I'm in India!
Arriving in Bangalore I am greeted by Ravi, a taxi driver whom I have known for several years. There is something settling in being greeted by a familiar face when so far away from home. It is 4:30 a.m. but it feels like midday from the activity at the airport. Heading toward the car and into the cool morning I comment on the weather being cold. Ravi replies, “Not hot madam, medium temperature.”
As we make our way along the Bangalore-Mysore road the one thing in my mind is starting practice again with my teacher. The traffic is surprisingly heavy as we pass oversized billboards and tour from one side of the road to the other. In a way the Bangalore motorway is a kind of analogy for practice. There are clear parts, troubled areas, challenges and continual disturbances. The honking horns (an accepted protocol in India) are like the endless fluctuations or vrittis that enter the mind during practice.
Returning to my teacher is a check-ín point as to where I am in the scale of practice. However, over the last few years the physical practice is not under inspection but something far beyond. My teacher Yogacharya whom I have studied regularly with for 11 years now is not one for judging the external practice (i.e., how far you bend or twist). In fact many years ago his first comment after watching me practice was on how my the practice is too external. (Is that an oxymoron?) It's hard to fathom what these Acharya´s mean and I dare not ask too many questions for fear of looking like I am too busy mentally. What he looks for is how yoga works on you mentally. Last year I received a severe tongue lashing when I was told I have been doing only "bodily exercise but nothing on the mind."
Going to practice under my teacher also keeps the practice on par. Am I just trying to accomplish more asanas? Do I identify my progress with the physical result? Can I challenge myself to remember the ultimate connection between the body and mind? What effect is the pose having mentally? And moreover, who do I think is driving the practice my body or mind? Is it both? Who came first? For Yogacharaya all is clear. He does not ask the questions. He makes the statement, “It is all mind.” And for him there are no arguments.
Several years ago when conferences were given on Saturday afternoon Yogacharya spoke about satisfying only the physical. Stating how the practice is too physically driven points out how we might be going in circles and not penetrating the deeper regions of the soul. It is repeatedly mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, a text written 2,000 years ago, that the practice will not be understood by the asanas alone. And yet the third rung out of the eight limbs is a huge step to move beyond since we are human beings living in a material world and dealing with the physical body all the time. So what can we do?
Something that has eluded many Western practitioners is stepping beyond bodily activity and working on the fluctuations of mind through the asanas (Paul Brunton, A Search of Secret India, 1934). This sort of practice usually starts by focusing readily on holding a posture longer and watching the breath. While this may seem like an uncomplicated approach it is the method for which real Yogis practice. What I mean by real is the theoretical and the practical dilemma between preyas and shreyas yoga. That is yoga for physical pleasure or yoga for the purpose of enlightenment. And this is a genuine conflict concerning all serious practitioners, students, scholars and teachers of yoga (Georg Feuerstein, The Lost Teachings of Yoga, 2003).
Yogacharaya´s teachings today are more centred on the internal base than it ever was. I sometimes get the feeling he only taught the physical asanas as a way to gather a few students; some having dropped off while others continue to go further with this understanding. Even new students are initiated more readily into the internal focus method. But for Yogacharya I have no doubt this has been the focus all the time anyway. His ways are not of the typical teacher. He will not applaud your efforts and he will not unnecessarily please a student (the same thing). He might even tell you to do self-practice and point out where you are blocked mentally.
Over the course of several week or months only a few postures are practised, which can seem monotonous and perhaps to the point of boredom. It is not the fashionable way that yoga has slowly been moulded in physical achievement. Yogacharaya has not given in and demands the tradition is maintained. Having travelled in this direction with him and trusting the process the one thing I know is that holding postures for over 30 continuous breathings and focusing on less asanas is more difficult than running through 50 postures with each being held at 5 breaths.
When I enter the doors of the kutira (a hut constructed for the practices of Yoga) I will be flooded by memories of previous practices, my teacher and all that Yoga stands for.
We are still on the Bangalore-Mysore road, which seems like a never-ending line of construction. Hm, it is so much like practice! And given the amount of reckless driving it is somewhat of a miracle to not have an accident. I am reminded of what Iyengar once wrote in that it is not yoga’s fault if there are accidents (re: injuries), but rather the aggression of the student (The Tree of Yoga, 1988). Even though the highway will end soon the practice of course does not. It is a continual journey for which I am grateful for in building, rebuilding and to a large degree dismantling the mental agitations and fluctuations.
Because at the 51st breath I am indeed ready to take a pit-stop. And for now this has to be Mysore.
