lying to other people—how about lying to ourselves? We’ve all tried that, too. And almost invariably, it’s a disaster. It might feel good at first, maybe it even feels unavoidable sometimes, but in the long run, it causes suffering. That’s what Buddha discovered, and that’s what we all discover if we try it ourselves and pay attention to the results.

And this, by the way, is what Buddhists mean by karma. Karma was Buddha’s word for this discovery, this natural law of cause and effect. The Dalai Lama explains it this way: “If you act well, things will be good, and if you act badly, things will be bad.” It’s that simple.

Buddha did go into more specifics. Buddha had over two hundred detailed rules for monks and nuns covering everything from where to sleep to what to wear. And he covered the basics for laypeople, too: No killing, stealing, lying, or sexual misconduct.

But these rules just scratch the surface. For Buddha, living “right” means living in ways that reduces suffering—both for yourself or for everyone else. All the time. It’s a tall order, and it means thinking through everything we do. So “right speech,” for example, doesn’t just mean saying things that are true—although that’s part of it. But we should also say only what is necessary, and what is kind. Always.

That’s really what living like a Buddha boils down to, thinking about the consequences of our actions and always choosing the ones that reduce suffering. That’s why the Dalai Lama himself has also said, “My true religion is Kindness.” True kindness is the essence of that Eightfold Path.

And does it work? Can we really relieve suffering in ourselves and others?

Buddha says yes, that the end of suffering is possible. But it’s complicated. When something painful happens to us, we don’t just feel the immediate pain—we also have feelings about the pain. We’re angry about our pain, maybe frustrated or resentful, even vengeful sometimes. So we have two unpleasant feelings—a physical one and a mental one. Buddha described this as like being struck by two arrows. The first arrow we can’t avoid—pain hurts, whether we want it to or not. But the second arrow is our own choice. Even if we suffer from the pain, we don’t need to suffer about the pain.

Living like a Buddha is about avoiding these second arrows—not shooting them and not receiving them. Maybe you have to give bad news to a friend or offer honest criticism to a colleague at work. It may hurt the person you’re telling, like that first arrow. But we can say even painful words with kindness. We don’t need to fire a second arrow with the way we speak.

It’s not always easy to be kind. And none of us is kind all the time. But kindness matters.

Keep in mind that this kindness also applies to yourself. You are a sentient being, worthy of compassion. Living like a Buddha isn’t intended to be easy. Some advanced students spend long hours every day in meditation, and that’s difficult even for the most experienced practitioners. My first days on a retreat are often a little miserable, my body unused to long hours of sitting. But our practice should never be brutal. Hardship is sometimes inevitable, but it is never the goal itself. It’s all about that middle way. Don’t let yourself off the hook by taking shortcuts. But don’t beat yourself up if you falter now and then. Never feel that our practice requires you to be unkind, to yourself or anyone else.

I practice in the Soto Zen tradition, a branch of Buddhism brought first to Japan by our great teacher Eihei Dogen, and then eventually brought to America by my own teacher and others. Dogen himself once wrote: “To study the Buddha way is to study the self.” It is one of his most famous lines. This is exactly what Buddha himself did during his years as a wandering ascetic—he studied himself and tried to figure out which practices worked for him and which didn’t. That’s what all of us need to do. In my day job, I work as a data scientist at Instagram. In some ways, it may seem an odd job for a Zen priest. But living like a Buddha means becoming your body’s own data scientist, observing yourself as you live and work and even eat and move to see what works for you and what doesn’t. This applies to all your life. It may take some trial and error to learn which actions cause suffering and which relieve it. But you can’t do this if you’re not paying attention. This again is the essence of Buddha’s teachings—to pay attention to all our actions and their consequences.

The very next line Master Dogen wrote in that essay is in some ways even more interesting: “To study the self is to forget the self.” Because at some point, all this paying attention becomes second nature. The Dalai Lama isn’t kind because he wants to be. He’s kind because he has to be—because he’s always paying attention to his actions and their consequences. It’s easy to step on a bug or snail if you aren’t looking where you’re going. It’s much harder if you see it first.

In time our speech naturally becomes right speech, because we pay attention to the consequences of our words. Our livelihoods becomes right livelihoods, because we pay attention to how our work affects everyone around us. And so on. Even our eating becomes right eating, because we naturally pay attention to when and what we eat, and how this impacts our bodies and perhaps the planet. Mindfulness becomes second nature. We live our life aware of everything we do and the effect it has on everything around us.

In other words, we wake up.

Thank you for joining me here today, where we can all wake up a little together.

0

My Little Sister’s Little Panic

My sister, Amanda Stern, has written a phenomenally moving book about her life-long panic disorder. It came out on our Grandmother’s birthday, June 19th, and is available here and at the Brooklyn Yoga Club boutique soon! Though Amanda feels the coffee she gets for free at the BKYC boutique is really quite helpful for her anxiety, Yoga apparently does nothing for her. So don’t suggest it. The below is from Health.com

I Lived With Anxiety So Debilitating It Kept Me From Going Outside—Until I Finally Received a Surprising Diagnosis

As a child, I didn’t trust the world would adhere to its own rules: what if the sun didn’t set, what if all the clocks were wrong and we were actually days behind? What if my mother died because I wasn’t watching her, or she forgot she had children the second I left for school, moved to Europe without telling us, and took our house with her? These were the thoughts that plagued and propelled me through each day. When my mother didn’t die or disappear, when the house was still there, the sun set, the clocks seemed to keep the right time, I was relieved, only to wake fresh into a new morning wallpapered with my anxiety.

My chest ached until it burnt and was perpetually tight; a hot halo of pins and needles would frequently and abruptly push their way into my skin; and I was constantly floating away from my body up to the ceiling. What was wrong with me? No one knew, and when no doctor could successfully identify it, I understood that I was defective, that I lacked an important wire, the one that allowed those around me to live life unburdened by chronic fear; while I lived with profound shame for my difference, desperately afraid of being exposed for what I didn’t have. There was a right way to be human, I assumed, and I was doing it wrong.

Read more…

2

Everyday Psychology

An Interview with Carina Poulsen

I recently sat down with psychologist Carina Poulsen, from Oslo, to talk about Yoga and psychology. Carina was visiting the Brooklyn Yoga Club for the third time, and was staying in the B and B. Her book, Everyday Psychology (Hverdagpspsyk in Norwegian) is the top selling book in Norway on basic psychology, and I was curious to hear her views on how Yoga and psychology complement each other.

Carina travels very light. All of her belongings fit in a carry-on suitcase; she dresses only in black, and designs and makes her own clothes. She travels with a fold-up bike, and bikes around the cities she visits instead of taking public transportation. Though minimalism is her thing, it’s not devoid of style: she had a pair of Y-3 sneakers (all black) that she bought online shipped to the school ahead of her arrival. Perfect for biking to the MET.

EDDIE STERN:
Your book, Everyday Psychology is available only in Norwegian, so I’ve only read the excerpts you’ve translated and sent to me. Can you tell me what the book is about?

