Refuge: Commentaries from last months emails

April 1, 2021Refuge in Hatha Yoga

HYP 1.10 for those continually tempered by the heat of tapah (pain – difficulty – challenges) hatha is like the hermitage giving protection from the heat.  For those always  united in yoga, hatha is the basis acting like a tortoise.

Perhaps this has happened to you —you select a relaxing and remote vacation destination, longing for a break from the hassles of day to day life.  A deposit of thousands of dollars is placed – the time between making the arrangements and the date of the trip is consumed with the desire for that rest and relaxation.  The state which will come when life as you know it is escaped for a little while.  The day arrives.  The plane is delayed, the luggage is lost, negotiating the unfamiliar terrain of the destination, for whatever reason, falls out of the realm of an adventure and just feels a little arduous.  Now, I love to travel, I’m not knocking it, but it’s not always the escape that we want it to be, there are no guarantees of relaxation or freedom on any journey.  But, as this sentence from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika puts forth, a well done yoga practice allows us to establish an essential experience of ease and refuge within.

Granted, a yoga class can have similar distractions to a pilgrimage in terms of time, obstacles, disruptions.  But the function of a yoga class is to learn, to be together in learning and community  The discovery of the inner refuge is the path of our personal practice.

The inner work of yoga, depending on the techniques you practice, can reveal many different things.  There is the awakening of insight and contemplation, there is creativity and conscious co-creation, there is awakening and there is refuge.  We have many alternatives to choose from.

What’s specific about the techniques of Hatha Yoga is that they support and develop this experience of refuge specifically.  It’s put forth here at the beginning of the text, which is claimed to have historical roots in the origins of the practice of Hatha Yoga itself.  The beginning of the text states it’s lineage back to the teaching of Shri Adinath, the first yogi, also known as Lord Shiva.  As the text unfolds we are advised to create the conditions for the experience of Hatha Yoga.  The conditions within and without, create a scaffolding for this experience of transition from a state of dualism to an experience of unity, and in that unity there is peace, there is refuge, there is healing and there is rest.

Last month we explored the kundalini energy.  When directed in unconscious ways the creative energy can lead to the experience of fluctuation, conflict and unstable moods.  Well directed and managed energy can be elevated to a steady state where such disruptions are minimized or ideally left behind.  Think about it, we know sorrow only because we have known happiness, two opposing energies will always conflict until they are harmonized and when a pendulum swings one way it inevitably swings the other way.  The idea as I understand it is that when we become anchored in this steady unified, harmonized state,  which is yoga then the fluctuations and conflicts occur, but we are not imprisoned or buffeted by them.  I measure the depth of the yoga practice these days, by my ability to stay steady in the face of those fluctuations. 

This month we’ll explore techniques of focus on breath and gaze which support this experience of unity.  The Hatha Yoga Pradipika refers to miraculous states where the physical body is transformed through the practice.  This experience unfolds as we master our ability to be in union as we move in the physical world. 

ENERGY ANATOMY – The Manipura Chakra

The Manipura Chakra (the city of jewels) is located in the area of the solar plexus under the rib cage.  This chakra is “worked” when we twist, when we work with our diaphragms in breathing exercises and bandhas, and when we work with our gaze.  Spiritually, psychologically, this center affects and is effected by or relationships with others in community — how we see them and how we are seen.  My experience is that the gaze is a deep purifying technique for the manipura chakra.  To use our drishti (a technique of gazing) breaks down the experience of self and other and harmonizes the relationships between.

Yoga at Home

One of the nicest things about working in a personal practice at home is that you can draw out the technique which your personal journey is calling for and work with it on your own schedule and with your own ability to focus and observe and digest the experiences that you have with a given technique.    There is no one way of yoga.  Traditionally, one would work one on one with a teacher, and a form of relationship which is no longer really available or desirable for many of us.  Our opportunity in engaging our personal curriculum of yoga in a structured and mindful way provides the opportunity to experience a personal relationship with what refer to these days as the Wisdom Self.  Engaging the Wisdom Self opens a deep level of knowing which reveals the journey step by step and provides an illuminated understanding of our personal function, our opportunities for rich and unique growth, and decisions which lead to deep healing. 

