Monday, April 30, 2007

Dying to see what's next...

I’ve started to look forward to meditation in ways that are confusing.

For some time, I’ve been relatively equanimous about life and death. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not self-destructive by any means, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But in recent years, when contemplating death, I’ve not been particularly alarmed by it.

But that hasn’t been my situation forever. Most of my life, I feared death and tried not only to avoid it, but to avoid even thinking about it. When my younger sister died a number of years ago, avoidance became impossible, and I began a multi-year relationship with death – both her actual death, as well as my own views of my inevitable end at some point.

While I was in the throes of that process, I remember talking with a yoga teacher one day after practice, and in our discussion she remarked that she was pretty comfortable with the idea of dying at any time. Her remark was one of those crystallizing moments in my life. Not only had I never felt that way, I’d never even imagined that anyone would feel that way without the “it’s-worse-to-continue” situations of those in horrible cancer treatments or suicidal moments. The teacher, though, remarked it without any tone of pride or ego or concern. And it stuck with me.

So, like with most disturbing things in life, I found ways to practice it on the mat. The easiest: Savasana/Corpse Pose. As I breathed in, I allowed myself to experience the breath as the last one I’d take. And as I breathed out, I released it as the last breath I’d ever release. Sometimes, I alternated that practice with experiencing in-breaths as the first breath of a new-born life. With that practice, not only did I find that I paid a lot more attention to the breath than I had before, but I found that distress associated with releasing my last breath dissipated, as well. It is, after all, just a breath of air. A practice in letting go. Over time, that little breath practice changed a lot. I learned to relax my grip on things a little. I found myself more comfortable with the idea, off the mat, that the breath I’m currently drawing or releasing could be my last one.

In short, I suppose I found the balance of equanimity. In this particular dimension (heaven knows not all others) I became poised – not leaning backward toward the past, nor forward toward the future…

…which is why this morning’s realization caught my attention. I seem to be lean forward again. Or, perhaps, I’ve always been leaning forward, but I’d managed to delude myself that I was equanimous. The Yoga-Sutra teaches that “misapprehension is that comprehension which is taken to be correct until more favorable conditions reveal the actual nature of the object.” (1.8) Not sure whether I’ve simply regressed, or whether I’m just seeing a little more clearly what I’ve been doing all along. Either way, it feels a bit like standing before an open door. Just seeing the doorway open seems to create (or maybe just reveal) a kind gravity in my desire.

So this morning, thinking about my meditation, I realized that I’ve become attached to where I think/hope/wonder the process will lead. Partly, that attachment has been fed by my second read-through of Cope’s book, The Wisdom of Yoga, where he describes in both vignettes and analytic narrative the process of deepening meditation outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga-Sutra. As I’ve re-read the book, I’ve focused more on the events of my own practice that he accurately describes, as well as the events and developments that I’ve not experienced.


See? It’s that desire for more that so easily morphs into attachment.

Seeing it there uncloaked may be all I can manage. Perhaps it’s one of those things, like vampires and political corruption, that tends to weaken when seen in the light of day.

Not sure.

But worth watching.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Off the Mat -- Why Restrain Anything?

(This is drawn from the next in a series of emails I provide my yoga students interested in exploring how yoga works in their lives off the mat.)

After an initial period of getting our balance, most of us are pretty comfortable with the idea that a yoga posture practice affects not only our bodies, but also our minds. We start to perceive, if roughly, the relationship between unfocused and scattered minds and physical inability to hold a challenging balance pose, such as Ardha Chandrasana/Half-Moon or Natarajasana/Dancer’s Pose. Those experiences begin to persuade us that bodies and minds are linked together, and as we settle our minds, we find that our physical balance improves.

That perception, as simple and readily available as it is, can be a starting place for exploring and gaining understanding into other aspects of life, as well. If our bodies and minds are connected in ways that prevent our bodies from working well when our minds are disturbed, is the reverse also true – that our minds can’t work as effectively when our bodies are scattered and disturbed?

A second perception: again, after an initial period of getting accustomed to yoga, most of us get pretty comfortable with the idea that our yoga practices on the mat affect not only our abilities to perform the postures on the mat, but the practice also affects our practices (our lives, for instance) off the mat. The physical strength, flexibility, and stamina developed on the mat enables us, off the mat, to work and play with less stiffness and pain, more strength and vitality. The mind-settling aspects of on-the-mat practice also spill over into life off the mat, and we (many of us, anyway) find that we gain a little more patience and compassion for others, a little more awareness of our own minds and feelings off the mat.