CARINA POULSEN:
The intent behind Everyday Psychology was to make information about psychology available for everyone. We don’t learn psychology in elementary or high school. We don’t learn it at our workplace. But it’s everything we are. And we need to know why we think and feel and behave like we do. We include yoga and mindfulness in our book, and also physical activity and nutrition, because we are whole beings, and psychology needs to treat us as such.

ES:
Could you just tell me a little bit about yourself, your educational background and your interests, any hobbies?

CP:
I’m a psychologist, and have my own clinic. I mainly work with adults suffering from anxiety, depression and stress-related struggles. The way I work is based on cognitive therapy and mindfulness.

ES:
What is cognitive therapy?

CP:
Cognitive therapy is a way of working with thoughts and behavior in order to change less constructive patterns. Further, I also use elements from yoga and mindfulness in order to help people calm down and stay present.

ES:
How do you see therapy as a useful tool?

CP:
I view therapy as sort of healing, a way of getting to the core of problem.

ES:
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of psychology?

CP:
The history of psychology goes way back, and during history it has had different kinds of focus. Like behavioral therapy, for example, from which cognitive therapy is rooted. It’s also the Freudian psychoanalytical road, which is slightly different. Either method, psychology is about why we think, behave and feel like we do.

ES:
So in terms of how we look at psychology now in comparison to how it was looked at, at, say, the time of Freud and the different Vienna schools, what are some of the differences that you would see? Or what is, sort of, psychology in modern times now, or in our present times, focusing on differently?

CP:
In our modern world people seek methods for calming down, staying present – a way of managing the high tempo. Further, I experience that many people seek something deeper, meaning, values – and even a spiritual awareness. I think that psychology changes due to changes in the society, the way we live.

ES:
Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you started doing yoga, or what brought you into it? Were you already doing psychology first? Were you doing yoga first?

CP:
I have always, since I was little, been interested in people, I have been told that I always was looking after everyone around me. I remember both being able to sense the atmosphere and other peoples feelings and needs and also spending hours drawing – both being strongly related to a feeling of mindful presence. I started reading psychology very early, and I did meditation several years before entering the world of ashtanga yoga. I was introduced to yoga several years ago, but three years ago, it was presented in a way that caught me. I sort of feel like I’ve always been practicing, but just in my own way or in a different way. But now, practicing Ashtanga yoga, I have a system to rely on and to.

ES:
What was the presentation of it that was so powerful for you?

CP:
It was both the person who presented it, which made me experience and “feel” yoga, but also being a system that involves both the body and the mind.

ES:
Can you tell me a little bit about seeing the human body as a whole, and how taking the whole body into consideration in therapy is important?

CP:
That’s what Ashtanga yoga brought to me. I’ve always been very physical, and this was a system that both included the mental part, the breathing and the physical part by including the body. I believe that psychology needs to include the body more – remember that we are whole – both mind and body.

We experience the world, other people and situations both through our body and our mind – physically and mentally. Further, much of what we experienced can’t be described with words, but they’re something that we experience bodily, as sensations, feelings, and emotions.

We can seek information in the breath, in the body, in our feelings and sensations. And that’s something I also use a lot in therapy by questioning how something feels physically – in the body. That’s a way of using the body to find a way to listening inwards, understand, and “heal”.

Modern psychology is regarding the body as an important part, which can be seen in the third wave of cognitive therapies with mindfulness for example. I also believe that yoga has been approved and now has a more credible role in the world of psychology.

ES:
You say in your book, “In small steps and with the therapist’s support, the patient learns to become aware of his or her conflicts and fears, and can then in turn better cope with them in the future. This normally leads to a significant reduction of inner tension, as well as a greater level of self-awareness and more personal freedom.”

You talk about here this relationship between the therapist and the patient, and what it leads to. And this, of course, sounds very similar to what we find in ancient yoga traditions, such as the Guru-disciple relationship. What is the value of that kind of relationship, and what kind of environment do you feel you want to set up or you are setting up for your patient?

CP:
In most therapies, the relationship between the therapist and the patient are seen as highly important.

In order to dare to look inwards, get insight, to change, you need to feel safe. You can feel safe being with this other person, and reflecting with this other person. Further, many people struggle because of being hurt in relationships. And the only way to heal is also healing through the relation to another person.

ES:
Can you give me an example?

CP:
It could be a person that has been, for example, brought up in a home with a critical mother, and having adapted that critical voice as his or her own inner voice. Through insight, and a safe relation to the therapist, the person can learn to respond differently to oneself – adapt a new and more caring and compassionate inner voice.

ES:
With yoga, we have a system that we can use to stay healthy in body, mind, spirit and emotions. Once we learn the practice, we have it for life. We can always use it, and we can modify it when we need to. For example if we’re tired we can do a little less. So within the type of psychological work you do, is there some kind of a system that you’re giving your patients so they can continue to remain emotionally healthy and mentally healthy after they’ve finished with their course of therapy with you?

CP:
Absolutely. That’s the goal. Making the patient able to get a system they can rely on themselves. I don’t use the word system, but during therapy we talk about what works for them. Some people will rely heavily on their breath and mindfulness practice, for example. Other persons find help in writing, and challenging their thoughts in order to find alternative and more helpful views for them. In this way therapy can be a way of breaking patterns, finding a new system, and getting some insights and tools for future challenges in life.

ES:
I’d like to move on to a question now I’ve already asked you before, but we haven’t spoken about it in depth, and this is about the use of the word ego. I’ve seen different yoga schools where they have signs outside that say, “Leave your shoes and your ego at the door.” Or people say things like, “Oh, I got hurt in a pose because my ego got in the way.”

The word ego is quite often used synonymously as a bad thing, as that part of us that is arrogant, or self important, and that’s ego — which of course is not how Freud used it. I wonder, could you explain to me what ego is, and how he used it, along with id and superego, and why it might have some different connotations than we commonly think it does, for those of us who haven’t studied psychology?

CP:
As I understand it, Freud talked about the id as our basic needs and instincts. The ego is being present with my own needs, but in a more organized way that the basic and immediate id. The superego adds morals, societal morality, like being able to behave appropriately in social situations. I don’t understand ego necessarily as negative, but rather, having a sense of self.

The ego is not this idea of wanting to do everything that I desire, or do things without having concern for anyone. In the yoga world, ego is definitely viewed as something just negative.

ES:
What would be a more positive spin on ego? And what would be a more proper way of using the word?

CP:
This is a big question, but I would say that it’s a way of having a sense of self. And in order to be something for other people, and be something for the group and seeing other people’s needs, you need to have a sense of self as well. I believe that being egocentric is something different than the ego – as the ego being more a sense of self.

ES:
That’s a nice distinction. So the ego, then, could be a healthy sense of self, an integrated sense of self that is integrated with the id and the superego.

CP:
Absolutely.

ES:
And then you would be living as a whole being, or something like that…

CP:
I think that if we look deeply into yoga and psychology, we find that both traditions actually talk about the same things.