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HYP 1.10 for those continually tempered by the heat of tapah (pain – difficulty – challenges) hatha is like the hermitage giving protection from the heat.  For those always  united in yoga, hatha is the basis acting like a tortoise.

April 11, 2021

Many spiritual traditions contain within them an indicator of the power of taking refuge, as a means and an end.  In Buddhism, one takes refuge in the awakened consciousness or the Buddha, the community, and the essential truth.  In Christianity, it’s the experience of salvation, or being saved by surrendering into Christ consciousness.  In yoga, that refuge is liberation or mukti, the experience of releasing into the limitless divine which is known by many many names.  .  This passage is located at the very beginning of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a seminal text on the yogic processes.  The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a manual for balancing the forces of the physical body to enable deeper levels of absorption in the state of union or yoga.  Hatha Yoga is notable for it’s simplicity, it’s power and it’s promise, that the dissolving the separation of opposites or the sun and the moon, will protect us from the experience of pain. 

While the language of the HYP is mysterious and riddle-like, the practice is simple.  The text itself enumerates some extreme measures….living alone in a hermitage built to specifications outlined therein, avoiding overeating and regular folks, and avoiding long pilgrimages and women – to name a few.  But basically, whittled down to essence, the foundations of preparation prescribe that we create a life which is relatively free of conflict. The hermitage of yoga is built of our own powerful moment by moment choices to stay centered or give into the temptation to fluctuate or be fluctuated.

We live in a world of duality:  right or wrong, this or that, black or white, red or blue, science or fiction, spirit or  matter, male or female, etc.  It is our attachment to the opposing elements of that duality which causes the fluctuation within, and the conflict without.  Hatha refers to the union of the Sun and the Moon.  Our intuitive psychic qualities and our active and engaged qualities cease to be in opposition to one another.  Instead they work together. 

If you’ve ever butt heads with someone with a stubbornly opposing viewpoint you know how much conflict within and without is caused by that duality.  When we choose peace the duality ceases to have power over us and we are protected from the pain of the fluctuations.  We move towards yoga. 

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April 17, 2021

Refuge II: Peace in the Body

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes the process of Hatha yoga as a refuge for those best by the pain of suffering.  A considerable amount of our suffering is of the body, and later on in the text when the results of practice are described we are encouraged that the pain will cease.  The text specifically points to a moment when all physical disease is eradicated.  Last week we spoke of the transformative power of moving beyond duality as reflected in the word Hatha.  Dualities are infinite in number (although limited in expression) and one such duality is the divide between the mind and the body.  Think about it.  How much of your time is spent warring with your body?  Even many forms of so-called self-care are merely thinly disguised ways to try to make the body different than it is:  it’s appearance, behavior sensations.  Either it’s in charge or we are (you know those struggles over the chocolate thing).  In the meditative processes of yoga it’s sometimes spoken of that the mind is a battlefield.  Well so is the body.  Part of the power of well-done Hatha yoga is that this dichotomy between mind and body can be dissolved into peace, and the body, once a battleground becomes instead a vehicle, a tool, a field which can be used for healing and transformation on a psycho-spiritual level. 

In yoga 2021, we are best by images of what we should look like.  They are changing but the images of perfection still loom large.  There is much suffering in the attempt to spend your life trying to look like someone else!  Any spiritual path can be distorted into suffering. A well-done practice, engaged with wisdom and discernment, yields a state of peace with the form we are in. 

My classes are small. Being out of the studio is a blessing for that reason.  Part of that is – I encourage students to back off, to give up the striving for the physical ideal, but to still be engaged.   It’s pretty specialized…and good for those who are wanting to engage their inner being.  It also requires an understanding uniquely yogic that just because you give up striving doesn’t mean that you won’t’ get what you want.   It also requires and understanding that the inner work has the power to transform the physical form.  Imagine this – your limitation – say a restriction in the hamstrings – to sit in the limitation and breathe and find peace and not fight against the limitation is the field of true inner strength.  To learn to move forward without pushing against or opposition, but instead through the creative willingness and love in your heart, well….It’s a moment to find beauty in what is instead of what should be.  And-practicing that way balances the energy field and tones the body in an integrated way.  Creating balance within the limitation rather than saying …”If conditions were different…I would be balanced” This is a measure of true power.