Note: There is no significance to holding a yoga posture for exactly 51 breaths. It is a marker in which 10 breaths are done in 1 minute. Holding a posture for 5 minutes is a starting point toward a therapeutic approach and need, not one for physical ascetics but internal endurance. Breathing less and more deeply is a central aim of many ancient Yogis in which life is not calculated by one's years but one's breath. Because of the stresses of modern life people often breathe too rapidly and harshly. Less breathing is understood as increasing one's life span and well-being.
I'm in Mysore.....ahhhhh
Being in the Motherland of inspiration, India possesses ‘something’ that most people who travel here can truly understand. In my old beaten up copy of the Lonely Planet there is a brief introduction on traveller’s either loving or hating India; many swearing never to return again. A more accurate travel advisory, however, would read that India is both: the great adventure in challenging your comfort levels and capturing your heart.
Certainly a country like India is not without its challenges. The poverty and the pollution are just some of them; juxtaposed with incredible beauty and historic reverie. For me, these are the reasons why I need to return to India. That is, challenging my tolerance for the hectic and chaotic but above all to renew my spirit and my belief in it. The mountain range and an Indian child's face do not look different. India has always promised to provide reminders of the terrible (e.g., homelessness and poverty) as well as the wonderful (e.g, temples and palaces). It is like a cross-reference experience in getting to know and experience extremes.
My attraction for India grew solely out of my interest in yoga. Yet over the years it has become an equal drive to know both better. This fall marked another study trip to Mysore, India; the home of my primary teacher Yogacharya Venkatesha and the place where much of what we understand as being Ashtanga yoga evolved. While in India I am happy to become a student again as well as a wandering wilbury. Taking the time to learn more about India; her people, the customs and whatever else I can indulge in is a daily adventure. Visiting the temples, palaces, historic sites and museums is all part of this as well. But I truly believe that engaging with the people and being open to whatever 'unique' circumstances arise has had more lessons than being guided through a 12th century temple. In other words, it is the person telling me about the temple not the temple itself that is worth spending time with.
My India or rather 'my kind' of India is best understood from the list below of interactions with some of the local people in Mysore. Surprisingly enough it is also not wrapped around the yoga kutira. As I said, it is the 'locals' and my interactions with them from buying dinner, shopping in the market to getting in a rickshaw.
~ I order papad (a flat crispy bread like a chip) and get tandoori fish!
~ I ask to speak with another clerk at the hotel's front desk who speaks better English. The response is, “You want the wine list, mam?”
~ I rent a scooter and every 2-3 days receive a phone call from the vendor which goes something like this:
“Hello, madam, any problems? Any problems madam you just call me. Any problems.”
While in Mysore the seat lock breaks. We make arrangements for him to come the following day but he never shows up. The next day I get another call (repeat the line above).
~ I am 75 rupees short when buying a gift at the market. The vendor agrees with me that I can come back in an hour to pay. Be aware, he has never seen me before, does not know my name or where I am staying. He doesn't ask. He flashes only an unspoken look of, "Can I trust this person?"
~ In the local shops it is a common courtesy to be offered chai (tea) especially if you are a paying or potential customer.
~ I repair my shoe heel for $1 dollar. THe cobbler marks the price in pen on the sole of the shoe. While waiting the police officer stops to ask, "What country you?" and the cobbler demands, "You take foto."
~ I have a silver key chain welded in 10 minutes for 10 rupees (approx. 25 cents).
~ I spend several minutes exchanging clumsy arm and hand movements with one of the Muslim washers regarding when and where I can pick up my clothes.
~ The waiters at a local restaurant exclaim:
“You come long back. When you come now exactly?”
This is nice, really nice and I forget about the black toilets at the back.
~ “Did you have your breakfast?” “Had your lunch?” "How is your mother?”
A random set of questions from hotel staff, clerks, vendors and even strangers on teh street passing by.
~ A fellow motorist informs me there are police officers checking for people who are not wearing their helmets. I stop to put on the helmet and am grateful for the warning.
~ This year I learn what should have been the first lesson last on scooter driving. That is, how to lift the scooter up and onto the stand. I am a good laugh for the teacher who doubles as a bell-boy at the hotel.
"After 10 years you learn the first at the end."
Truly the best, however, can only be summed up by a photo not through words.
The jumbo elephants are finishing their practice for the upcoming festival of Dasara in October. Walking elegantly down the road in a single moment they epitomize all that India offers for a foreigner. That is, something of an open-air zoo in the middle of downtown Mysore. In order not to miss this I actually ran down to the center at the same time I knew they would be passing by.
Watch Yoga for Older Newbies.
