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

3

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.

65

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.

34

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.

43

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!

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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.

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November Updates

Please find below some updates for the next month:

1. The Breathing App has had 12,000 downloads in our first ten days, thank you all for your support! Check it out here if you haven’t downloaded already.

2. Rio (Oct. 20-23) will be my last workshop for the year; after Monday I’ll be in NY till Moscow, January 10th-14th. Yay!

3. Starting Friday, November 10th, I’ll be teaching on Fridays again.

4. Thursday, Oct.19th, is the moon day. Friday, October 20th, we will be closed for temple construction and repairs. We will add on a day to everyone’s month for the inconvenience. Thank you for your patience, and please accept my apologies for the closure. We are trying to get everything finished ASAP!

5. Jocelyne will teach a Thursday night meditation class towards the middle of November – stay tuned!

That’s all for now! Thank you!

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The Breathing App

The Breathing App

Hello, Folks!

I am very excited to announce that my first app, called The Breathing App, will be available on the iTunes App Store starting Thursday, October 5th.

The app is based on resonance breathing, which is a specific frequency of breathing that brings about a balance of our physiological and emotional baselines, including our heart rate, blood pressure, and brainwave frequencies. It has many benefits, and leads to an alert, mental calm.

It is a two year collaboration between myself, Deepak Chopra (who helped to guide the science behind the app), and Sergey Varichev (who did all of the coding and co-designed). The music on the app is by Moby.

You can find out more information on the app and coherence here.

Please go to the App Store on Thursday and try it out – it’s free! Leave comments and lots of five star ratings 🙂

The launch will be this weekend at the Inner Peace Conference in Amsterdam, which will be live-streamed on their FB page on Saturday. Deepak and I also did a FB live post about the app which you can see here.

Thanks all very much! I hope that you like it!

With love,
Eddie

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Helping Houston

Hi, Folks,

By now everyone has seen the extensive damage that Hurricane Harvey has brought to Texas and Louisiana. Let’s also not forget the massive rains in South East Asia.

If you would like to support humanitarian and rescue work in Houston, please consider supporting Alison Thompson, who I worked with during Hurricane Sandy in Far Rockaway. You can learn about her in this short video, and within the first two minutes you’ll want to support her. She goes into crisis zones in every corner of the world, and brings her SWAT rescue paramedic skills and considerable experience with her. In Houston, she’ll be bringing all of that, plus a couple of boats and canoes.

Alison looks for both long and short term interventions in crisis zones. One of the massive problems from Hurricane Sandy was there was no power for up to five months in many areas. That includes street lights, and everything. In advance of this, one of the things she will be bringing with her are 500 solar powered lights to distribute, that you can see demo’ed in the video. More lights will be coming as well.

Denise Horvilleur, who I work with in the public schools in El Paso, and previously in Houston, and Rachel Nystrom, who runs Ashtanga Yoga Houston, are opening their houses to Alison for supply shipments, headquarters, and as a place for a group of medics who are en route from NYC to stay in. Michelle Manning (who was also in Far Rockaway) will be driving in from Tennessee with a truck filled with requested supplies from some very hard hit local parishes. Pastor Tillman and I will do what we can from here with our connections in Houston.

The big organizations are great to support, but the smaller groups are also valuable because they can provide quick and surgical responses in many cases. That is what Alison, the medics, and Michelle will be doing.

If you are looking for a way to help, here are some good options:

#1 Help Alison Thompson/Third WaveVolunteers here
#2 The NYT has a good list of groups to donate to here

Please, please think twice before giving to the Red Cross. The Red Cross is one of the most corrupt charitable organizations that we have in the US. Millions upon millions of dollars donated to specific causes, like Haiti, or Hurricane Sandy, never reached those locations, and the Red Cross has been sued multiple times over this.

Thanks very much for reading this. If you have tips or need help, please let me know, and I’ll pass it along.

With love,
Eddie and Jocelyne

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Nectar, Nadis, & The Nervous System

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