Are you ready?

The heart of the yoga teaching  is that there is a unified essence underlying the spiritual teachings of the world.  There are many paths, and one destination, although each one of us experiences the destination differently.  All spiritual teachings are merely fingers pointing at the moon.  There is one truth which exists beyond the form of any teaching.  The teaching merely points us in the right direction, and through practice and grace the experience of yoga, of union with the divine, is experienced directly. We choose the depth of our exploration, and so  we choose the depths of the empowerment we wish to draw from the practice.  Wholeheartedness and integrity are  never finite.  To be congruent, inside and out, is to discover an extraordinary form of strength.  The seeker becomes the finder when joy and feeling better give way to true self knowledge and empowerment.

The word yoga comes from the root word “yuj” which means to yoke together.  Like an ox pulling a cart, how much easier things can be when another is by our side, yoked to us and pulling the cart with us?  In it’s most essential and authentic form, yoga is about aligning and working together with the divine heart mind, the truth, love itself.  That process of yoking – building that connection – building communication and co-working  as terrains are travelled and burdens hauled, is the heart of the journey.  The working of the relationship  creates the connection.  Alignment with our true nature, is the work to be done.  The healing of the fundamental schism – that experience of being alone and unyoked – is the pathway to coming into our true power, our true resourcefulness, our true prosperity and  creativity, our true identity as love itself.    This experience of wholeness within – our Destination Sovereignty – is available to all who are willing to change their minds and open their hearts.  It is the resolution of all lack, all loneliness, all love longing. 

So how do we begin?

I taught for some time in Central New Jersey, where traffic was, erratic.  One day it would be fine, and the next it would take hours to drive down the road.  When describing how long it took to get somewhere we would say – “It takes a half an hour for travel and a half an hour for the adventure.”  You never knew what was going to happen.  When we embark on a journey it serves us to consider that it will be an adventure.  This way disruptions became scenic detours and delays opportunities to rest.  The spiritual journey is no different.  The only guarantee is that when the journey is over we will not be the same as we were before.  Life is like that you know, but to take a spiritual path, the path of yoga,   is to take the reins and  face the adventure head on.  Old ways will be shed, new ways will be introduced, we will allow ourselves to be melted down and reshaped into more exalted forms. 

So perhaps we should begin our journey to sovereignty by asking ourselves

“Am I ready?” 

Many people at this point are tempted to check out.  As we scan our lives for stability and security we may want to ask ourselves is there is really anything out there we can count on?  If so, maybe it’s not the right time to embark.  But if we are wobbly and uncertain, stressfully buffeted from one way to the other, wishing we had anchor, a secure place to rest our heads, then, we might want to ask ourselves again,

“Am I ready?”

While there are no guarantees, to have a sense of security within ourselves, well, that is certainly helpful, isn’t it?

It is not a question of repeating spiritually what others have done before us, for our adventure begins beyond that.  It is a question of a new creation, entirely new, with all the unforeseen events, the risks, the hazards that it entails–a real adventure, whose goal is certain victory, but the road to which is unknown and must be traced out step by step in the unexplored.  Something that has never been in this present universe and that will never be again in the same way.  If that interests you….well, let us embark. 

From “The Sunlit Path”, Passages from Conversation and Writings of the Mother, Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, India

Santosha (contentment)

An attitude of contentment (santosha) gives rise to unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction. ||42||

In Marin County/San Francisco we are now at exactly 20 weeks since the first day of the shutdown.  That is a very long time, and much has happened in those five months.

One of the teachings of yoga which has become a bit controversial these days is a practice called Santosha.  In that practice, the yogi assumes that everything is perfect as it is, and goes about making living their life in that way.

Here is the underlying principle.  If you react to something you do not like, it creates a condition, a likelihood that that the condition will stay the same, or keep repeating in the life.  By choosing to look at everything as perfect, the yogi plants a seed for everything to unfold perfectly.  Here is an example (and I’m not saying this is true or not true, it’s just a hypothetical example)

During the shutdown, many people who live their lives with relative freedom experienced, maybe for the first time in their lives, a degree of oppression that prevented them from walking down the street, eating where they wanted to, going to church, hanging out in a bar, earning morning.  Whatever it is.  Everyone had a different experience of this, and many felt oppressed.  In that oppression minds were opened to understand a little better what life feels like for those who live in perpetual oppression.  We had a big shift.  Things may not be resolved as of yet, but there was definitely a shift.  So the yogi, understanding that everything is perfect, knows that only a shutdown  of this magnitude would have created the pressure cooker in which so many  minds and hearts could be changed.

On a more personal level it’s useful to look at where we each are right now.  What happened for us?  What shifted?  In those shiftings, what opportunities were created?  Sometimes we just have to train ourselves to see them.