ES:
When you get to the mind, there’s only so much we can talk about, because everyone’s having the same universal experience of it.

CP:
Right.

ES:
Let’s talk a little bit about common misunderstandings about yoga. For example, you said earlier that yoga is something that brings you into a state of mind where it’s something that you’re not doing, but something you’re receiving. It is something that enables you to go deeper into yourself, and be an active and responsible part of doing the job. So I’m not too sure exactly what you mean by this. But those were your words. So what were you trying to say there?

CP:
I often hear that, “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible.” Or, “I’m not able to stay present.” Or, “I can’t make my mind quiet.” People view yoga as something they need to have these strengths or insights to practice. I understand that because of the way yoga often is presented.

ES:
Fancy postures on the beach, etc.

CP:
Exactly. I think that’s the main challenge – yoga being misunderstood. We have a job to do on presenting yoga as a supporting system of being present, calming the senses, looking inwards – as being compassionate towards others, rather than being something egocentric which often is a misapprehension of the concept of yoga.

When you experience stillness inside, in your mind and body, that’s yoga – it’s a way of checking in, and being present with whatever is going on inside you and around you.

Carina’s book, Everyday Psychology, is available here

For more on psychology and Yoga, Freud and Yoga: Two Philosophies of Mind Compared, by T.K.V. Desikachar and Hellfried Krusche is a wonderful resource.

13

Ganesha and the Siddhis

This is an excerpt of an conversation that Deepak Chopra and I had last year on the inner meanings of Ashtanga Yoga. The full interview will be published in the next issue, out in July of Namarupa Magazine

DEEPAK CHOPRA:

You can become aware of whatever you want to. Attention and intention, focused awareness and intention—sankalpa—these are the ways that the un-manifest, the infinite, become the manifest, the finite. Mind, body, universe.

Dharana is the sixth step. And then following this the seventh step, dhyana, which means meditation. The last or eighth step is samadhi, which means transcendence. The combination of dharana, which is focused awareness, dhyana, which is meditation, and samadhi, which is transcendence, means union between subject and the object of perception or awareness, this combination is called samyama. And this leads to what are called siddhis.

The great Maharishi Patanjali says that when we practice samyama we develop what are called siddhis. Siddhi is the name of a goddess. And the goddess is the one who unfolds supernormal powers.

There’s another goddess who’s her sister called Riddhi. And Riddhi has influence over the elements and forces of the universe. So if you have siddhis, now you can look into the future, you can look into the past, you can remember other lifetimes, you can cultivate dormant potentials of love, compassion, joy. You can find hidden objects. All kinds of things that are considered as these supernormal powers.

They’re not really supernormal; they’re dormant potentials that exist in all of us, in that part of our being which is non-local. Local is here and now. This, where we are sitting now, is a local place. Non-local is getting to a domain which is outside space, time and causality. It’s where the software of the universe exists. The cosmic mind. Dharana, dhyana, and samadhi are the key to that. And when we have this, we open up these potentials which are called supernormal powers, siddhis and riddhis, but which are actually dormant potentials.

Patanjali warns us that you shouldn’t get attached to these siddhis, because that’s not the goal of yoga. The goal of yoga is union with the divine. But here is the proof. As you get into union with the divine, you notice that you have all these, what today people call psychic powers, which is another terrible word. Because these are normal dormant potentials. Everyone is a psychic that way.

EDDIE STERN:

Potentially.

DEEPAK CHOPRA:

What does Patanjali have to say about?

EDDIE STERN:

A bunch of things. First, I just want to backtrack a little. I really like that you brought up Riddhi and Siddhi as these two twin goddesses. Siddhi is also sometimes translated as “perfection”. But Riddhi and Siddhi are actually the two wives of Ganesha.

One of the meanings of Ganesha is that he is the lord of thresholds. And a threshold can be an invisible border between two different spaces. You walk from one room into another and you cross over a threshold. That threshold is kind of invisible because the space in one room is the same as the space in the other, but you enter into a different dimension.

When you go, for example, from the outside world into a temple, you’re entering into a spiritual space. When you walk from the outside world and you get on your yoga mat, you’re entering into another world that you’re creating there.

That crossing over the threshold into a spiritual dimension is one of the things that Ganesha rules, which is why he has a human body and an elephant head, a different dimension. This is my favorite meaning of Ganesha—the lord of thresholds. One of the invisible thresholds of our body is the brain stem. It’s part of the brain, but it doesn’t have a well defined structure like the prefrontal cortex or anything like that; it’s a small, one-inch part of the brain stem called the medulla oblongata, between the spinal cord and midbrain. It’s a crossing-over place between all of the brain activity and the rest of the nervous system.

When we access Ganesha and he grants us access through his blessings, we get the whole brain activity and transcend the nervous system and enter into this larger space. Ganesha rests in the brain stem, in the medulla oblongata, which is reminiscent of his bija mantra which is “gam”, and also is in the guttural region of the throat, ruled by the vagus nerve.

With the perfections, there’s a principle in the philosophy of sankhya called satkaryavada, which means that the effect is contained within the cause. For example, if you grind a sesame seed, you get tahini, depending on where you are, or you could get sesame oil. If you plant an apple seed, you’re going to get an apple tree. You’re never going to plant an apple seed and get tahini, and you’re never going to grind up a sesame seed and get an apple tree. Because contained within the sesame seed is the potential for anything that comes from sesame.

Every single object in the world has latency, something that exists within it already that will manifest and grow when you meditate upon it. If you meditate upon the sun, for example, you’re going to get the knowledge of all of the heavenly bodies that come along with that. If you meditate on the kurma nadi, which falls right at the base of the throat near the vagus nerve, you get steadiness, sthairyam.

All of the different perfections are actually objects or things within the body and the world that we can meditate upon. And when we have sameness with that thing we’re meditating upon, the inherent quality of that thing will manifest in our lives. And it could be anything from absolute, pure, focused awareness to knowing a past life.

DEEPAK CHOPRA:

Okay, when you look at Ganesh, and a very simple way of looking at Ganesh is to see that every part of his body actually has meaning. You see a big head—he’s introspective, meditative, reflective; big, flapping ears— he’s the best listener in the world. Listens not only with his ears, but with his heart, his mind, his soul.

The trunk of an elephant, it has power, but it also has discernment. So the trunk can uproot a tree, but it can also find a needle in a haystack. The two tusks, one tusk is broken, one is whole. Life comes in opposite pairs. There’s joy, there’s suffering. There’s up and down. There’s good, there’s inertia, and there’s enlightenment, there’s ignorance. And he’s witnessing that.

He has a big belly—he says, “I can digest your problems. Give them to me, and I’ll digest them.” And sometimes you see that around his belly is a snake. He’s reeling in his ego. You see one foot in the ground, one foot usually raised. One is in the absolute, in the transcendent world, and the raised is in this world. He’s in this world and not of it. He’s local and he’s not local.