Last week The Globe and Mail dropped by and we put together a video on learning to practice yoga postures. Geared toward beginners and people over 40 there are several modifications offered for each pose. It was shot and edited by Rosa Park, one of their in-house journalists.
I have to say this "over 40 thing" is a bit over-rated and inflated. What I mean by that is yoga can be practiced at any age! Ideally the sooner you start the better, but just because you are 60 does not mean you are a hopeless case. I have 20-year students who can't touch their toes and 60-year old's you can! So go figure.
One student wrote me to comment on the article and video. He said he was very relieved to know he can practice all! Of course, he was being sarcastic. He is 65 and practising Ashtanga-yoga and backbending.
In the West, age is equal to performance, ability and capacity. Many people believe they cannot develop anything past a certain age. Perhaps they are biological facts in place but you can also beat the odds if you try.
For myself, a lot of people perceive my flexibility as being natural. However, as a kid I could not do the splits, sit in lotus or flatten my back. I tried and it did not work. At 27, I started learning yoga seriously and it took me 5 years to be able to do the lotus pose, the splits and many other flexy-bendy postures. I also became much more flexbile in my mid and late 30's than in my 20's. However, it was not just working on my body as it was also meditating and breathing. Mind and body go together; a flexible body does not equal to having knowledge of a posture or even yoga itself. Flexibility is not the goal but a by-product.
What people do not see or understand is that everything takes time, dedication and working out a system for yourself. Nothing comes from a hap-hazard approach. Age is not the issue but attitude.
And those are just the facts.
We all come to yoga for an assorted range of reasons and motivations. We all seek it out consciously or unconsciously from a list of experiences and even problems. But nevertheless, somehow Yoga becomes very important. For myself it became so important that my whole life has revolved around it. Sometimes too the past behaviour, ideas or understandings that one had is surprising; if not completely 'off'. I don't think that showing up in a fur coat to my first yoga class 20 years ago says too much about my understanding of things. In fact, it speaks to the reverse.
What's more interesting, however, is that the journey is never as straightforward, clean-cut or as solid as it may appear. More often than not it is filled with twists, turns, difficulties, resistances and struggles.
I share a bit of this in a recent article that was just featured on MY LIFE YOGA.
Away from Toronto last week on a research excursion and back again to life here. After 8 hours of flying, a 4 hour drive to the airport, a dash to TBM's (Toronto Body Mind)) house-warming party it was no wonder friends asked, "Hey, how come you don't say hi when I see you?"
My mind was not in this body; my body was not mine either!
In Switerland I visited a village in the Northern part (German speaking) called Wuerenlos (near Baden). No one should try to pronouce this who cannot speak German well! I was doing qualitative research (i.e, a type of research that focuses on depth rather than breadth) concerning the effects of the healing properities in a cave known. It is well known for its healing powers and energy fields. People from all over the world book individual sessions to spend time in the cave to heal their body, mind and spirit.
Founded by Emma Kunz (1892 to 1963, a nurse, healer, researcher and artist), her work has been preserved by Anton Meyer in 1986, the Director of the Center. When Anton became ill in 1941 (becoming completely paralyzed), Emma started to do research on natural healing remedies. Out of this she discovered there were special properities not only in the rock itself but energy fields surrounding the structure of the cave (called Grutto in German). Emma discovered the healing properities of a rock called AION A (a Latin word meaning "without limitations"). In Europe a piece of this rock can actually be purchased at local pharmacies (Apotheke in German). This rock is often prescribed by doctors and pharmacists as a part of the patient's healing process.
Learn more: The Cave
Emma also began working with pendulums creating over 70 pieces of artwork; each peice resembling an elaborate mandala. The designs are unique and contain special messages for which is quoted as having said,
Certainly without being an expert one can see her creations were not put together on-the-fly, but created over several weeks if not months of intense labour, thought and devotion. Each design is understood as manifesting from a natural instinct and urge, emotion and expression of her inner core. All of them were generated from being open to the energetic fields of healing and not from a clever or well-constructed intellect.
A good portion of my research and interest was to observe the levels of sensitivity while in the cave and afterwards. The prerequisite to my research was my practice of meditation and regular pranayama (i.e., a series of exercises that channel the energy through body by using the breath). In addition, I did not study or examine the energy map that lays out the exact fields of energy in the cave from the highest to lowest points.
Getting an appointment is not always easy and luckily I was able to have a half hour period shared by two fellow travellers (one of them a German fellow healing a bad back). Time slots are given for each person to visit as only 1-2 people are permitted per visit for a half-hour duration.
When I entered the cave I walked along the side and felt the cool, damp and dark feeling of the ground underneath my feet. I was drawn to the far right and sat near the side on some of the rocks, which formed a step-ladder on the wall. I later learned where I was sitting was the field to charge the chakras as well as for spiritual impulses (the highest vibration in the cave).