Long before I practiced yoga, a very savvy NY recruiter was sending me out to interview for paralegal positions in some of the fanciest law firms in New York City.  Good pay, great benefits.  She also sent me to this tiny little firm, two attorneys, just hiring their first patent clerk.  I saw an opportunity.  She was astounded.  It turns out that she just included them because she knew one of their daughters.  They taught me so much about patents at that little firm, and it served me well for years to come.  Things are not always what they appear.

So, in yoga, the maximal push of a posture is not always the means to the biggest result.  On one level, when we first start, that’s how we “feel”  progress.  But in yoga the subtle shifts are sometimes the most powerful.

संतोषातनुत्तमस्सुखलाभ

saṁtoṣāt-anuttamas-sukhalābhaḥ

From the practice of contentment, one obtains unsurpassed comfort and joy.

Thriving in Balance

I once dated a gentleman who was a practicing Hindu. I was new to yoga, and was not yet deeply familiar with the many Gods and Goddesses, their forms and their qualities. I was kindly disposed in that direction and had some exposure to the religion. His deep swim into the ocean of that exotic and alluring landscape intrigued me. At that time, it was still common, at least in New York City, to see representations of the Gods and Goddesses adorning the studios. Often, there was no indication who they were or what it all meant. Some of them had many arms and carried objects I was unfamiliar with. They seemed to be similar to one another and different at the same time. I felt I was supposed to understand, and I didn’t. So one day I asked him. How many arms do they have? He turned and looked at me like I saw daft and responded, very seriously, “As many as they need.” I didn’t understand and he explained that they were Gods/Goddesses and so they were infinite and so they weren’t limited by a particular form, they could just manifest as many arms as they needed. It remained a mystery until a yoga friend of mine had a child. her husband turned to me one day and said, “Now I understand why the Goddesses have so many arms”. A kind reference to the many roles his wife was now tending to, simultaneously. We all do this in our own way, mothers or not. It’s not surprising that yoga and Hinduism emerged from the same landscape. Just as the Hindu deities appear centered as their many arms swirl around them, yoga practices nurture our ability to stay in our center while reaching in multiple directions to tend to the requirements of a various roles.

It begins with the right and the left. It’s more common these days for a yoga teacher to create a sequence to mix the movements of the right and left side. If you’ve taken such a class you know that the brain skips a beat and you may feel the beneficial effects of being jarred out of the routine flow of thoughts that we each carry around inside of us. No matter how complex or simple the routine, the bottom line is that every yoga practice is done equally on both sides.

Most of the traditional healing arts observe a roadmap of the human anatomy. Yoga is no different. In the simplest of terms you have three primary channels which are very important. We all have a left side channel (the ida) which nurtures the various flavors of interior experience: depression, intuition, sleep, coolness, lunar, yin, the spiritual and the feminine. We all have a right side channel (the pingala) which is associated with various flavors of external states: anger, action, heat, solar, yang, the physical and the masculine. When these two side channels are balanced, the energy is drawn into the neutral third channel which is called the sushumna. When the energy is elevated in this subtle central channel we are transformed spiritually. This is the most fundamental teaching of yoga. Our practice will progress smoothly and harmoniously when we are perfectly balanced right and left, materially and spiritually, neither directing our anger outward or inward but finding resolution, when we nurture both our masculine and feminine qualities in equal measure.

Many times we are tempted in our practice to charge it up in whatever way we can, and then relax. This is great fun to do! But when we are looking towards a long term shift in our quality of life, the practice unfolds with more value when we approach it with an intention towards a state of balance. It can actually be one of the biggest challenges to determine the right amount of effort in a given posture. It requires attention and, consistency can be really helpful in this way. A daily practice helps us to observe what happens in the body as a result of what we have done, and provides the information with which we can identify what we need to tweak to obtain and optimal result. The optimal result being a healthy body which feels resilient and strong and an awake clear mind, unfettered by emotional or mental afflictions. We then dwell a state of balance in the body and the mind, centered on a very deep level.

So, what can we learn from those many armed Goddesses? That being centered is not about pushing away the world. It’s about extending ourselves out into the world. We don’t move our center towards that friend in need, we stay in our center and extend our hand, our good will, our strength. When we extend we share as opposed to giving ourselves over to. It’s subtle, but then some of the most powerful techniques from the yoga practice are saturated with subtlety. In fluctuation subtlety is lost. In balance, subtlety is visible.

So what do we do to stay in balance? We observe. We notice. We stay still a moment before charging forward. We honor process as much as destination. We trust that if we attend to what is here in the moment, that the path with unfold with it’s own wisdom.

Ha—tha—-Yo—ga

“….the Kula Arnava Tantra states [that the] the ultimate purpose of Hatha-Yoga, which is God-realization, or enlightenment, here and now, in a divinized immortal body.  This is often expressed as the state of balance or harmony (samarasa) in the body, when ordinarily diffuse life energy is stabilized in the central channel.  This idea is present in the term hatha yoga itself, which is esoterically explained as the union (yoga) between “sun” and “moon” the conjunction of the two great dynamic principles of aspects of the body-mind. “  Georg Feurstein, commenting on the Kula-Arnava Tantra, in the Yoga Tradition (1998)

This sums it up!!