As I practiced this way I found that many times something would change without my doing anything.  One day I would be light enough to invert spontaneously.  A deeper or more specified level of engagement and articulation would reveal itselve providing a deeper experience of integrated balance.  But mostly, my relationship with my body changed.  I began to love it for what it was, this little skin suit I trip around in.  That alone lightened the whole thing up.

Many of you know that I broke my wrist last October.  As healing progressed deeper levels of balance and healing were revealed.  It was a significant injury.  I’m finding that those years I spent finding peace in the limitation I had, in order to move beyond them is serving me very well.  The injured  part of my body is something I love and want to care for, it isn’t an obstacle or a burden or really even a limitation.  It’s an opportunity.  This is the first major injury I’ve had since practicing yoga, so much had my agility improved through practice, this kind of thing was rare and unexpected.    But compared to my experience of breaks I had experienced in my twenties which were painful and inconvenient.  My body became a landscape of areas which I dissociated from.  (One of which was this wrist, which I had broken before).  This is now an opportunity to relate to this broken part of my body with more awareness, to reintegrate into the whole of who I am in a new way.

This allows something else to happen.  I become able to celebrate the way the miraculous unfolds in the physical form  When I began to do down dog again, the carpals began to regrow. This appeared on the x-rays.

I am able to celebrate and bear witness too the body’s miraculous power os regeneration.  At an age when the world would tell me my body should be deteriorating it’s regenerating instead.  I imagine as I open my mind up to really accept and understand this,  it will change everything.  These are just a few of the ways that making peace with and building a relationship with the body via the practice of hatha yoga can be practical and useful.  So, you know….come to class!!!

Love

Natalie

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April 26, 2021

Refuge III:  Refuge in Community

Although the Hatha Yoga Pradipika advises that the practitioner establish in solitude, in the larger scope of the practices of yoga, of which Hatha Yoga is only one (others include mediation, text study, chanting, service and others) the yogi is advised to take refuge in the satsang- or meeting with other truth seekers.  Buddhism as well suggests that we take refuge in the community or “sangha”.  Settling into an inner landscape of non-dualism (which merely means that we stop making a division between this and that) is in itself a form of refuge.  But does this mean that we have to leave the material world behind and just melt into that inner state of peace and lack of conflict?  No. We can take refuge in our ability to practice seeing others without conflict – in a state of right relationship:  appreciating  them as sacred, focusing on the spirit which expresses through them as individuals, and neither judging nor adulating them.

This understanding emerged in my practice after a long time.  I kept searching for truth seekers or those who would provide right relationship for me, but to no avail.  As I worked with resolving my judgements and adulations (in yoga terms aversions and attachments) I found that finding right relationship in the life I was living meant to recalibrate the way that I was relating.  Period.  Can I suspend my judgement about who I think someone is or what a specific relationship means enough to allow the particular gift of a given exchange to be revealed?

In the exalted spiritual philosophies we hear about oneness and emptiness  and mirroring.  In simple day to day practice I found that became distilled into  physical form by not judging and not adulating.  From there discernment began to arise, revealing deeper potentials or possibilities for the relationships I was in.  What emerged was a much richer tapestry of relationship, one which I could not have imagined in that kind of good-bad, stay-go kind of relating I had been engaged with. 

And then, a little bonus emerged.  What was reflected back to me about myself in those relationships began to transform in a very rich, full, helpful way.

The practice of Hatha Yoga, cultivating my ability not to veer into one extreme or another, provided the support  and discipline  which empowered me to choose in every interaction whether I wanted to judge or not. 

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Refuge 4:  The Power of Spirit

HYP:IV.113. A Yogin in Samadhi is not vulnerable to any weapons, not assailable by any persons, not subject to control by the use of mantras and yantra-s (incantations and magical diagrams).