In the cave, I had two clear reactions: 1) an intense feeling of the left side of my face being frozen and as if the muscles were gripping, and 2) a steady steam of air coming out of the left nostril as if it had no end. After sitting for 25 minutes, I felt the 'impulse' to do yoga.
Interestingly enough, it was not until several days later that I noticed the presence of the cave still with me; an indescribable feeling of a protective shield around me. It was as if my mental field and aura had been restored.
PS: Inside of the cave, no flash, a 10
second timer (re: set, run, do), stand :-)
Below are some of the abstracts created by Emma Kunz; a Swiss woman who discovered healing minerals in a rock called AION A (a Latin word meaning 'without limitations'). Although Emma did not consider herself an artist she left behind an incredible legacy of healing, power and restoration. Living in the Swiss villages for most of her life she was a telepathic healer.
Her drawings are reflective of the 'unforseen' happenings in the tangible world. Of interest, she was once asked to "repolarize" the energy field of Audolf Hitler from a distance. It is said the pendulum in which she used to form the shapes and feelings of her drawings started flying around the room. She was cited as having said there was too much 'negative' energy.
Listen to a preview of The Lost Teachings of Yoga
Reading these words, I wish I could say they were my own. I truly believe Yoga IS the great adventure. Since 1997, Yoga has been the center of my professional and personal life. It is a wonderful adventure which has taken me to India as well as given me the joy of practice and a clear path to cultivate a spiritual life. These were, however, never my original aspirations; I wanted to be an actress not a yoga teacher.
In high school, I had the lead role in almost every school play. I was often working on a script or reading poetry. I remember a play in which we depicted the scenes from everyday life. I listed off the different areas as work/career, school, play and family. I recall asking my fellow classmates, "Is that it?" Something for me felt like it was missing. We all agreed we had covered the basics and there was nothing else. But the missing 'something' is today what I deem as the spiritual and what may people have come to articulate as the lack of an inner life (Dr. Jack Miller, OISE, University of Toronto). The West says gather material wealth and status while the East says develop your inner life. The East also takes it one step further in stating that the spiritual and material are not separate worlds (Yogananda Paramahansa).
The spiritual realm is where Yoga ultimately takes us. But in the West as Georg Feuerstein writes we are often involved with a type of Yoga that is far removed from these roots. It is rather ironic that over 30 million practise Yoga, but less than 10 per cent practice it for enlightened reasons. I first became acquainted with Georg Feuerstein's work while thumbing through books on Yoga philosophy and history during my early dabblings. I revisited his work while writing my Master's thesis. His work became the necessary back-up for my research on Yoga in school both in India and North America (2005/06).
Feuerstein points to the loss of ‘authentic’ Yoga and the dilemma in defining ‘traditional’ Yoga. What we call tradition is relative, because Yoga’s evolution is not as straight-forward as most people assume. In fact, many people equate Yoga to Hinduism but Yoga is also interwoven into the fabric of Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. In The Lost Teaching of Yoga, in which Feuerstein clarifies to mean that Yoga is not really lost but misplaced he states:
1. Contemporary Yoga is flat and it does not go to the core;
2. Traditional Yoga goes to the core and to the spirit;
3. Most people run away when they hear this!
First, I think we need to define what is contemporary and traditional. Contemporary Yoga and most of what is called Hatha-yoga and Ashtanga-yoga has generally been reduced to exercise. Even the fact that teachers claim Ashtanga-yoga is 'the authentic Yoga' is debatable. Krishnamacharya, the Guru of Gurus, who handed it down to others went on to develop another type of Yoga based on his evolution. Is this later Yoga any less authentic? As well, many practitioners say you will ‘eventually’ be led to deeper experiences by practice alone. I think it is fair to say one does not necessarily follow the other. In comparison, meditation teachers have said they sat on 'stuff’ for years, never really penetrating the hidden caverns of their mind. The deeper realm is the potential to wake up to our mental habits, tendencies, issues, et cetra. Practice without this understanding will not lead to higher consciousness unless we deliberately intend to do so.
Conversely, traditional Yoga takes you off the mat and into the world. What is meant by this is the understanding (not necessarily the experience) that Yoga is a spiritual practice first and foremost. Everything else including the postures, the vinyasas and the exercise is secondary. That is, the asanas which seemed to be the goal are the tool to gain mental stability, ease, peace and joy. Shri K. Pattabi Jois was known to say, "it is just bending". And my own teacher Yogacharya Venkatesha often said, "the postures are imaginings".