There’s a rat there, which is to remind us that even the enlightened can succumb to greed and temptation. And the two goddesses, Siddhi and Riddhi, are there. If you represent the state of consciousness that Ganesh symbolizes, then the goddesses are going to support you. And these goddesses will awaken your dormant potentials, the siddhis and the riddhis. Is that a fair description?

EDDIE STERN:

Yes. Perfectly beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

11

How I Find Purpose

Finding, or feeling, what my purpose is something that I revisit on almost a daily basis. When I finish my morning meditation, I ask myself:

  • Who am I?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What do I value in my life?
  • How can I bring my purpose out into the world?

The answers that rise to the surface of my mind can be anything from sensing my deepest desires as a human being to basic things I want to get done during the day. At least once per year, usually around the time of my birthday or the New Year, I like to have a purpose overhaul, and check to see if I am really attending to the things I really think I value, that I claim in my mind to be important.

For example, if I say I value practicing yoga and feel that a big purpose in my life is to practice, but I am not practicing everyday, then I have to check and see: do I really value practice? Perhaps, there is something I value more, or I am not managing my time well enough. These are not New Year’s resolutions, but rather an authenticity check-in. Am I adhering to that which I claim to hold true?

So, I make a list of three to five things that I value (but not more), then I look through to see if I am paying attention them. If I am not, but I want to, then I see what changes I need to make in order to live up to my values. It’s a simple thing, a little tweak, but it works and it makes me feel better about my life. Some things I value appear on that list year after year, and I always feel I can make improvements on them, on their importance in my life. The list does not have to change, but over time, I like to see that I do.

It is a way of reconnecting and re-committing myself, to what is important in my life. Otherwise, it is easy to lose sight and get lost.

This year, I have already made my list. The first are personal, but the third is public because it is about our planet, and sometimes I feel that I am not living up to the duty of protecting and caring for our planet as much as I should: I travel a lot on airplanes, I use a computer and a cell phone, I drive a Vespa, and I buy clothes that are made in other countries. So, for my 50th year, I decided to choose one thing as my re-commitment to Mother Earth, and that is to support the important work going on right now to save elephants. Elephants are one of the most majestic and amazing creatures on our planet. Also, I worship Ganesh and have a Ganesh temple. Ganesh is the elephant-headed God and it seems contradictory to worship an anthropomorphic deity, who has a deep symbolic meaning, and not at the same time worship and protect the very animal who the manifestation of Ganesh is inspired by.

Here are some facts elephants:

  1. They are just about the world’s largest vegans.
  2. They are a keystone species, which means their very existence helps to maintain the structure of ecological communities and without them, the ecosystem they live in would be dramatically different, or cease to function altogether.
  3. They are matrilineal, which means “The Future Is Female” is already a reality.
  4. They exhibit mirror cognition and self-awareness.
  5. They communicate largely by touch.
  6. They show empathy for the dying and dead of their own species.
  7. They are among the most intelligent of all mammals.
  8. As humans are typically right- or left-handed, elephants are right- or left-tusked!
  9. They are cooperative problem solvers.
  10. An elephant is killed every fifteen minutes for their tusk.
  11. The population of elephants in Africa has reduced by over 100,000 in the last decade.
  12. There are only 30-40,000 Indian elephants left in the world, down from over 100,000 just a decade ago.
  13. If poaching of elephants is not stopped, there will be no elephants left on our planet in a few decades.

My friends, David Bonnouvrier and Trish Goff, co-founded the “Knot On My Planet” campaign that supports the work of the Elephant Crisis Fund (ECF) in Africa. The ECF’s goal is to stop the killing of elephants, stop the trafficking, and end the demand for ivory. If the sale and trafficking of ivory stops, then elephants will no longer be killed for their tusks. Ganesh is traditionally shown with one tusk that is broken and the other unbroken, which symbolizes non-duality. When we recognize that we are all a simultaneous, non-separate manifestation of consciousness, then we don’t cause harm to others. When we transcend the illusion of a separate self—the broken tusk—then anxiety disappears, and we don’t use other beings as objects. In the meantime, we have to stand up to those who don’t view the world this way, and protect those who cannot protect themselves.

For some of you, this protection may be to work against human trafficking, or fracking, or animal rights. I am going to try to support ECF throughout this year by speaking about their group, and doing Ganesh pujas where all donations will go to their organization.

It’s my 50th birthday on December 21st. I don’t like receiving gifts for my birthday (it’s a weird yoga thing), and I don’t usually ask for things for myself, but this year, I would like to ask you for one and that would be to make a donation in any amount to the ECF through this link: http://www.knotonmyplanet.org

You can check out this video below to learn a little bit more. We all have causes and they are all noble; among animals, the elephant is indeed one of the most noble there is. Kittens, of course, are the cutest.

Thank you for reading, and I hope that you have a very happy New Year. I look forward to continue posting on yoga philosophy throughout 2018. Until then…

With love,
Eddie

27

The Raja of Heaven

Everyone who does Ashtanga Yoga has heard, at one time or another, Guruji’s famous refrain, “Take practice, all is coming”.

The essential meaning behind it was that all of our questions will be answered from within when our mind gets quiet. When we used to come to Guruji with questions, he would say, “Yes, tell me, what are your doubts?” indicating that when we don’t doubt, but instead focus inwardly, our questions will dissolve. Perhaps, from a Vedantic point of view, it’s not so much that the answers are within, because self-knowledge is not an answer, but rather it’s an absence of questioning. What remains when the questions fall away? Just awareness.

The phrase “take practice, all is coming”, has become one of those lines that, frankly, I can get tired of hearing because it sounds like a throw-away line when used at the wrong time. For example, people sometimes say it when they don’t feel like addressing an issue that may really be a problem. Sometimes teachers say it when they don’t know how to answer to someone’s question. The problem with parroting the phrases of our teachers is that we don’t speak our own voice, or we take what they were saying metaphorically as a literalism. There were occasions when I was asking Guruji too many questions, and he would say to me, “Practice, all is coming!”, but he basically was saying “Alright already, you’re making me tired with your questions, shut up!”

This morning, however, I was listening to a talk by Jack Kornfeld while I was making some coffee, and he said something that made me think about Guruji’s saying in a new way. “What we practice”, he said, “is who we become next.”

This is essentially the same as Guruji’s saying, yet the change in context from “all is coming” to “who we become” struck a chord in me. It was a change from looking for a result (the all that might one day be coming) to immediacy: what we practice, that’s who we become.

So, who do we want to become? Do we want to become an asana? Do we want to become a bandha? If that is all our practice is, then that is all we get. However, if we can remember that yoga is essentially a practice of mind, of awareness, then we can become a manifestation of attention and presence. That constant practice of awareness will then, hopefully, become the foundation of all our thoughts and actions. Our practice is, literally, and under all circumstances, who we become next. But it is up to us to decide what that is.

