As the year comes to an end it is wonderful time for shopping, good cheer and spending time with family, and friends. However, it is also a special time for reflection. December 21st marked a very important date in Vedic Astrology with respect to the full moon and the eclipse.
The winter solstice is not only the shortest day of the year but a lunar eclipse took place. And this, by the way, only happens ever 375 years. With the moon at its highest point in the northern hemisphere the energies of Shiva (male) and Shakti (female) are said to be vital and strong. It is also a full moon in Gemini representing improvements in communication both in the written and spoken word.
Usually in the camps of Ashtanga-yoga, practice is not taken on both full and new moons. My teacher Yogacharya once said he did not follow this. However, while in India we strictly followed many note-able dates in which there was no practice. These were Krishna's birthday, the Ganesha festival and others. I guess you could say all of India was following these except for the "spiritually uninclined" in which it was a bank holiday.
At the end of this year, it is a time to reflect and give thanks for what has taken place, what has been accomplished and who have been a part of it. My students are a big part of the school. And without them there would be no school at all. Sounds obvious, but it is true. It reminds me of an e-mail I wrote to a student thanking her the gift she gave me.
I wrote, "We should start a "Thank you, No, thank you" group."
On the other side of things, however, it may become easy to see how much there is still left to do...and/or what lies ahead. Yet practising to be grateful for whatever comes up and to the many obstacles that may arise in practice (yes, the obstacles), in life or otherwise is all a part of the path. A fitting Sanskrit line is that of:
Sorry if I sound like a recovering Hindu or a converted Christain. I am not, however. Once during a lecture at a private school in Toronto I was asked by a high school student if I was Hindu. I wished I had said,
"No, my mother would kill me!"
Instead, I said I was not. (Sorry to disappoint.) I wish I had said, "I am an un-Hindu". This is actually what a great spiritual teacher said when he was described as being a 'Hindu'. He also went on to say we should "undo" many of our hidden or rather deep-seated issues that might be undoing our progress in some of the important areas of this life.
These areas are: love, relatonships and love.
So with the passing of the winter solstice and the end of the year it is a good time to look within. We can look to the many great teachings and the teachers. But as a friend of mine recently told me,
"Don't look to the lofty ideals of the Vedic teachings but to the daily interactions you have. These will tell you more about how much you are progressing than anything else and/or how much home-work you have yet to really do."
Every once in a while I pop into Seekers Bookstore on Bloor Street West. I like this bookstore a lot and enjoy nosing around. I decided to drop by today and ask again if they had any books by Dr. David Frawley. While the conversation I had with the clerk was brief it was a good reflection on how yoga has been taken up in this culture.
Me: "Hi. Do you have any books by Dr. David Frawley?"
Clerk: "Hm, the name sounds familiar. What would it be under?"
Me: "Probably Yoga and Ayurveda."
Clerk: "Hmmm, would that be yoga meditation or yoga exercise?"
Me: (pause) "Hmmm" (I know I have less than 2 seconds to just answer the question and by-pass why yoga is yoga and NOT yoga meditation or yoga exercise or yoga hola-hooping.) ... "probably yoga meditation" (sounds more artsy).
Clerk: "If it is any where, it is here."
What struck me as curious is the total distinction made between yoga meditation and yoga exercise. It is actually very interesting how culturally it has evolved into this understanding and placed into different camps. In many ways it is similiar to the way people have come to understand Ashtanga-yoga and what everyone else is practising (re: Hatha-yoga).
Interesting, as well, since the definition of Hatha-yoga is:
"Hatha Yoga describes any of the physical practices of yoga. (Remember that yoga has eight limbs, only one of which, asana, involves doing yoga poses.) When you do Iyengar, this is hatha yoga; when you do Ashtanga, this is hatha yoga too. “Hatha yoga” can be used interchangeably with “yoga.” "
Whenever I clear the air on what they each mean I find myself saying something like:
"Hatha-yoga is the umbrella term. Ashtanga is a part of it...sometimes called power-yoga. It was also popularized when people like Madonna and Sting said they practised it."
My trite definition is usually met with a knowing glance and accepted at face value. It just gets confusing when all yogas are called Ashtanga-yoga because most people have left out the fact that the foundation to ALL yoga is Ashtanga-yoga (meaning 8 limbs involving the practice of ethics, morals, observances and meditation).