These utterings might create confusion in us. After all why invest time, money and energy to bend your body only to find out you missed the point! But truthfully this is not Yoga's fault. Dr. David Frawley (a teacher of the Vedic tradition) said:
"Yoga has been, if not misrepresented, at least only superficially presented in the West in which its deeper transformative principles and practices easily get lost in purely physical or personal concerns"
~(pg. xii, Yoga and the Sacred Fire).
In the end, we have ourselves to blame for our misconceptions and prejudices. Like many people I also began with no intention to learn the theory or history of Yoga. This was in part due to the representation of Yoga in the media and my own superficial quests. Living in the East and having a few good teachers has thankfully shaped my path. Each one of my primary teachers has been an Indian Master and there were very clear reasons for this. I had already understood a long time ago that in the West Yoga practices were "watered-down" (Georg Feuerstein). Agreeing with this I sought to study and learn directly from the source. But at one time while young and immature I hated listening to the Swamis at the ashram repeat the "Niyamas and Yamas” (the morals and ethicial practices of Yoga). My samskaras (Sanskrit word for impressions on the psyche) were entrenched in the physical. My teacher Yogacharya taught me to remember, "asana is not the goal."
Today, we really need to find the context to fit the "lost teachings of Yoga" into our world. Rather than looking for ways to make this ‘comfortable’ we need to understand the best lessons stem from being challenged. In other words, it is not only the good lessons that teach us well, but the difficulties.
This is not to imply Yoga should not be enjoyed. It is rather that we begin to see how health, fitness and well-being are knee-deep reactions; the stuff we are always concerned with. Isn't it time we strive for a bit more than the seemingly accessible? Yoga offers greater possibilities of freedom on all levels. If the practices of Hatha-yoga/Ashtanga-yoga are taken up we can strive to feel freer: it is possible, it is real, it is obtainable and it is available.
One of the reasons why I encourage people to take up meditation is because of the deep relaxation it elicits. When you learn how to let go, your body softens and you go further and deeper into the asana (postures of yoga). There is a release in the posture rather than a 'fight' and 'struggle' to get it, maintain it and achieve it. This idea may set up the practice of yoga with a hidden agenda, but it also be a good starting point for meditation, if not a motivator to try it.
Meditation is the only path that offers a way to understand ourselves fully; going beyond decursive thinking by lessening the mental noise. One of the greatest misunderstandings is that your mind becomes blank. While it is impossible to stop the mind, the practice of meditation decreases the rambling and internal chatter. It also increases energy and decreases our identification to the body. It is an experience in deep aloneness (not loneliness) and oneness with ourself. While meditation is often taken up for health reasons, the anicent practice was to become God realized. That is, to know yourself beyond the physical body.
As an aside, a man I had met briefly at a party told me he used to do yoga but gave it up. However, it should be said that yoga is meditation but this is a topic for another time. When I asked him why he stopped yoga (assuming he was talking about the physical postures) he said, "Because I was always in pain." As a teacher, I was not surprised to hear this because today so many people have turned yoga into an exercise in physical fitness only. So he left yoga and tried pilates!
Of course, there is a kind of inherent struggle built into the practice of the yoga postures. The saying "no pain no gain" is around for a reason. Yet it also involves making friends not enemies with the difficulties, the limitations and the restrictions of both our body and mind. The struggle becomes intensified when you 'force' it like you might a rubber ball from staying under the water's surface. It just bounces right back up! Paradoxically, 'making friends' and softening wiht ourselves creates a release, a letting go and a way of melting into the posture.
Today, there is truly an over-emphasis on Yoga exercise. What about breathing? Sitting? Relaxation? When the breathing exercises are done propery and consistently it can become as hard-core as doing hand-stands or push-ups. Unbelievable but true. During one of my practice studies with my teacher in Mysore he only taught simple exercises such as stretching the toes and ankles, and rotating the wrists and neck. I was drenched with sweat at the end. Intellectually it was a struggle for me because I wanted "to show" the lotus, headstand and wheel. But I can honestly say these remain some of my most vibrant memories of focus, concentration and being completely immersed into practice.
The over-emphasis on physical fitness can be blamed on our culture, but that is just an easy out. It has more to do with the way Yoga has been advertised. People often like to say if you practice the poses you will gradually be lead to the more 'spiritual' dimensions. I personally think you can spend a lot of time and even years 'doing' asanas and never feel the freedom of the body, reach higher spiritual levels and/or quieten your mind. But interestingly enough it also works both ways. There are meditation teachers who have written they only 'sat' on 'stuff' for years never really penetrating the deeper regions of their minds. They only created a veneer of quiet time but never reached a deeper understanding of self.