When the yogi succeeds in leaving behind their dualistic thinking, quote, this and that, unquote, good and bad, up and  down one attains an experience of unified mind, which is the entryway to the experience of yoga. It can arise in an instant, though some stay in it for an extended period of time. It’s blissful. It’s peaceful. It’s healing. It is a refuge. We are evolving spiritually, we humans, and what I see and know around me is that many people experience unified mind.  Through the  practices of yoga we can intentionally cultivate it. While most of us living in 2021 are unlikely to have enemies assaulting us with mantras and yantras, we are daily subject to bombardment by influences.   Our capacity to be still, centered and true to ourselves in the wake of this is true empowerment. This sentence above,  the last line in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, is a beautiful affirmation of the living refuge which is manifest as we cultivate unified mind through our practice.

While I don’t recommend stopping a bullet with the power of your mind, there are stories of the invulnerability of the human body when one is anchored in higher consciousness.  In one of the books scribed by the great jazz musician and yogi, Alice Coltrane, it is briefly mentioned that through the auspices of her guru Swami Satya Sai Baba, she was lifted out of her body into a transcendental peaceful state of consciousness during a significant earthquake. The body was unharmed.

I was skeptical of the relevance of this story until my mind became a bit a little clearer. I know for me that I can make a crisis worse through my noisy inner dialogue. The longer I practice the more I am able to hold peace within,. Allowing for , even wondrous,  outcomes to emerge from seeming challenges. It isn’t a blind faith, it is a consciously cultivated capacity to project a positive future for myself, rather than a fearful one. When we nurture conflicting thoughts, which is really a mundane example of dualism, this gets projected outward. We do not see our best interests amidst the fluctuations of our minds. As we learn to choose to nurture peace rather than conflict in our thoughts,  this is projected outward. We project a more harmonious future. Don’t worry, the centered peace projected out does not mean an absence of action, fun or pleasure, it just means that the conflict is gone.

As our access to media expands we can be bombarded by the opinions of those who profit greatly from capturing our trust and opinions.  To step away from the tides of this influence and anchor in and remain established (pratishtayam) in the inner refuge, we create to yoga, we become unassailable. By that I mean we can continue on our personally charted journey of evolution. The practices of yoga are designed for this degree of self-mastery or sovereignty. Yogi’s can choose to explore deeper and deeper subtler dimensions of this journey, which reveal the magic and powerful love and healing which is revealed through practice.

Interested in empowered choice – making?  Check out my Destination Sovereignty Programming!

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Refuge IV:  The Power of Spirit

HYP:IV.113. A Yogin in Samadhi is not vulnerable to any weapons, not assailable by any persons, not subject to control by the use of mantras and yantra-s (incantations and magical diagrams).

When the yogi succeeds in leaving behind their dualistic thinking, quote, this and that, unquote, good and bad, up and  down one attains an experience of unified mind, which is the entryway to the experience of yoga. It can arise in an instant, though some stay in it for an extended period of time. It’s blissful. It’s peaceful. It’s healing. It is a refuge. We are evolving spiritually, we humans, and what I see and know around me is that many people experience unified mind.  Through the  practices of yoga we can intentionally cultivate it. While most of us living in 2021 are unlikely to have enemies assaulting us with mantras and yantras, we are daily subject to bombardment by influences.   Our capacity to be still, centered and true to ourselves in the wake of this is true empowerment. This sentence above,  the last line in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, is a beautiful affirmation of the living refuge which is manifest as we cultivate unified mind through our practice.

While I don’t recommend stopping a bullet with the power of your mind, there are stories of the invulnerability of the human body when one is anchored in higher consciousness.  In one of the books scribed by the great jazz musician and yogi, Alice Coltrane, it is briefly mentioned that through the auspices of her guru Swami Satya Sai Baba, she was lifted out of her body into a transcendental peaceful state of consciousness during a significant earthquake. The body was unharmed.

I was skeptical of the relevance of this story until my mind became a bit a little clearer. I know for me that I can make a crisis worse through my noisy inner dialogue. The longer I practice the more I am able to hold peace within. Allowing for , even wondrous,  outcomes to emerge from seeming challenges. It isn’t a blind faith, it is a consciously cultivated capacity to project a positive future for myself, rather than a fearful one. When we nurture conflicting thoughts, which is really a mundane example of dualism, this gets projected outward. We do not see our best interests amidst the fluctuations of our minds. As we learn to choose to nurture peace rather than conflict in our thoughts,  this is projected outward. We project a more harmonious future. Don’t worry, the centered peace projected out does not mean an absence of action, fun or pleasure, it just means that the conflict is gone.