Here are many words which describe the potential of a yoga practice, all of which reflect the culture and time in which they were said.  In an age of skepticism (now), few are enticed to the mat for something like “God-realization”.  What does that even mean?  “Divinized immortal body”.  We have bionics, why do all the work of hatha yoga?  So, let’s step back from the words of the Georg, and uncover the essence of this.  The yogi attains a magnificent state through the alchemical combining of two opposites into one presence in which opposition ceases entirely. Let’s consider that the opposition never really existed.  The body and mind were always one, the left and the right were always two parts of one body, but some how we experience ourselves as fragmented.  When we cease to swing from one polarity to another, we will function optimally.  In any moment, to function optimally would be to outperform any previous and similar circumstance.  In other words, evolution.    When we cultivate honoring balance and harmony on and off the mat, the best aspects of ourselves will shine through our physical form:  emotional and relational depth, creativity, wisdom and innovation of all kinds.  Whatever our field of endeavor, yoga practice with a mind towards balance and harmony expands what we are capable of. 

We’ve been in Shelter in Place for 15 weeks now.  In the months before the shutdown, I’d left a long term, very exhausting job, and unexpectedly found myself teaching yoga again.  I was a substitute teacher.  I taught enthusiastically through the holidays, stacking classes with abandon, sure that when the holidays were over the intense need for coverage would diminish.  It did not.  My base camp was a tiny yoga studio in the Inner Richmond, San Francisco.  Sometime in February people began to get sick.  Teachers, students, front desk staff one by one being taken mysteriously ill.  The studio ran out of substitute teachers and I was working my ass off.  I was chugging along thinking everything was fine, I was rising to the occasion!  I’d lost my center.  On March 17, 2020 when Marin Country went into Shelter in place, I took to my bed, tired beyond having the energy to question or fear what was happening.  I never got sick.  I was exhausted. 

It’s 15 weeks since the shutdown.  Today, I made a new recipe for lunch.  Everything was calm –  the bounty of colors and smells as I tossed the ingredients one by one into the pan drew me deep into the present moment.   I realized that I was in balance for the first time in a long time.  It took 15 weeks of solitude, nurturing and yoga for me to return to my center.  It amazes me that it took that long.  Compared to many modern American lives, my life is pretty balanced.  Today was a day of focus, accomplishment, giving and nurturing.   The point is, when we go out of balance, the rebalancing may call for  some awareness, some presence and some time.

What do I notice in this new state of balance? After all, each time we rebalance we land in a different place.   I’m aware.  Aware of how I am standing, alert to the smells, sounds, sights and tastes of the world around me.  It’s easy for me to respond to the neighbor who asks for a little of my time.  Laughing comes easier, and so does hope.

An imbalance can sneak up on us.  First, we are doing a little more of one thing and then another.  Before you know it, we’ve lost our center.  While a “divinized immortal body” may seem remote to us, the fragility that arises when we become out of balance is familiar to just about everyone.  When we are in balance, we are strong and resilient.    Balanced here refers to resting our attention, awareness and presence inside of ourselves, rather than having our attention pulled by ten thousand things.   Or in the language of Mr. Feuerstein, “ordinarily diffuse life energy is stabilized in the central channel.”  Classically this is done in meditation, but our waking lives are reflections of those inner energies, and the inner energies are reflections of our waking lives. When we are centered our attention is broad enough to hold the awareness of all the facets of our lives while we stay stably rooted in our own awareness.   

It’s a superpower, to choose where and when to give your attention to something, and to choose to stay focused when the guy next door is using his chain saw.  It’s a superpower to cultivate the skill of harmonizing the body and staying well.  It’s a superpower to not be buffeted by the fluctuations of the world around us.

There are many approaches to harmonizing the body  and reclaiming our center in the yoga practices.  What I consider the most useful, is to  just begin with the structure of a given posture.  The weight balanced between both feet. This weight distribution will, in turn balance our channels, right and left, or in classical practice the sun and the moon.  If we practice just this, with consistency and detachment the sense of fragmentation dissolves as our central channels are awakened.  We begin the movement towards a deeper level of potential and fulfillment.

STEADY AS SHE GOES – DEVELOPING A PERSONAL YOGA PRACTICE

      “Well, it’s been done”. 

       This is the feedback I received when proposing a creative yoga project.  “Well, it’s been done”.  It’s yoga, I think to myself.  Of course it’s been done!  As much as I’ve complained over the years about how the personality of the yoga teacher can obscure the yoga itself, some part of me wants to say. “Yes! But it hasn’t been done by me, and I see it differently!”.   I descend a bit into depression and a sense of defeat. 

       I began to spin a rather unflattering story in my head about the person who gave me the feedback.  You know how this happens, right?   Someone doesn’t like something we have created and we go into defense.  I catch myself going into defense mode.  My yoga practice kicks in. 