The Yoga Sutra teaches that in addition to the physical yoga postures, there are other practices that enable us to refine and strengthen those mind-body conditions. One branch of those practices comprises forms of self-discipline – “yamas” in Sanskrit. And yoga practitioners are hardly the only ones to have discovered these things. The yamas are basic to many communities: don’t cause harm to others, don’t steal others’ belongings, commit yourself to the truth, avoid grasping/coveting, exercise self-control in personal relationships.

But why doesn’t Yoga just mind its own business and stick to postures, mindfulness, and breathing?

The short answer is that for most people who practice yoga in the US, it does stick to those three things. And, at least in my opinion, it’s pretty valuable even when it focuses on nothing more than that. But those three practices don’t occur in the abstract – each person who practices yoga does so in the context of a particular and unique life.

Just as yoga affects that life, so, too, does the life affect the yoga. For those who are interested in pursuing their yoga experience more deeply, yoga suggests ways to change other aspects of life to move the process along because it opens us up, allows us to perceive our own experience a little more closely, and teaches us how to engage mindfully.

But here’s what can happen to mindfulness and perception and openness. Remember the first time you unrolled your yoga mat after you bought it? It stayed curled up. Once we practice on them for a bit, they flattened out. But then, after that practice, we roll up the mat again, put it in the closet, and only take it out in time for next week’s class. But when we take the mat back out, it’s almost as curled up as it was the first time we unrolled it. So, too, are we, if we only allow mindfulness, openness, and perception to affect us while we’re on the mat. The ethical teachings of yoga encourage us not to roll up the experience of mindfulness, perception, and openness when we roll up our mats.

One of the real dilemmas associated with practicing yoga occurs when one discovers that the mindfulness of yoga practice has opened one’s perceptions to aspects of life that were previously outside our awareness. A still mind allows us to see more clearly the harm we cause to others. We understand more particularly the effect of taking what doesn’t belong to us, in all the ways that we do so. We begin to feel the contraction and limitations that occur when we speak untruthfully. We recognize how our conduct affects those we’re close to. The basic heart/mind opening of yoga, then, has the potential to change the way we live. Similarly, though, the way we live, changes our yoga practice.

As we strip away the actions that we see do harm to others, we find that we are able to explore our own minds more minutely, to perceive our feelings more clearly, to understand the effects of our actions more comprehensively. And that, unexpectedly, affects our experience of on-the-mat yoga, as well. We find greater mind-steadiness, greater sources of mental stamina and energy, finer perceptions of bones and muscles and tendons and nerves, better balance.

In that context, it makes good sense that yoga might have something to say about ethics and self-discipline.

In the next several discussions, we’ll explore aspects of the various behaviors off-the-mat that yoga encourages. I’ll ask your indulgence in this regard: just as you do on the mat, withhold your judgment about whether the particular practice is a good one or a bad one, and consider, instead, whether its something that you could implement more fully than you already do. If it is, then consider trying it out, like you try out Bakasana/Crow Pose. Yes, it seems a bit silly at first, maybe a bit precarious, too. But the penalty for failing is only a short tumble to the floor, and it might be interesting to see what life looks like from the perspective of truthfulness or non-harming, just as it’s interesting to see what the world looks like when you’re balanced on just your hands.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rumi knew everything

From a marvelous podcast interview of Coleman Barks, a gifted translator of poetry by Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-73):

...not until faithfulness turns to betrayal
and betrayal into trust
can any human being
become part of the Truth.


Coleman Barks: "Until betrayal, love offered is conditional; and only when betrayed and love is extended even so, do you leave the Garden of Eden..."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Off the mat -- What's this Yoga Business About?

**Note: I've begun to work with a subset of my yoga students to explore Yoga beyond the posture practice. The following is the first of a series of discussion-starters that I thought might be useful to post here, as well.**

To begin the “off the mat” series of weekly discussions (and I hope that they become discussions, rather than just my ramblings), I’d planned to jump in directly to ahimsa (not harming), but it occurs to me that it might be more helpful to start a little more deliberately. With that in mind, I’ll punt ahimsa til next week, and use this week to provide some context that might provide a framework for thinking about the different practices we’ll discuss. We can get more elaborate later on.