As our access to media expands, we can be bombarded by the opinions of those who profit greatly from capturing our trust and opinions.  To step away from the tides of this influence and anchor in and remain established (pratistayam) in the inner refuge, we create to yoga, we become unassailable. By that I mean we can continue on our personally charted journey of evolution. The practices of yoga are designed for this degree of self-mastery or sovereignty. Yogi’s can choose to explore deeper and deeper subtler dimensions of this journey, which reveal the magic and powerful love and healing which is revealed through practice.

Kaladanda – Beat Death

Sometime in the early 2000’s , a series of teachings on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika were presented at the school where I taught.  At that time yoga branding was all the rage- a new thing =  and people were using Sanskrit words to define their yoga, their clothing brand, their travel agencies.    We had great fun with this.  You see, at that time most of the people who were branding that way were part of this kind of geeky cool strata of the New York yoga world in which everyone studied Sanskrit because it was “cool”  I’m not making this up, there were fashionable New Yorkers participating in this.  Someone had branded the word Kaladanda for something, I don’t remember what, but we all were given baseball caps with a beautiful design and the word Kaladanda on them.  Kaladanda is a staff carried by the Lord of Death, Yama, in the Ramayana an important Indian epic.  The word is composed of “Kala” which is time and “Danda” is staff – the club with which we beat time.  In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika the Danda is the Yogi’s staff (see Dandasana) or the energy channel that runs a long the spine, formally known as the sushumna nadi.  If we beat time there is no death.    The reference is to our capacity to visit worlds without restrictions through  our yoga practices.  If you’ve ever experienced a truly blissful moment of joyful absorption in your creativity, in love, or on your mat,  you have touched this timeless unrestricted space.  Many of us have, although the magnitude appears to be somewhat more dramatic in the yoga practices.  A well done Hatha Yoga practice empowers the yogi to enter these states of consciousness at will.

How does this work – we spoke last week about the way Arundhati, or kundalini, travels up the sushumna nadi along the spine – and travels through and opens three knots called the granthis – each of these being a conditional experience of limitation.  The Rudra granthi placed at the juncture before the  opening of the third eye is what keeps us anchored in time and space.  To experience a state of consciousness that is beyond time is to know true liberation.

What practical value does this have?  A lot.  You know that wound you are carrying from age 15?  (Forgive me if you are beyond that, but most of us humans carry a little baggage) well, it can be resolved through the practice.  How can that be?  When we carry those moments we don’t really move forward, we keep feeing the same feelings and choosing the same things over and over.  When we touch the space outside of linear time the clarity that arises at that moment allows us to choose differently,  Taking ownership of that power to choose anew heals the wounds from choices made long ago, before we knew better. 

What other practical value does the experience of yogic liberation have?  Entering a transcendental space, the relationship to the body changes.  It ceases to define our experience of life, instead the yogi defines the body.  To me this is a great power of the practice of Hatha Yoga.  One can attain transcendental states  in meditation or chanting or study, but the relationship with the body is transformed uniquely through Hatha Yoga.  Transforming the relationship to the body is pivotal to the spiritual journey.  To be comfortable dealing  with the body as things arise is a form of freedom. 

It is worth reading the stories of the great jivanmuktas of India – as this unique relationship to the body is frequently demonstrated to their followers.  There are many validated tales of Neem Karoli Baba, Ramana Maharshi and others taking disciples disease states into their own body, and by transforming the disease themselves leaving the disciples body healed and whole.

In practical terms in our Hatha Yoga practices a transformed relationship with the body points to an opportunity to shift our yoga experience from confining to liberating.  Through directing how we interact with the body via our thoughts and beliefs while on the mat, we lay the groundwork for a different life with the body.  Some practical tools to begin transforming the relationship with the body:

  1. Om – Om always resolves unclear thinking.
  2. Tune into sensation rather than labeling.  If a knee hurts in postures breath and observe and feel.  But I avoid going into the realm of “there is something wrong” or even “pain”.  I also don’t push it away.  The recommendation would be to stay present with it without developing a story about it.
  3. Make the breath primary and layer the body experience on top of that.
  4. Practices turning the mind towards breath or Om, love or devotion, as you practice.