I feel the notion the more you practice the postures the more you might be lead to the spiritual growth is somewhat misleading. How does it follow if one never thinks about removing the darkness from the soul, the dirt from the mind and/or purifying desires. I don't think it 'just' happens because you take up yoga postures. At the Sivananda organization a resident Swami once remarked the people who do yogasana practice are often more body conscious than those who do not.
The one difficult aspect to yoga being limited to exercise is that it provides only one slice of the benefits. Swami Vivekanada went so far as to say that Hatha-yoga never leads to spirtual growth. And Paramahansa Yogananda also felt that if you practise the postures you might lose your bliss! But leaving all of this aside, the practice of only side of yoga provides one side of the benefits. And the truth is the benefits should be met in a full practice that includes meditation, breathing, relaxation and self-study.
The axiom, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make 'em drink" comes to my mind. I started off like this with my teacher telling me to meditate for years. I guess it is part of being human in having difficulty to follow through with what you know is important to practice. Until one day the teacher who kept mentioning meditation becomes your own inner voice.
In Chinese the characters making up the word 'crisis' are described as consisting of two elements. The first is danger and the second is opportunity. Understood as a fashionable and perhaps esoteric way of decoding Chinese characters, it is meant to imply a crisis equals a challenge or benefit.
Some linguists, however, disagree with this interpretation stating that it is muddled way of not only unravelling Chinese characters but looking at life. Victor Mair (a Chinese professor) states the understanding of the characters as implying an opportunity in the midst of danger is inaccurate. Furthermore, he feels it is foolish to go looking for benefits during a crisis. Mair's position is one in which he feels many people have been led "astray" by a romantic notion of there being a benefit from an unstable situation. Read: danger + crisis
Being curious about these arguments it is interesting how several self-help books and pseudo spiritual ones have rested on this description. But when a crisis like the recent one in Japan happens, it is almost a human need to try to find the good in this serious bad. Such a crisis can feel unreal, unfathomable and somehow distant. This distance should heighten not decrease the seriousness of the state of our world today. Is it enough, however, to recognize the global warning? Do we see this, but fail to commit ourselves to how we can make a difference? Why does it take a crisis to wake us up?
We probably need to be reminded how we are all part of this crisis (both near and far away). If we fail to recognize our part it is similiar to what the Buddhists and Yogis claim as ‘wrong-view’ or avidya (i.e., lacking the right understanding or perception). While it seems as if we are losing sensitivity and becoming disconnected to nature, each other and events around the world the truth is we are interconnected, and interdependent. What happens over there affect us on a global level, if not on a personal one. Slowly, slowly, we are seeing the effects of this on many levels; i.e., food, environment, products, water, air, etc., etc.
The crisis in Japan has become a call all over the world for help and to ACT. In many ways, it also forces us to re-evaluate our position; both economically and socially. Some people write blogs, tweet or send out mass e-mails. Some people are more private in their reflection. But no one stands immune.
In the West we live in a relatively comfortable environment. Few of us know or fear war or natural disasters. After making a dozen trips to India and having lived in South Korea for two yeras, there is a difference in the way Eastern people see, react and view life. What Georg Feuerstein (a Sanskrit scholar and historian) referred to as the West not having the context to insert the traditions of the East in, is now a growing concern in how we live and see ourselves in relation to others. He states in Yoga Unveiled (a DVD documentary on the history and tradition of Yoga) that the East is closer to death and impermanence; in the West we cover it up. While this may feel like a huge generalization it carries validity. People are more isolated in the West (re: a larger number of people live alone) and often lack a sense of family and possibly even community.
Far too often we have begun to see and treat each other as separate; moving away from our connection to the Earth itself. A recent study found that people who live closer to nature are less aggressive than those who are around a single tree (reference source from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). Other studies have also shown there is a part of the brain understood to be rejuvenated by spending time in nature as well as animals. This explains why people feel refreshed by taking a walk or going to the park.
But why don’t we respect nature more?
Just the other day I watched someone throw their garbage out their car window. It is this kind of ignorance on a small level that ruins Mother Earth. We can rationalize our way out of our behaviours, but in the end it only speaks to the sense of ‘lack’, non-caring and disconnectedness.