In the Chandogya Upanishad, it says that within the wheel of life, our heart is the hub of our existence. However, we get caught in the spokes that extend out from the hub, as the wheel of life spins. Though love and happiness are essentially that which we all yearn to move towards, somehow, instead of seeking happiness in our center, we begin to seek it out in the spokes, thinking that we will find happiness from attainments like fame, position, power, knowledge, money, a partner, job or house, or the perfectly executed piece of art. All of these attainments, which we think will make us happy, always fall short of our expectations because they are all just the spokes spinning around, always moving away from us again after we think we have caught hold of them. What if we flipped these two around? What if we lived in the hub, instead of in the spokes? What if the hub was our purpose, and the spokes were simply an expression of our purpose?

Our activity should be an expression of our hub. Knowing our purpose, and meditating on our purpose, should be the impetus for how we act in the world. This is the basis for the three, important questions that I learned in ninth grade from my English teacher, Mrs. Bendetson:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What am I doing here (or what is my inner purpose?)
  3. How can I bring that out into the world?

Yoga students used to come to Guruji to ask for things all the time: to learn new postures, to learn advanced practices, to be given more things to do, to want to know how long it would take before their problems would go away, when the world would be a better place, what they should eat, or when they would become spiritually awakened. Guruji was clear that all of these desires existed in the spokes – they were not the hub; they were not practice for the sake of centering oneself in one’s essential existence.

These past few months, I have been reading the Bible, as I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah, and many of the stories that I have been reading are taking on new meanings for me. One example is from Matthew, 6:33, from the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you as well.” It struck me that Guruji”s short phrase, and his simple command in English, was exactly the same idea. “Take practice,” he said in response to our desire for fleeting things, like learning new postures, or wanting to understand difficult philosophical ideas, “all is coming.” It was his way of telling us to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven within, the Kingdom of Self-knowledge – for knowing who we are is the answer to all superficial questions, and the remedy for all suffering. It is the remedy for the illusion of a separate self. Ashtanga Yoga is also called Raja Yoga, and Raja means “king”. Who is the king that is attained in Raja Yoga? Perhaps it is the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of pure being.

If we seek first for the “all else”—the spokes—then maybe our petty desires will be fulfilled, but that will last only for a short time. One desire, by nature, always leads to another sprouting in its place. But if we seek first the hub of our heart, the hub of our purpose, by undertaking a spiritual practice, what will happen? Maybe, little by little, our petty desires will be burned away, until perhaps the only desire left is to love more, to live better, to have a kind and caring heart, to listen and be responsive, and not grasping of the people and world around us.

95

Life as Ritual, Ritual as Life


Photo by Robert Moses

As Thanksgiving and the holiday season roll around, our minds naturally get ready for the ritual of festivals, and the joys and stresses that come along with them. The holidays make us stop for a moment, so that we can spend time with family and friends, and they also quite often demand a lot of preparation. We decorate our homes, we prepare special foods, and we do a lot of shopping. Though sadly a lot of the seasonal rituals have been turned into commercial opportunities, the root idea behind ritual is to bring organization into our lives. We mark our lives by the passage of time, by the change of hours, weeks, months, seasons, and years, and the different celebrations mark those periods. Our lives are filled with ritual, from social customs to the way we get out of bed in the morning and prepare ourselves for work. But often the routines we follow become rote, they become habitual, and we question the meaning of our daily routines and of our lives. A habit, however done with awareness and presence of mind, can turn into a ritual and can be used to organize our time, our day, and direct our inner sense of purpose towards fulfillment and completion.

The Hindu tradition has hundreds of celebrations during the year. When Jocelyne and I were spending long periods of time in Mysore, it was a running joke about how many days were actually practice days, because every month the yoga shala would be closed for this puja or that puja, this bank holiday or that one. The markets would be filled with special flowers, or different fruits, and the streets would be decorated to celebrate Ganesh or the Goddess, or to celebrate the destruction of Ravana or some other demon. It was easy, in that environment, to feel that ritual was not separate from daily life, but a very important part of it. A basic meaning behind ritual is that it is any action or activity that brings us into closer communion with a sense of the Divine, the Sacred, or God. My favorite description of ritual was given by an orthodox Rabbi during Sukkot, a Jewish festival where you spend the whole night outside. It was late into the freezing November night when all of the Rabbis were nicely warmed by vodka, saying that they practice ritual to enter into the presence of God, or of the Sacred, and also to feel this presence in us, as the essence of our being, as close to us as our very breath.

In the book of Genesis, it says:

“God created man from dust, and blew into his nostrils, and man became a soul.”

This very act of connectivity between God and man was the first, intimate ritual that occurred in a human construct, as the presence of God entered into us through the act of God’s breath. There is almost no other act that is as intimate as breathing; when we align our awareness with our breath, or our breath aligns with another’s, we feel a profound connection of being. This first breath was, in essence, the breath of being, the breath of perfect alignment with all that is.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait said that there are, “…two purposes of ritual: to attain and expand one’s own inner potential and unite it with the cosmic force; and to pay respect and show gratitude to the cosmic forces that are constantly supplying light and life to all beings.”

These purposes can be broken up into two categories of intention that we see in yoga:

  • Effort
  • Surrender

The effort that we make is called karma, which means action. It is an expression of our own will, but a will that is infused with an intention of growth, expansion, and connectivity. It is not an effort to gain, conquer, or master, but the effort to reach, seek, and contemplate.

Surrender, which is also called bhakti, is where we understand that the effort we are making is not actually from our own, individual existence, but that we owe our existence to something greater than ourselves. If you believe in God, then you can feel that every action you perform is because God has infused you with His very own breath. It is not only with that first breath that God blew into our nostrils, but with every breath we take, God is blowing His breath into ours. Every time we sit to be mindful of our breath, if we can feel or imagine that it is God breathing us, then our minds and hearts will most certainly be infused with devotion and gratitude. Not only does it take the effort out of breathing, it takes the effort out of existing, because knowing and feeling that we are being breathed can be immensely comforting, safe, and give us a sense of being held by the Divine.

In it’s most simplistic and pared down way, performing an action with the idea that, “this action is not being done by my own volition, but everything that I do is because of the grace of the Divine, and therefore I offer this effort in gratitude to the Divine”, is called surrender, or bhakti.

If you do not believe in God, then the same ideas can be held towards nature. We do not exist independent of nature, which though exceedingly obvious, is something that we forget since many of us are so divorced from nature’s daily, monthly, and yearly cycles. Our awareness of the natural cycles of night and day, of seasonal shifts, our adherence to the arbitrary construct of the Gregorian calendar, and especially to the cycles of our own breath, have become alien to us. For those who believe in nature, or energy, but not in God, ritual is bringing oneself back in tune with the cosmic forces of nature, to feel oneness and connectivity with the earth, rain, sun, air, and the atmosphere that support, sustain, and nourish us.

These five elements of nature make up the biosphere that we live in, that we are an integral part of, and which we are an expression of. Everything in the biosphere is an expression of nature, nothing “got” here on it’s own. We came from this, and are made from it. We have at our elemental core the dust left over from the creation of stars, and have billions of years of creation pulsating through us. Ritual is meant to connect us to this aspect of the reality because there are many aspects of reality, and the human universe is just one of them.