What does this story  about my emotional reaction have to do with yoga?  Everything.  The fruit of our practices is yoking to the more luminous and exalted aspects of ourselves.  We train ourselves to stay yoked and when the pressure is on we find peace.  In struggle we find an ability to stay strong.  Twenty-six years ago, I would have stormed out of the meeting.  Maybe ten years ago, I would have peacefully left and cried my eyes out, never to have returned.  Now, my yoga shows up in my life.   I can sit still in a conflict, not run away, and consequently,  hear what the person is saying.  The capacity to do this grows with steadiness, or consistency,  in practice – abhyasa.  Be still in a posture over and over again, and be awake while you are there and you will develope the capacity to be still in the face of discomfort. 

So, I stay present to the critique.  I breathe deeply and the air me around becomes a little more spacious.  In that spaciousness, the realization comes.  The woman who gave me feedback is a communicator a professional communicator.  She knows how to get a message across to people.  I now see  – Don’t change what you are doing, find another new way to communicate it.  Keep the gems of what you understand and transmute the old story into a new one.  My attachment to my project was blocking my ability to hear the message.  It wasn’t a critique at all, it was the universe directing me to keep working for something new and better.  There is always a new and better.

This is a good time to get quiet as we shelter in place.  There are ideas in silence.  The constructs of our minds, the grooves we think in over and over again, can be observed and transformed in silence.  Detaching from the groove confers that spaciousness, and in the silence we open to what we haven’t created before.  I’ve taught artists who, likely, would say they never really meditated.  But in that space when they are brushing a color onto a canvas, when they are absorbed into the color, they enter another realm.  I’ve been inspired by more than a few musicians and artists who traveled through my life as teachers or students.   Their perspectives are always illuminating.  Entering spaciousness opens us to vision.

Abhyasa, or consistency in practice, builds the spiritual muscle which allows us to stay present when we are uncomfortable.  Vairagya, or detachment, develops the spaciousness which allows change to occur. If we are too attached to what we think should happen, there is no room for us to turn around.

The best way I know to develop these facets of the  yoga practice is to allow for process.  First, commit to practicing a certain number of times a week, and stick to it.  Start out with a small amount which you can easily fulfill and then amp it up from there.  Detachment can grow with consistent practice.  Each day the body will feel different.  Somedays you feel tired, other days lively, some days you feel heavy, other days light.  Just show up and practice, however you feel.    As you work your consistency, your detachment will grow, and vice versa.   Consistency and Detachment nourish one another.

When the world around us is spinning out of control, if we fall into a place where we feel ourselves low, the yoga practice is a powerful means to lift ourselves up.  We’ve looked to others to inspire us spiritually, and that is amazing, but the truth is, we can only stay lifted up when we take that task, that task of uplifting and decide that we will be active agents in choosing to do that in ourselves. 

It’s a simple step. It doesn’t have to be complicated.  Your personal practice doesn’t have to be extravagant, or the same as what happens in a public class.  But if you choose to cultivate a personal practice, you’ll be glad you did.  We never know when a moment is going to arise when we will benefit from an ability to stay centered and clear and open.  In that moment, if we let go of our projections and our expectations, we might just see things differently.  We just might see how we can take the circumstance we find ourselves in and chart a new course.  Transforming the unexpected into opportunity.

Stay High

From:  Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:

Sutra 1.12:          abhyasa-vairagya-abhyam tan-nirodhah

In Devanagri:      अभ्यासवैराग्याअभ्यां तन्निरोधः

Pronunciation:  abhyāsa-vairāgya-ābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ

Idea:  The fluctuations of the mind cease through practice and detachment. 

Why practice?  Isn’t the practice now to be out on the streets supporting our allies? It is, but our time on the mat is important, too.  I once had a cat named Toshi.   I was an inexperienced cat guardian, and quite frankly, not very good at it.  I never much brushed him, it was boring and I didn’t think he liked it very much.  When the day came when I realized that he was getting older, I felt called to brush him.  We sat for some time together, brushing.  Me, and Toshi the cat.  That day, I had no time for meditation.  I posted something about it on Facebook later in the day and one of my friends said, “No, Natalie, you need to meditate AND brush Toshi.”  My time management was not very good in those days.  Brushing Toshi took precedence.  Everything about Toshi took precedence.  I have to say, when he choose to leave his body, I was so glad that I’d spent all that time with him.  But the decisions I had to make about his well-being during that time, would have been easier had I not fallen off my practice wagon.