The tales of beating death are glamorous and enticing. For today we can understand this idea of transcending death is really about changing our experience of time, and our relationship to the body.  This opens the doorway to  understanding and living our lives in a new, less restricted way.

Open Sesame

It is an extraordinary moment.  Around me, I see those moving through life untouched by the turmoil in the world.  I see others, devastated.  I find myself fluctuating between the two.  Fluctuating is the key word here.  Flux is a substance used in metal joining (Attaching two metal pieces to form say, a ring).  It has a function of purification which facilitates the yoking of the pieces together.  The flux of my life is this moment of heat and challenge.  That process of fluctuating is a purifying one, my doubts, my fears, my worries, my angers are brought to the surface and purged.  In the moment that alchemical reaction is happening I have a choice.  I can identify with the matter which is being expelled or I can release and let it go.  To identify with it will move me away from yoga.  To release it and keep doing the work – allows me to move deeper into the experience of alchemical strength.  The joining of spirit and matter.

Forearm stand is the current focus of my personal practice.  Each morning  against the closed bathroom door, with an eye towards learning to balance in the center of the room, I lift, awkwardly into the position.  The other day I was in a time crunch but wanted to honor my commitment to work on the posture every day.  I flipped upside down and reached my foot back towards the door behind me to press against it and come back into balance and…the door swung open behind me.  What followed was an inelegant dance of flailing limbs and indecision resulting in a sideways crash into two drums, an electronic keyboard and an altar (I have yet to ascend into the level of real estate which would allow me to have a separate room dedicated to my yoga practice). 

It happens. 

But the glory is always there, the divine spark never leaves, and it surfaced a moment later when I picked myself up from the rubble, calmly said “ouch”, reordered the chaos in the belongings I’d crashed into,  and then promptly took child’s posture.   I just knew that any imbalances in my musculoskeletal system from the flailing would be rebalanced in steady breathing child’s pose.  Here’s to agility.  I don’t talk about it much, but I’m 57 years old (just a number of course), and I walked away from this without even a day of pain.  It was all absorbed within minutes.  This is the power of a well-balanced integrated yoga practice.    Agility.  Don’t try this at home!  But just know that when we allow ourselves to go deep in the process of yoga, power emerges in the most unexpected and subtle ways.

The impact surfaced the next day in an interesting way.  Pain?  No.  Restriction?  No.  Imbalance?  No.  But I was unable to lift into forearm stand.  I couldn’t get off the ground at all. 

“I guess, “  I thought, “this is what they mean by a setback.”  I settled into another child’s posture and allowed myself to find peace with that, breathing, accepting, not judging.  Then I proceeded to take headstand, a steady and confident posture for me.  Had I forced myself to keep trying the forearm stand I would have gone into conquest.   I want harmonious union, not conquest.  So, I honored the setback but maintained some ground in the world of the upside down. 

Conquest is exhilarating.  But it doesn’t stand on it’s own.  It requires that you reclaim it day after day after day.  Claiming the same victory over and over.  Harmonious union, with a posture or a life circumstance,  establishes a foundation of creative growth and an expansion of possibilities.  This is why inhabiting the simpler postures with awareness and love deepens our practices so much.  We become one with the shapes that way.  We internalize them and then that wisdom extends into every posture that we do. 

There was a time I learned in life that showing up consistently would change everything.  That became my effort.  Just to show up even if I felt tremendous resistance or fear.  Historically, when a relationship felt difficult, I would avoid and run away.  Showing up did change things.  But it was a fight inside to do that and that conflict continued to show up in the relationships I was trying to show up for.  Something deeper than showing up was called for.  Wholeheartedness was called for.  I learned that I needed to resolve the part of me that wanted to run away to begin with.   Personal resolution opened the door to experiences in relationship in which conflict transformed into love. 

The question then became less about conquering my shortcomings and more about understanding and embracing life as it was. After all, why keep balancing against a closed door when an opened door offers so many un-imagined possibilities?