According to the ancient texts we are living in the Kali Yuga age (the Dark or Iron age). This is understood as a time in which human beings are the furtherest away from the divine, inner peace and even God (if you will). There is no doubt we live in very uncertain, unsteady and unexpected times. Swami Veda Bharati (a direct disciple of Swami Rama and meditation teacher) wrote the following in reaction to the Japanese crisis:
Some people may claim this is hog-wash and a natural disaster is a natural disaster. But are we not to blame for the imbalances that exist in the world? Or take responsibility? Krishnamurti (a great Indian spiritual teacher) used to say if we blame society we should blame ourselves as well. After all who is society? There are so many troubles going on right now. It has already been predicted in the year 2050 we will have lost 20% of our birds. The ocean will be more corroded than in its entire history of existence. Who has caused this to happen? Who lives on this planet Earth? Krishnamurti's questions are right on.
I started this essay with the confusion over the elements of the Chinese characters in the word 'crisis'. It often being described as the equation DANGER = OPPORTUNITY. While I do not think anyone would naturally go looking for this, I am prone to believe we almost have to come to this conclusion or at least consider the possibility. That is, what good can arise from the bad? It is perhaps a human need to make sense of the senseless even if illogical and inaccurate. If we cannot change the world, perhaps it will be enough to reflect on what we are doing right now. When we eat something, buy something, gather more possessions or decide to do anything, can we remind ourselves of its greater impact? Does it hurt me? The environment? Other people?
The rock band Coldplay puts it nicely, “Am I a part of the cure or Am I a part of the disease?”
Remember the donation box at the school? With everyone's loose change The Yoga Way raised $323.66! This is a wonderful charity for women. A very important resource and haven that hopefully many of us will not need to use. The money helps improve telephone lines and in different lanaguages (157, as I was told)....great.
This ought to cheer us up on a dreary March day; same with this interesting photo. Sort of resonates starkness, clarity, coolness and perspective.
Twitter updates too. The monies raised for SSO recently was great as well.
It was a great day at the school. Long standing students, new ones, a teacher from another tradition, sacred friends and my next door neighbour came out to show their support!
This class took place as a part of the 6th annual Yogathon to raise money for SSO, the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. In terms of energy (and as a great believer in this) we ran the class simultaneously to many other yoga classes taking place across the GTA. Fun and doing something for a very good cause definitely go together well.
For this class I opened it up; not teaching it in the traditional style of AtmaVikasa (http://theyogaway.com/yoga-meditation.html). Taking the suggestions from the participants we worked on konasansa (everyone's favorite), forward bends and the beloved squat. I threw in a few arm pressure postures, which I think everyone should learn to do.
We raised...a decent $423.00! For a single class it is not half bad.
So very special thanks to everyone involved. Including, as well, those students who donated but could not make it.
Ah, trick question no doubt! Tasty question though from the Zen Master Hakuim Ekaku (1685-1768)...he came up with this neat little koan.
Known first as a spiritual seeker and teacher he was immersed into Zen Buddhism at the age of 14. He gained considerable fame as monks and ordinary people flocked to hear him lecturing, etc. It was not until he was 60 that he began painting. (So who says age has something to do with learning?). He was no dabbler as he created abstract works containing mythological figures and something of a satirical touch. Hakuim was named a 'master' of it, however.
One of his calligraphy pieces depicts a monkey writing on a wall and another of a blind man consulting a one-eyed goblin. His poetry, however, is very much in-line with all that Yoga talks about (not yoga exercise but yoga yoga....just to be clear).
An ant goes round and round without rest
Like all beings in the six realms of existence,
Born here and dying there without release,
Now becoming a hungry ghost, then an animal.
If you are searching for freedom from this suffering
You must hear the sound of one hand.
These are still resonant words.
Take a break from the clamorous rat race of modern life.
Rats, squirrels and other rodents remind me of my father. Losing his self-control and almost out of desperation he said quite passionately to me,
"I just don't want you to end up like me. Like a squirrel going around in a cage."
He was talking about his life in the corporate world.
Funny, what you remember...and what a poem can uncover.
Hold That Pose on March 5-Ontarians to Roll Out Their Yoga Mats in Support of Schizophrenia Society of Ontario.
The Yoga Way (Toronto's home to structured programs) is proud to be offering a class on Saturday March 5th at 2:30 p.m.
For more information....Go to SSO Event
The heart of it all....Today, I had 5 e-mails from my friends in Mysore...One question:
Ehhh, there is no reasonable answer.
One friend was writing to tell me about his new job and how much money he will make. The other mails were on general stuff like feeling really happy about being in Mysore, the guys at the bookstore about my order for the world's smallest Bhagavad Gita, my friend's 80 plus academic rating (very important in a country like India) and best wishes for Sankranti (the festival marking the beginning of the harvest season). The only downer amongst the messages was the last one. When I returned the mail it was pointed out to me that the Sankranti message was not for me.
Message: "Not for you ma'am".
Me/ma'am: So why am I on the list?