Leaving this aside, however, what is more interesting is that even in India people don't necessarily have a clearer understanding of what Yoga is; an assumption easily made given Yoga's origin. At a hotel in Bangalore, the concerige and I had a quick chat on yoga. This was during the same year that I was conducting research on yoga in the Indian school system. Being both a foreigner and a yoga teacher drummed up some superficial interest. Our conversation went like this:
Concerige: This yoga, I am interested in that.
Me: Yes, it is becoming popular.
Concerige: I hear a lot about it. Is it good for losing weight?
Frankly speaking, I don't recall how the conversation ended but I am sure it ended quickly. I was surprised at the direct relationship to how yoga was about weight loss as it was to mental control, focus, calm and/or relaxation. What is indeed curious is the way that the West's influence has reflected itself back into the very country that yoga originated from. How ironic!
Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar states in the The Tree of Yoga (1988) how Indian people began to value yoga because of the West. He was quite indignant when it came to this point because he felt that Indians should show 'pride' and 'respect' in their roots first, and not when Westerners show up and claim it is great. Iyengar goes on to say that being a yoga teacher was not well respected in his early career. He did not gain popularity until he was introduced to the world by the great musician Yeudu Menduian (also ironic). While he was trying to build up his yoga practice and teaching abilities people called him a "mad-cap." Most Indian men were chasing the Western dream of becoming a lawyer or doctor. Yoga was for sadhus, renounicants (i.e., those who leave convention and seek a more spiritually minded way of living) or the very poor.
I am not sure this attitude has changed all that much within India. A yoga student's father laughed at me when he heard I had come to India to study yoga. He told me they think about putting food on their table. Talk about a slap in the face and a reality-check. While there may be exceptions, it appears that being a yoga teacher is still not all that respected especially for women in India. To date, there are very few women teachers who make their living soley from teaching yoga. And even if they do they have not established themselves in the yoga community/world like their male counterparts have. Can you name a well-known Indian woman teacher (who is not associated with a man)?
This may slowly be changing as one of the Indian students involved in my research and also a champion of yoga was starting to teach in India. It does remain, however, a very different scene from the Western one in which there are more female yoga teachers than males. Not only are there more females teaching but more females "into" yoga. A quick look at the demographics of The Yoga Journal show that 89% of the subscribers are female.
Yet, teaching yoga in North America is not neceassarily deemed as a wonderful career either by the way. As yoga's popularity increased being a teacher is something that nearly every-one is doing (re: as a side job for extra cash, as a way to meet like-minded people, etc.). Not necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves the teaching profession of yoga (let alone being a 'yoga' teacher) open-ended and in many ways shaped by those who are in it. Teaching yoga today may be seen as 'cool' but it is also felt to be something embarassing. Eddie Stern (director of Ashtanga Yoga New York and Ganesha Temple in NYC) points out in a recent Huffington Post article,
"I am at the point where I am almost embarrassed to say that it is what I do because it can sound like such a cliche."
Sadly, I agree with this; happily, I am not alone.
So, you know, all good things to mull over while chopping on a carrot stick.
In end, there were no books today by Dr. David Frawley.
The Journey So Far
- Heather Morton
- is a perennial teacher and devoted student of yoga. Having made 18 extended trips to India she studies with her teachers annually. In 1997 she founded and directed The Yoga Way (TYW), Toronto's only school for 6-week yoga programs and not drop-in classes. For 15 years, TYW was a part of the growing Toronto yoga community and supported many charities by offering karma classes. As a teacher she holds many academic degrees including a BFA (Fine Arts in Theatre) and a Masters of Education. With a published thesis on Yoga for Children in School, her post-graduate work was a 2-year ethnographic project in the Indian school system. Heather has produced 2 dvds, meditation cds, a backbending manual and podcasts. Freedom of the Body DVD is the first of its kind as an instructional practice to the backbends of yoga. Heather has been featured in the Toronto Life magazine, The Globe & Mail, Yoga4Everybody and other on-line sources. She contributes to MindBodyGreen, Hello Yoga in Japan and Elephant Journal. She writes to inspire and share her experiences with others on yoga as a life's practice.
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