The Hindu system of philosophy called Mimamsa says that the entire universe is an altar, and that all in life is a grand ritual being played out on the altar of the Divine. Each individual is a micro-representation of the macrocosmic altar, and all of the activities in our lives, therefore, are mini-rituals. All of our daily activities, from brushing our teeth to social constructs of how we greet each other (differently in different cultures), are actually mini-rituals.

And where is this altar? Who is the worshipper? Both are the un-seeable, unknowable Consciousness, called Brahman. Consciousness is both the ritual, the offering, and the one performing the ritual. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says:

Brahmarpanam Brahma havir Brahmagnau Brahmana hutam I
Brahmaiva tena gantavyam Brahmakarma samdhinah II

“The absolute consciousness is the process of offering and the oblation, offered into the fire of consciousness. Whoever knows the absolute as the action and doer of all action, indeed reaches pure consciousness alone.”

We don’t see the One who is carrying out the ritual, but we can see some of the players who are taking part in the ritual: people, animals, plants, mountains, all things on this planet, and the billions of galaxies and trillions of stars. By fully taking part in the ritual – immersing our minds and actions into it with effort infused with intention, and surrender based on knowledge that we are not the maker of the ritual – we come into communion with the unknowable consciousness, and feel peace, whole, and connected.

Pandit Tigunait beautifully says, “One who wants to breathe and live properly is not supposed to disturb the breath of cosmic life. Disturbing others air disturbs the rhythm of the cosmic breath”, and that by not disturbing the breath of others, by staying true to one’s inner purpose, “establishes peace and harmony in the breath of cosmic life.” So, in a practical manner, how can we perform ritual in order to bring ourselves in harmony with the cosmic rhythms?

  • We can observe our breath and either feel that we are being breathed by God, or breathed by the universe, and feel the surrender and safety that comes through our breathing.
  • We can participate in the daily rituals of life (like eating, communicating, working, sleeping, and bathing) while keeping the idea in our minds and hearts that all of our activities are part of the Cosmic ritual.
  • We can remember that ritual leads to an inward movement of awareness and attention, and use any activity that we perform during the day to have micro-moments of attention and appreciation.
  • We can remind ourselves, whenever we can remember, that we can perform any interaction we have, whether with a person, animal, nature, technology, or our own minds, with a feeling of positivity, love, compassion, and care.

Any of these, or all of these, can serve as mini-rituals that can be done throughout the day to remind us that life is sacred, and that our interactions with the people and things of this world are sacred, as well. It’s a reminder to be gentle, be kind, be true, and treat all beings and nature with respect and care. And as we move into the festival season that can more often than not be chaotic and stressful, establishing small, daily rituals for yourself can help to manage the bigger ones when they come around.

38

The Importance of Lineage Part 2

Looking back from last week’s post on lineage, I realized that I have now been following Guruji’s teachings and participating in this lineage for 25 years, which is exactly half of my life. One of the most important experiences I have had was early on in my first years as Guruji’s student, when I realized that when I followed his instructions on how to practice, things went well – my mind was absorbed and concentrated within the practice. But when I started changing even small things, the effect was not as good. Hence, his instruction to practice as he taught, and to not make changes, was not because he was being authoritative, it was because when the practice is done right, it works. When it’s done differently, it doesn’t work quite as well.

Why have we been taught that philosophical systems and practical methods such as yoga, Vedanta and associated disciplines and philosophies are more trustworthy when they have been passed down from generation to generation? It is because they have the benefit of being tested, and that test brings experience to life. It is essentially the experience of the practitioner that continually brings the teachings to life, and that is what is passed down in each generation. One of the essential purposes of a practice is to carry techniques that help still the patterns of our minds; patterns that cause us to identify with something other than who we really are. When we look at yoga as a mechanism that carries such techniques, we will not be so enamored with ideas of academics who coin terms like “modern yoga”, or “Modern Postural Yoga”, or “Transnational Anglophone Yoga”; monikers that only examine the most superficial aspects of yoga: postures. To call it “modern yoga” is to miss the thread, to mistake the finger pointing at the moon as the moon itself.

It is okay to trust the experience of a lineage that has survived through a century or more, tested and adapted in each age by the dedication and devotion of the teachers who were practitioners themselves. It is also okay to be skeptical of someone who claims to have invented their own system of yoga—let them prove that it actually works over a few generations, before they make such a claim. And if it does indeed deliver what Yoga promises, then let us accept those practices as valid. Otherwise, it’s a fad. If Goat Yoga is still around in 100 years, then we can accept it. If it’s gone by the time the next yoga season rolls around, then we know it was another cute idea that has worn itself thin, another media story that had four legs to carry it.

Practices that are passed on are allowed to change in topical ways. Increasing levels of sophistication is a natural part of the world, and the nature of change. My daughter largely communicates by Snapchat and emojis from her phone. A small graphic now can replace words (a picture is indeed worth a thousand of them these days, especially when there is so much to read). Alexander Graham-Bell’s first phone call in 1876 was as short as an emoji: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Interestingly, Bell recognized the distraction of the telephone early on, and refused to have one of his own inventions in his study, as he felt it would distract his work. When he passed away in 1922, North Americans were asked to refrain from making any phone calls during his funeral as a moment of silence!

Parampara is like a complicated game of telephone that has lasted a few millenniums. It is one of the cornerstone institutions of the Vedic traditions, earlier known as the Sanatana Dharma, or roughly translated, “eternal law or path”, now called Hinduism. All cultures have their own forms of lineage, and their own ways of passing down tradition. The Jewish tradition, of which I am from, has passed down stories and customs since the time that the Jews were slaves in Egypt. Hindus have a tradition of passing down knowledge and practices over thousands of years, which can be observed today in the Maths or monasteries, where their acharyas and gurus live. It is indeed one of the oldest, continuous sources of knowledge that exists in the world today. Yoga has its root in this tradition.

In the Bhagavad Gita—a sacred text that centers around a conversation between Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and his friend and disciple, Arjuna—Krishna instructs Arjuna in the path of Yoga in eighteen chapters. Early on in the conversation, in chapter four, verse two and three, Krishna says to Arjuna:

Evam paramparapratum imam rajarshayo vidhuhu |
sa kalenena mahata yoga nasta parantapa ||

Thus, this science of yoga was passed down in disciplic succession, even the great Kings knew of it. But over time, this succession was broken, and the science of yoga was lost.

sa evayam maya te ‘dya yogah proktah puratanah |
bhakto ‘si me sakha ceti rahasyam hy etad uttamam ||

Today, I speak to you of this same, ancient yoga, For you are my friend and my devotee, and are fit to hear this supreme mystery.

This sacred conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna is said to be the revival of the disciplic succession of yoga in this age, and much of what we look to as the philosophy of yoga are contained in these eighteen chapters—including instruction on asana, pranayama, dhyana, diet and lifestyle habits.