A fundamental principle of the yoga practice as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is the practice of Abhyasa.  It means to dwell in the experience of yoga.  It also means to be consistent in your practice.  From one perspective, this consistency is about discipline, and the way that a dedicated discipline whittles the frivolous from their life.  From another perspective, there is the dwelling in yoga.  Scratch  below the surface of  the idea of dwelling, and we find that dwelling becomes being established in the state of yoga.  To be established in the state of yoga is to be unwavering in our expression  of yoga’s peace (shanti) in all facets of our lives.  When established in the state of yoga, nothing, I mean nothing, could sway you out of being in alignment with the truth, peace and love that is yoga (so I’m told).  We become established through consistency in practice, over a long time, without veering from our commitment.  We know where we are in our practice when we experience how much or how little it takes for our stability to turn into a wobble. At what point does the emotional turbulence of our minds take precedence over our practice?   We may be attending to the burning fire, but our attendance would be enhanced by the stability our established yoga practice confers.

Being anchored in our peace does not mean that we do not communicate.  The most effective communication unfolds when we are tapped into the higher dimension of ourselves.  If we spend a lot of time on our mats or our cushions, or in deep contemplation of the teachings, then that relationship with our higher self becomes more and more prevalent in our expression off the mat. 

Sometimes, there have been those called to act drastically under divine order.   I never assume that I am called that way.    I know that there have been times in my own life when I spoke harshly to others and I really felt it was something “higher” coming through.  But we cannot really know, so nowadays, I stay anchored in peace to the best of my ability and never presume I am being called upon to judge my brothers or sisters.  I can communicate my perspective, but I do my best not to judge.  I know I never listen to one who is judging me, why would anyone listen to me if I was judging them?

So why practice?  There is enlightenment and self-care and exercise and calmness, but right now I propose we consider the importance of maintaining our practices so that we are stable, non-reactive, loving, and wise.  Established in yoga.  As the miraculous Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”  Or we might change that to, “When they go low, we stay high.”  To the best of my knowledge, I have perfected none of this.  But I do reflect on what I have done and have not done.  I check my results.  I do commit to practice and take the high road, to the best of my ability and if I fall I forgive myself.

Keep the love alive,

Natalie

Who we think we are – Asmita

दृग्दर्शनशक्त्योरेकात्मतैवास्मिता ॥६॥

dr̥g-darśana-śaktyor-ekātmata-iva-asmitā ॥6॥

The klesha of asmita, of Egoism, is the tendency to identify wholly with one’s individual self. 

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutra,  identifies 5 kleshas or afflictions which entrap us.  The first is avidya, or ignorance, which refers to absorption in the material experience, believing that there is nothing beyond our sense experience.  The second is asmita, which is a form of avidya.  Whereas avidya comprises the whole material (physical)  experience within and without.  Asmita is a specific dimension of avidya.  It refers to the tendency to completely identify with our bodies and personalities, ignoring the spiritual dimension of the ourselves. 

Some of the best examples of transcending egoism exist in the stories of the great “Jivanmuktas” or liberated ones of India.  One of the distinguishing characteristics of a Jivanmukta is their ability to demonstrate that they are not bound by form.  In one story told of Anandamayi Ma, a “saint” widely recognized as being fully liberated, she refused to eat.  The pure fast went on for some time, weeks or months.  She was never alone, and her devotees never saw her eat a thing.  Her devotes were concerned and attempted to force feed her.  One day, unexpectedly, she called the devotees, and she begin to eat without ceasing in a single sitting until they ran out of food in the ashram.  She just kept eating and demanding more.  Finally she stopped and suggested to them that they could never fill her as she was as vast as the universe.  It did not matter to her one way or another if she ate or not.  She knew herself as pure consciousness so she was not changed by food or lack of food.

Need Karoli Baba was known to appear in places where he could not have been.  He would be seen in two different places at the same time.  After his apparent death,  he has continued to appear to people all over the world.  Not just a few….thousands and thousands.  He appears to people before they know of him.  In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a medieval text written by Swami  Muktabodananda it says that the liberated ones roam the universe.  Free as it were from the limitations of body and mind. 

Liberation from asmita  to this degree is always possible, but for most of us it assumes a more mundane form.  A common example is those described as “handicapped”  who transcend their physical limitations and achieve greatness.  Helen Keller, blind and deaf  since early childhood, lived an abundant, enriched wise public life.    But it also could something as mundane as physical changes to the body (weight loss or gain, aging, physical debilities) do not interfere with your sense of who you are.   Healing from incurable disease, which is more common than  we think, also would be a resolution of this klesha. 

Liberation from asmita or Egosim also occurs when we are called upon to let go of elements of our personalities in order to adapt to a change in the roles we play in our lives, jobs, family roles, positions in community.

A powerful means to work with this klesha is to pay attention when you are dwelling in it.  Stop and listen to your self talk and note what kinds of ideas are floating through your mind with the sense of “I-am” attached to them:  I am skinny or fat or smart or stupid. 

I once had a student who was given yoga classes as a gift by  her husband.  She attended my class in a small ballet school in New Jersey.  She was exceptionally large and round of body and was very absorbed in her perception of herself as a body.   Often, she would stop in a posture and say, “I can’t do it”.  I encouraged her to let go of that idea, over and over again.  Finally one day she said “Okay, if you say so, and she took a perfect crescent moon poster.  More even and circular and expansive than I had ever done or ever seen.  It was perfect. 