First, what is there to Yoga besides physical poses? Yoga – poses included – is a set of practices that have been done for millennia. Those practices are intended to help draw together (think of the word “yoke” – it’s from the same root as “yoga”) one horse – the body – to another horse –the mind –that otherwise tend to go their separate ways, leaving us pretty disconnected, distracted, and stressed.

In your practice of yoga, you’ve probably already discovered at least briefly some of what happens when those two horses are brought into alignment and coordination – into yoga. It’s the unexpected feeling of profound peace, mind-quieting, and things working right. How on earth does such a physical practice lead to that experience? I don’t know. Yoga’s pretty devoid of theoretical analysis on questions like that. But the practice of Yoga does work. The poses are an important part of it.

But they’re not the only part.

Much of the teachings of yoga come from a work called the Yoga Sutra, and tradition says it was written by a person named Patanjali. Whether it was written by one person or by several, Patanjali or Davy Crockett, in 300 AD or 300 BC isn’t really very important. Here’s why: what the Yoga Sutra teaches is not that you should believe anything in particular. Yoga is not in the slightest a set of beliefs. Instead, it teaches a path composed of eight aspects that, Patanjali tells us, if followed will enable us to see both the world and our relationship to it more clearly. It is a practice that produces the experiences you may have perceived some of already in your own practice.

So what is the path? The path Patanjali outlines is a series of practices: (1) ethical guidelines for interacting with others, (2) guidelines for self-discipline, (3) postures, (4) breath patterns, (5) withdrawal of the senses (an inward meditation practice), (6) concentration (more of a meditation experience than a practice, but once experienced, it can become a practice, as well), (7) meditative absorption (a second kind of meditation experience that can be practiced), and (8) oneness or Yoga – the experience of union of body and mind and environment.

To my ear, some of those things sound pretty much like common sense. Some of them sound well beyond my experience. I can’t tell you everything about the path of Yoga, as I’ve not explored all of it. But I have practiced some of it, and I’m much the better for it.

If nothing else, I can do something I never could do before: I can touch my toes. For a person who started as inflexible as I did, that seems pretty dang remarkable.

In yoga practice today and Friday, think about (and comment back by email, if you'd like) whether and how your yoga practice has affected your life off the mat. Maybe not at all? Maybe a little?

I look forward to discussing and exploring more of Yoga with you all.


**Discussion for next week: the first of the ethical guidelines for interacting with others (both on and off your mat): ahimsa or “not harming.” How can that (not doing something) be meaningful? It’s a part of the instruction to all medical doctors in their initial medical training: “First, do no harm.” It is a guideline that will make our yoga practice safer on the mat. Off the mat, it’s a way to avoid the actions that tend to drive wedges between our bodies (or our feelings) from minds (or our intellect).

Sunday, April 08, 2007


So I've spent the weekend engaged in yoga of various forms, and I'm brimming over with gratitude.

Yesterday, I practiced under the instruction of a favorite teacher. This morning, I sat in meditation after a solitary practice in my basement. This evening, I've surfed iTunes to pick up a couple of songs that I've wanted to use in a new mix for a yoga class CD. Last night I began typing up my reading notes from Stephen Cope's remarkable book The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living. I'll probably compose a post or two about the book later. Suffice it for now to remark that it is, itself, extraordinary. In typing up notes, I re-experience much of the text -- all the parts that I underlined during the first read through, the pages I dog-ear, the bits and pieces that I flag for further thought.

Then, a few moments ago, reading some light fiction that entails everything working (highly improbably) together for the protagonist's good, I experienced for just a moment the sensation of great happiness of being on a path, what felt the right path. I tend to think, in my rational moments, that we usually create meaning, rather than stumble across it. So I tend to reject the stories of improbable coincidence as fictions, and I tend to view improbable coincidence in my own life as the probable result of many, many, unfulfilled improbabilities.

But eight years ago, an interesting person invited me to join him early in the morning before the business sessions of a professional conference for a yoga practice. I did, though at the time, I didn't have any idea of what yoga might be. I just knew that he was an interesting person, and I liked getting up early in the morning in the mountain retreat where we were staying.

Through a series of what from my prior world view would have been wildly improbable experiences, but what from my current world view are quite typical experiences, I find myself mixing songs and assembling ideas for conveying teachings of ahimsa, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha, and satya to my yoga students during the coming weeks. And I find myself feeling profound gratitude to my first teacher for his generosity and the gift I've received from him.