And though the Gita is more than just a book, it is also very true that there is only so much that we can learn from a book, and that is why, as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said again and again, a Guru, or a living teacher, is absolutely necessary. We can only get so far on our own steam, and at a certain point we need to accept a guide who has gone to the depths of knowledge, and can lead us through paths that we have not yet seen. Someone who can guide us when we struggle, and encourage us when we become disillusioned. This acceptance of a teacher is called surrender, or bhakti, in Sanskrit. While bhakti is also translated as devotion, the idea of devotion basically means to have faith or conviction in something other than the infallibility of your own abilities, that there is something deeper that empowers us, and that sometimes we need help. Surrender does not mean giving everything up including your own sense of agency; it means giving up the idea that you are the only source of agency.

Looking through this lens, parampara has two parts: firstly, the transmission of techniques or viewpoints of self-knowledge, and secondly, bhakti. The last and necessary part is how those two things are carried: through a vessel. That vessel is called ‘guru’. Gu means remover, ru means darkness. The darkness refers to the seeker not knowing who they truly are, or what their purpose is. Darkness covers the inner light of knowledge, and yoga and the like removes that darkness, like turning on a lightbulb removes the darkness from a room. The guru is not the lightbulb, they are the one who can teach you how to turn on the switch.

Swamigal Chandrashekarendra Bharati, in his book The Guru Tradition, said that the flaws of the guru are to be expected and accepted, but not followed. There is very little possibility of a human being existing without flaws. The guru tradition, however, is not about people, it is about knowledge, and knowledge is carried by vessels, like water is carried by a pot. If you put pure water into a gold, silver or clay pot, the water will still remain pure whether the pot is in perfect condition or whether it has a few dents. As people, we all have a few dents in us, and that is to be expected. It does not, however, invalidate our knowledge or experiences, or our ability to pass them on. In fact, it is quite often those who have the most dents in them, but have learned from those dents, that make the best teachers. The expectation we place upon teachers to be perfect is unrealistic, and unfair, as it puts them in an impossible position to not allow them to freely be the flawed, individuals that they may be. And we do that when we want to deny our own flaws, and cover them with so-called spirituality.

So is lineage important? Can I not learn from a book, or a video? The answer is yes: you can learn quite a lot from a video, but you will miss out on feedback. A video cannot monitor your progress, correct you, or fill in the unseen details. Lineage has made it possible for us to learn what we know of yoga today. If it were not for lineage, we would have never learned anything about yoga. To answer the question: why is lineage in Ashtanga yoga important to us today? It is not important just for today, it is important for all time. Without lineage, yoga will be lost.

When you look for a teacher, look to their experience, look to their character, and most importantly, check to make sure the practice itself makes you feel like you are doing yoga. If you do not feel, inwardly, in your intuitive self, that the practice is truly yoga, then keep looking. Eventually, you’ll find it. It’s one of the promises that the Katha Upanishad makes:

Nāyamātmā pravacanena labhyo na medhayā na bahunā śrutena |
Yamevaisha vrnute tena labhya tasyaisha ātmā vrnute tanūgm svām ||

This Self cannot be known through much study, nor through the intellect, nor through much hearing (of teachings). It can be known by the Self alone that the aspirant prays to; the Self alone reveals it’s own nature to the seeker who seeks to know it.

The Upanishad says: don’t look to people or books to know God, or to know your true self; look straight to God to know God, and straight towards your inner being to know your Self.

74

The Importance of Lineage

The practices of Yoga and meditation have been passed down from generation to generation for many thousands of years, and like many of the things we use in our lives, such as telephones, cars, stoves and bicycles, their form has changed over the centuries. Yoga 1,000 years ago, in all likelihood, looked a little different than it does today. However, the essential, underlying purpose of Yoga has not changed—similar to how the essential purpose of a car has not changed, which is to move us from one place to another. The purpose of Yoga and meditation have been, from the earliest times, and continue to be, a way that we seek to know who we truly are.

Pattabhi Jois often stressed the importance of having a teacher, or a Guru, and how important lineage was. When I travel and teach, I often get asked what should you do if you don’t live near a teacher, or why lineage in Ashtanga Yoga is considered to be so important, since a lot of people do not have access to teachers on a regular basis, but learn Yoga from videos, YouTube, or apps. It’s a good question, and I’d like to preface this question with some of my thoughts on how the recent yoga academics discuss lineage in regards to yoga, in contrast to how the Guru tradition in India sees it. Hopefully by the end of this two-part post we’ll see that the importance of lineage today is the same as it was one thousand years ago, and that it’s not important just in regards to Ashtanga Yoga, but in regards to all Yogas, and all systems of knowledge.

First, a definition: the words lineage and parampara basically mean the same thing. Parampara, like most Sanskrit words, has many meanings. Among some of the dictionary meanings are, “proceeding from one to another”, “uninterrupted series”, “generation”, “tradition”, “continuation” and “one following the other”. All of them point to a continuous flow of something, whether it is a family line or a philosophical tradition, from one person, or generation, to the next. It also indicates a process of knowledge being passed down from a guru to a shishya, or a teacher to a student.

The knowledge in the guru-shishya tradition that is being passed on is knowledge that has been tested, similar to (but not exactly like) a science experiment that has been proven to be replicable, and then its results accepted in the larger, scientific field. Yoga and meditative practices that are passed down contain knowledge based on experience. It’s not that it’s because these practices are older that we say they are better —like the saying, “Old is gold,” for example—we don’t say that the telegraph, invented by Samuel Morse in the 1830’s, was better than a mobile phone because it came first. The telegraph was the most absolute modern invention of its time; there was nothing more cutting edge than the ability to communicate via radio waves, which are invisible to the human eye. Many people did not accept the new technology. Many people did not even accept the telephone when it was invented, bringing unwieldy and labor-intensive technology into the home.

My wife’s parents, for example, did not even own a phone until the late 1980’s. She bought them one so she could speak with them because she lived outside of France and travelled a lot. But they otherwise saw no need to have one, and they didn’t even want one—everyone they needed to speak to lived in their village, or was a short car or bike ride away. Her father, who is 85, only uses a mobile phone now. If Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone in 1876, could see the iPhone today, he would no doubt be thrilled by it, and probably already knew such a thing was possible. He wouldn’t remark (I am assuming), “Oh, the telegraph was so much better. It was great to be able to communicate in such a simpler time.” We have to remember that every new age or generation is the most modern age that has ever been. 5,000 years ago was the most modern time that ever existed then, and today, this very day, whatever day it is that you are reading this line, is the most modern time it is of the age you live in. So when we say ‘modern’, we have to remember that every single age, time and generation is modern at the time it exists. Therefore, to say things like “modern postural yoga” is not only ridiculous, but also imprecise: what will those same academics call yoga one hundred years from now, when the yoga that they called modern is no longer modern?