Such is the power of releasing the programmed limitations by which we have come to define ourselves.  The beauty of this is that it is not always a grandiose transformation, sometimes little victories are the fuel which changes a life.  In a single moment of transcending asmita, we enter a realm of choice.  In the moment in which we are trapped by our egos we see only a finite number of options.  When that shift occurs to a larger vision,  our options expand as well, and our sense of being agents of our own lives begins to grow within us.   It is empowering in the deepest sense of the word.  We are not empowered by someone giving us power, but by accessing our own portal to  the infinite source of all power by remembering that we are one with it.  The practices of yoga are designed to soften the bondage of our afflictions  freeing us lead more fulfilling and authentic lives.

How to resolve asmita?  Consistency in practice is the key to resolving all of the afflictions.  Choose your practice and commit to it.  I’ve been practicing simple standing everyday as my consistency practice in the morning.  The posture is called Tadasana, and I do it every day, hopefully for ten minutes.  I haven’t made it there yet.  Sometimes the power of simple standing is so profound I question whether I am needed as a yoga teacher at all!  This is a resolution of asmita.

Bows and Arrows to Blossoms and Blessings

Perhaps some of these experiences are familiar to you:

It’s morning and you hop  out of bed ready to begin your daily yoga practice.  Two minutes into practice a deep craving for chocolate arises.  At a certain point it becomes so compelling that you abandon downward dog and head to the kitchen, even though you know that practicing the postures will mitigate your cravings.

Another day you sit down on your meditation cushion and begin to watch your breath.  Your silent reverie is shattered as  a bubble of anxiety about  a difficult conversation with your partner bursts open and floods your attention.  Try as you might, you cannot quell the eruption of memory and projection about the situation, even though you know that a few calm quiet breaths  will give you a more balanced perspective on the challenge.

You are really and truly happy.  As you look around your life, you see that you are surrounded by blessings. But, in the presence of others, you compare yourself to them and find yourself lacking.  Your home isn’t as luxurious or your spouse doesn’t behave like theirs does.   Every time this happens you find that your sense of self is deflated.

You have been at the top of your game for years in your chosen career when the tide shifts suddenly  and you find your role is no longer relevant.  As you go through the process of decision making about your future, you are plagued by the nagging sense that some critical piece of yourself is being  stripped away from you.

You are about to begin a new project at work.  It is a great opportunity and you are excited about it.  But nagging fear and insecurity disrupt your ability to focus on the project itself. 

You are offered a new project at work which is a great opportunity.  Your ego, rightfully it may seem, inflates.  In that state of inflation you inadvertently alienate a dear friend, a lover, or a colleague essential to the success of the project.

The person in the cubicle next to you at work has a tendency towards mild vulgarity.  Nothing far outside conventional boundaries, but you find yourself feeling squeamish in their presence, often going way out of your way to avoid making eye contact. 

As the years go by you experience despair about changes in your body.

You are given an opportunity for a great adventure: climbing a mountain, doing your first handstand or going on a first date with someone you really like.  You find that you are too overwhelmed with fear to fully participate.

Yoga is a success practice. The practices of yoga clear away the debris which keeps us from leading successful lives.  In my experience it is one of the world’s most consistently powerful tools for transformation.  It sometimes takes some time, but often happens quite quickly.   The success may not be visible or outwardly apparent to others, but consistent practices reliably bears the fruit of small inner victories.  Moment by moment the yoga practitioner acquires the skillful means to conquer the psychological afflictions  which keep them fettered and dis-empowered. Those small internal victories  are like bricks in a foundation for good living.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he summarizes the afflictions as:

Avidya (ignorance)  the experience of being submerged in and identified with the material.  Feeling worthy or unworthy based on what we own or the shape of our body is an example of being identified with the material.

Asmita (I am-ness)  the experience of seeing the world through mundane personal perception.  When our sense of being “right”  obscures the objective nature of a conflict, or when we become so strongly opinionated that we alienate others we are perceiving from a limited perspective.

Raga – Attachment – to call forth again and again a desire for an object which previously gave us pleasure. 

Dvesha –  Aversion – to repeatedly push away an object which previously caused us pain. 

Abinivesha – Fear of death – All fear emerges from the the fear of death. 

Afflictions is an ideal word, because you may notice that these painful  inner tendencies appear powerfully and abruptly at the most inconvenient times.   Sometimes they are experienced as torments, as though something external is hammering at us.

There is a beautiful story told about the Buddha’s awakening.  The Buddha, prior to his great awakening, was living in great austerity as a wondering sadhu or holy man.  One day when he  went to touch his belly he discovered that his body was so wasted away that he could touch his spine.  There was no flesh between the belly and spine.  At that moment he realized that he was off his path and that depriving himself to such an extreme was counterproductive to his mission to awaken.   The practices he’d been doing were not leading him to the truth he was seeking.   He walked away from those practices and committed to sitting under the bodhi tree until he awakened. “There must be a better way”.  During the night as he sat in meditation,  he was plagued by afflictions – ancient memories and profound self-reflections unfurled in his interior space.  At one point, Mara the demon, the ego himself, appeared, flinging sharp arrows at the peacefully sitting Buddha.  As those arrows neared the form of the Buddha, the sharp arrowheads transformed into flower blossoms, showering down upon him.     The Buddha understood that Mara the demon and the arrows he shot were not coming from outside of him, but were generated internally.  The practices of yoga, approached with consistency and awareness, empower us to manage our own minds, bodies and spirits, transforming the arrows of the afflictions into blossoms and blessings.

So, how do we do this?  Patanjali says that the kleshas, or afflictions, can be resolved through the committed effort to address them through discipline, self-awareness and letting go. 

The first step is to commit to a practice.  I suggest you begin with asana, or physical yoga postures.  Make the commitment manageable.  It is better to start with five minutes a day that you actually successfully complete than to make grand commitment of an hour which, in practice, is very difficult to do.   As you fulfill one level of commitment, expansion occurs fluidly on the strong foundation of commitment.  This is discipline in practice.

The second step is to develop awareness of the afflictions themselves.  One way to do this is to set any alarm to go off three, four or five times a day, and note the state of your mind when the alarm goes off. Are any of Patanjali’s affliction’s occurring when the alarm goes off? This is a practice which increases self-awareness.

Third, begin to discern if the triggers for the afflictions that you note in the alarm exercise are things you can change, or things you cannot change.  For the things that you can change, as part of the discipline process, take one step a day to change them.  For example, conflict about weight can be resolved by committing to one small painless adjustment.  As the shelter in place extended, I found myself putting on weight. I changed my grain portion from a third of a cup to a fourth of a cup, for every meal (I eat many whole grains).  I didn’t expect a difference, but it occurred, and I never felt hungry.  For things you cannot change practice just being spacious and not judging the situation, moment by moment.

Before you know it, you’ll notice that the affliction have less ability to disrupt you, and that you have more power to move forward in your life.

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The afflictions of attachment and aversion

सुखानुशयी रागः ॥७॥

sukha-anuśayī rāgaḥ ॥7॥

 The residue of pleasure is attachment.

duhkha-anushayi dveshah ||8||

दुःखानुशयी द्वेषः ॥८॥

duḥkha-anuśayī dveṣaḥ ॥8॥

The residue of pain is avoidance.

In the practice section of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the second “padah”, Patanjali offers a set of three powerful practices which propel one towards the experience of yoga.  The three are the practices of Tapah, Svadyaya and Ishvara Pranidhanani, which were discussed in the previous post.  After presenting these practices Patanjali notes that not only will these practices lead to samadhi, but that they will also diminish our afflictions.  We all want to diminish our afflictions.  They are forms of mental fluctuations which create the experience of disturbance.  We experience them, until we learn to work with them. 

Today we will discuss two potent kleshas or afflictions:  raga (attachment) and dvesa (aversion).  In this context attachment and aversion refer to the experience where we form a judgment about a person, place or experience based on our history with it.  Either we , want it again, or we never want it again.   While it may seem that this is sound reasoning – to avoid something which has caused pain and to go near that which gives us pleasure there are three important things to note here.   First, by dividing the world into that which we like and that which we don’t like we are creating division and separation.  This moves us away from the experience of our ourselves as whole.  We split off parts of ourselves and others.  To be yoked to our higher self, to be in union with, is to join with our higher self.  Any kind of duality will interfere with that joining.  Second, these judgments are based on the erroneous idea that because we experienced something one way one day, that we will always experience it that way.  We project the past on the present.  Third, that projection of the past into the present creates an expectation which can create conflict in ourselves or with others.   The experience of connection is obstructed when we are absorbed in a memory of the past.  We only experience connection when we are present!

Practicing yoga philosophy  in our lives and in the techniques of yoga asana,  we encounter the dynamic play of opposites.  Through cultivating a harmonious aligned relationship between apparent opposites we create stable foundations for unlocking the power of a posture or an experience.  This is central to all asana, but today we will consider this approach in relation to back bends. 