To give into these types of categorizations from an anthropological mind set is to give into the illusion of time and space, and that all the things that exist within time and space have appeared in a chronological order. For a Western mind, that might ring true because a sense of order makes us feel like we have figured something out—or worse yet, like we have figured it all out. But in India, time is not a chronology of events, time is a circle, which expands and contracts, and allows for everything to exist simultaneously, past, present and future. The experience of the simultaneous existence of everything is the best remedy for feeling separate from the world.

I want to stay with the telephone analogy for a moment longer just because it lines up well with the idea in parampara of being, originally, and still, largely an oral tradition. Communication is one of the most developed functions that we possess as a species. It is postulated by scientists such as Dan Siegel, Rick Hanson and others that the largest part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, has developed primarily as our social interaction processing network. A large part of our existence depends upon communication and interaction. The telephone was an extension of this. So, when we look at such an object, we have to remember that the important facet here is not that the first telephone invented was the best telephone ever, and only that phone was the real true telephone; we have to be clear on the fact that the telephone exists for us to talk to each other with greater facility, to communicate. Communication then becomes the thread from generation to generation of telephones. And communication is a circle; it is not a straight line, from point A to point B. When we speak to someone, they should be listening, in order for communication to occur, and also, we need to feel that we have been heard. If we haven’t been heard, then there is no communication. So it’s not just that someone speaks, it’s that there is also a listener, a comprehension, and perhaps a response. It’s a circle.

This is how knowledge was passed down within the Yoga traditions. The guru gives the instruction, the shishya listens, and puts it into practice, and the guru gives feedback that continually refines the shishya’s ability to practice, and thus draws out a direct experience in the shishya that they will then pass on to their students when they teach. The instruction leads towards experience. The instruction is not to make the student a fundamentalist about a particular practice or message, but to know themselves on a deep level, perhaps as pure consciousness, beyond time and space, beyond personal narrative.

The important message in parampara is not that there is one, ultimate practice that is the real, true practice that must be preserved and passed down from generation to generation; the purpose of Yoga is self-knowledge. This is the thread of Yoga that is passed down from generation to generation. It is only normal that there will be upgrades and variations as time passes.

In the Taittiriyra Upanishad, there are several beautiful mantras that give an analogy based on how words are joined together, and that there are five great conjunctions that link together to form the full expression of the universe. One of those conjunctions is the meeting of the Guru and shishya; it says:

The Guru is the first letter, the shishya is the second letter, learning is the meeting place, and the instruction is the link.

Parampara is indeed the link in this chain, and it ties the teacher and student together into wholeness, completeness, and the experience of knowledge.

In the next post, I’ll discuss more about the Ashtanga Yoga parampara and the Hindu Guru tradition. Thanks for reading!

80

Is There Such a Thing As Pure Ashtanga Yoga?

This past month I did a short interview for Amrita Magazine in London. They asked me a question that I felt was an important one, because it hit upon a lot of the problems that all groups in the world – whether political, religious, spiritual, or ancestral – have to grapple with, and that is the notion of purity. The question was, “Do you teach “pure” Ashtanga Yoga, and what do you think of all the variations and offshoots based on the original system?” My answer, which is below, didn’t address their question fully. I answered only the first part, but not the second part, because I am not familiar with the offshoots and what they are doing. I am, however, familiar with the splits that have occurred in our own community, and that is what I spoke about in my answer.

Let’s start off with the idea about “pure” Ashtanga Yoga. Though I understand your question and where you are coming from, I like to be careful about “pure” anything when it comes to spirituality, religious practices, or anything to do with religion. Thinking we are adhering to the most pure version of something is how our minds begin to take on a fundamentalist, extremist, or self-righteous mindset – usually without us being aware of it – and it leads to the most un-yogic type of behavior.

I do my best to teach what I learned from Sri K Pattabhi Jois, or at least what I remember learning. What I remember learning is the key here – because all of our memories are subject to alteration over time. Also, he taught everyone a little bit differently. There are some basic things that have held up over the years, and that I stick to: the basic order of the sequences, the technique of breathing and moving, and the gaze. But the rate at which he taught each person a posture, or the small changes in the way he taught different people postures, varied.

Over the years there have been small changes to the sequences, a change in a posture here or there, a different count to a vinyasa here or there, but essentially things have stayed the same for the past 90 years since Pattabhi Jois started learning from Krishnamacharya in South India. Pattabhi Jois’s grandson, Sharath Jois, who now is the head of the Ashtanga Yoga parampara, has also introduced some new additions, which are welcome changes. But you imagine this system of practice is like a river whose course has not changed direction over many years, but along the banks of the river, some small changes occur.

We have to be flexible enough in body and mind to roll with the changes when they come; if they work, there is no reason to not keep them. If they don’t work for you, stick with what does – but don’t criticize the changes as being less than what you learned earlier, because they may actually work quite well for a lot of people. “Old is gold” is what we say when we get old! My thinking is, if Pattabhi Jois, or Sharath, introduced something new into the sequence, perhaps there is a good reason for it. After all, they had/have a lot of experience.

So, which Ashtanga Yoga is “pure”? The version that Pattabhi Jois taught in 1937 at the Sanskrit College? How he taught in 1948 when he opened his first institute? The version the first Americans learned in 1972? What I learned in 1991 when I started with him? Or today, as Sharath teaches it? My thinking is that they are all pure, if your mind is pure.

We need to keep in mind that the sequences, though effective, are not so much special in and of themselves. The important thing is the experience that is being passed along through the vehicle of a practice. The practice is just that: a vehicle. We have to remember who is behind the wheel. If they are a good driver, then who knows, perhaps they will reach their destination safely. But if they are a reckless driver, then they might cause damage to innocent bystanders. If someone thinks they are pure, but they hurt people, or misguide people, then all the adherence to rules and regulations are useless. Someone else, with less experience, less adherence to rules, but more adherence to kindness, listening and compassion, may actually go a lot further in passing on the message of yoga.

In the Vaishnav tradition, there are three things that a spiritual practitioner is supposed to have:

1. Respect for your elders
2. Friendliness towards your colleagues
3. Equanimity of mind towards those with poor behavior

When we have those things, then notions of purity, of being better than someone else who we deem as less ‘pure’, and all the problems associated with that, fall away. It’s hard not to judge people based on their actions. However, sometimes actions are deceptive. it is better to look at the effects of their actions, and see whether or not our judgement is called for. If the effect is good, we should be happy, even if we don’t agree completely with the action, the instruction, or whether or not they changed something in a sequence, if it is helpful to another human being. Or animal. Or the planet.

When Guruji told me I could start teaching yoga, he gave me two instructions. The first was don’t advertise. The second was, “Teach how I taught you, don’t change it.” How did he teach me? By teaching me, not by teaching someone else. So, I try to teach each person as they are, not as if they were someone else. In doing that, there is no pure or not pure, there’s just a person, and yoga, and where they meet. Sometimes it works, sometimes is doesn’t, but nevertheless, I try.

Happy Halloween. Om.

150