Back bends transcend time.  They are constructed in such a way that it is possible through practice to open the heart chakra.   The heart chakra is an energy center, or realm of consciousness where we begin to open to our deeper connections with the whole of existence around us.   Whatever we might be holding which could be termed a judgement or a lack of forgiveness will show up as a congestion in the body which obstructs our ability to experience the back bend with a fully open heart.  I use the word experience deliberately because in one body the back bend may appear small to the observer, but is experienced as vast and open to student.  Likewise a back bend may appear as a deep curve but still contains the experience of pain or restriction for the person doing the back bend.  The postures, like all other experiences which we could label good and bad, are all relative.  As we cultivate spaciousness and non-judgement of ourselves in our postures we train the mind to be spacious rather than judgmental towards others.

tapaḥ svādhyāy-eśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ

तपः स्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोग:

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, an ancient yogic text compiled some 2000 years ago,  by sage Patanjali, enumerates specific actions  or practices which support the process of aligning with our true nature or what is sometimes called the “Higher self”. Aligning  with that true nature will always lead us to greater clarity, wisdom and empowerment.  Asana, or the physical yoga postures which we practice, are a small piece of that, and actually the positions themselves are influenced by the level of clarity which we have created through the practices which work on the mind and reveal the heart. Patanjali’s text is a compendium of theory, methods and results organized to foster depth and simplicity.  Each sutra or line is directed towards a single focus.  One key grouping of practices is identified in PYS – Sutra

2.1.  The sutra reads:

तपः स्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः ॥१॥

tapaḥ svādhyāy-eśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ ॥1॥

We know that these three apparently unrelated practices are related to one another because they are placed together in the text.  I reflect on them as a triangle.  A shift in one element of the triad will influence the other two.  A translation always reflects the experience and world view  of the translator.    For me, tapah (intensity, fire, desire) expresses as a strictly disciplined and heart felt mode of nurturing an intention which benefits both ourselves and others.    Sometimes this refers to an offering oneself and historically is associated with yogi’s placing themselves into penance or suffering to bring them closer to the divine.  My experience of yoga is more balanced.  Right now, we are all practicing tapah.  It’s April 2020 and the whole world is in lockdown in the wake of the corona virus.  While we can stay home with the intention to stay healthy, from the yogic perspective your overall result will be better if you stay home because you want everyone else to be healthy!  This is a reflection of tapasya…to give up something for love of the whole.  As the teaching in the Bhagavad Gita goes, no effort made in this way will ever be wasted.  Does it mean we will be rich and contented?  Not necessarily, but the deeper levels of fulfillment which are opened up through yogic practice nourish us in unique and powerful ways which add tremendous value to a life.  We could say giving up a little opens the door to a life well-lived.

Svadyaya, the second point of the triad, refers to the many modes of (S)(s)elf study.  The yogin comes to know their individual conditioning and personality  – the so called “small” self – through observation and analysis.  Through meditation, study of sacred texts and other yogic practices the yogin comes in contact with a larger experience of their consciousness.  This contrast fosters comparative study of our personality and our spirit, which yields discernment.  Discernment is a key to acting with wisdom in our lives, to sift through the subtle possibilities of our moment by moment decisions in order that we might always choose the most valuable option. 

The final point of this triad is ishvara pranidhanani which is translated as surrender or cultivating the willingness and receptivity to come into alignment with our higher self through attention , intention and action.  Practiced together, these three practices form the basis of the entire yoga practice  – and create a ground of taking actions which will bring us out of confusion and into clarity. 

In this moment, the world is shutdown in response to the threat of the corona virus.  That shutdown in itself forces us into a position of surrendering our personal will, making sacrifices for the larger whole and being present to ourselves in a new way. 

For many people this is precarious and unsettling.  Feelings we’ve been suppressing for decades may come bubbling up to the surface.  That is a result of the clarifying nature of this kind of restriction.  The yoga practice prescribes this as things to take on willingly, with discipline and intention so that we might use the moments of restriction to wake up rather than dig deeper into the murky sea of emotions and imaginings which govern us in ways which are frequently not to our advantage. 

By choosing to consciously and deliberately embrace this period of time as an opportunity to grow and transform into a new way of being we take that perception that we are victims of the virus, the government or the others we are in the household with, and we turn it into an inwardly empowering victory.  These inner victories are the seeds of powerful practice and the opportunity to create them through tapah, svadyaya and ishwara pranidhanani is present in every moment.

How to practice:

  1.  Use your capacity to self-reflect as you go through your day.  Where do feelings of conflict arise?  Does the conflict emerge from some habitual way of being which is no longer functional?  Is there something (an expectation of your spouse, a craving to run out to the store for chocolate, a tendency to blame or take the easy way out) that you can respond to by taking a hard step or giving something up (tapah)?  What happens if you softening around the situation to receive what is already present, rather than what you might be wanting (ishwara pranidhanani)?  What happens if you stop and take a breath and turn inward?

  2. On your yoga mat, what is it which surfaces a tangle of mind chatter or emotion?  Sometimes it’s a scary posture, sometimes it’s child’s pose.  Sometimes we can spend a great deal of time fluctuating around getting on the mat, or attending to the 10,000 other demands for our attention.  Once again, the triad is useful.  If you can’t get a moment of peace to practice, you can surrender into that experience, accepting it.   Getting up very early to practice is a common tapah which many mothers I know practice. Can you let go of doing a posture you are compulsively drawn to, or engage that posture which scares you a little?
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