Well, all things being equal I wish them all a nice "HI" in return!
Ah, yes the heart of it all....Mysore, aka: Yoga, Ashtanga (i.e., Krishnamacharya, Pattaabhi Jois, Yogacharya Venkatesha) and now countless other wanna-bees. Right. Too many yoga teachers and too little (or none at all) teaching standards (this is material for another post). Anyway...
In thinking about Mysore it is interesting how much it has changed and is changing all the time. Mysore, Mystore, has changed a lot from my first visit in 1999. It went from an old-charming suburb to pretty much a big city. 10 years ago the Lonely Planet stated there were 100,000 people. Today, I would guess there are at least over 1 million. My hotel buddies always say it is not as bad as Bangalore (yet) in terms of traffic. And I certainly hope it remains that way.
On the note of commericalization, however, believe it or not there is a store in Mysore named My-store. Funny. I find it funny.
Another funny is My-"sore". There was an actor who studied under Pattbai Jois years ago and he jokingly referred to the city as My-sore; making reference to the fact that you cannot leave the city and not be sore if you practise Ashtanga!
That is also funny.
Hearing from my pals in Mysore certainly drums up many memories. Nice to hear from them while it continues to snows here :-0
!883-1930...why are the greats living such short lives...Or is it that their mission is complete and thus they depart?
Kahlil Gibran...the Austrian post said of his greatest book, "The Prophet" that he held onto it for four years before submitting it to his publisher. He said he wanted to be sure, really sure that every word was right. This man, whose literary power is understood to have come from some deep "reservoir of spiritual life," is yet to be surpassed. Each word is truly a masterpiece...each line a gift...and each chapter a book onto itself.
I am personally brought to tears when I read his work. It touches the heart so profoundly; even making the most ignorant and selfish person fall to their knees.
"Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?"
"Too many fragments of the spirit have I scatterd in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a bruden and an ache."
"It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands."
"Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst."
It's always sad when a 'great' person dies. Someone who has contributed a lot to society; affecting how people live, think and get along in life. And to be honest, I feel each time we lose one of these guys or gals there is no one to replace them.
It's not as if they are replaceable but there are very few people with the depth, insight and background of some of these 'greats' today. I suppose it's all relative but when Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, the Ashtanga Guru, passed away this was a loss. The same goes for the more recent departure of Jack LaLanne.
A lot of LaLanne's messages dealt with getting out of your rut, stopping feeling tired, learning to become happier and generally striving for all you can be. He said he worked out like he was running for the Mr. America contest. It is rare to encounter such people who possess such drive and energy. A lot of times people can really be the reverse; wet rags! And probably not even aware of how down they are.
Since his death there have been a lot of reviews on his life. An interesting comment was on how he changed the way people looked at exercise but he did not change their bodies. Apparently there are more obese people in the US than ever before! I hazard to guess that he did not change their bodies because he did not change their minds.
The age-old understanding according to Yogis and Buddhists is that mind controls body. If people are still working on themselves physically then it is only knee-deep (so to speak). Changing your body will ultimately involve changing your mind.
I believe this is 2000 per cent true. However, I don't think many people understand what this actually means. It does not mean that because you have a stocky build or short legs that suddenly you will have the legs of a run-way model. It means you will CHANGE your perception of your body. And this, people, changes your life!
A good example is people who are a bit overweight but look great. Yes, they do and they hide the extra tummy flab really, really well. My ex-partner or boyfriend (or whatever you want to refer to him as) was once upon a time quite overweight. Because of his air of self-confidence he did not appear to be. He looked good.
So there is a living example of what I am talking about!
How do you change your mind? The only way I know that is legal and free is by learning to meditate. No amount of yogasana will ultimately have this same effect. How can I make such a bold statement? Because I have exhausted asanas and still never learned to benefit from meditation. Maybe hard to believe but it was the case back in the early 2000's.
Today, it is popular for people to talk of meditation-in-motion and doing this while in a posture. But without being rude this is not correct. They are 2 different things and they should not be confused.
It is right you can meditate while in motion but it should not be confused with a formal sit-down session of meditation. These are 2 different conversations. It's like talking while walking and not talking while walking. Or better yet, sitting down for a meal with yourself versus standing up and eating.
How to meditate and why? I'll write about this in another post. I will add that many years ago I had a student who encouraged me to PUSH mediation as much as I do the asana practice. However, my experience has been you can lead someone to it but you cannot do it for them. In other words, I can become the great cheer-leader for meditation, but ultimately people have to make these decisions for themselves in understanding the great benefit.
For now, I want to pay homeage to Jack LaLanne; losing a 'great' is always a loss for everyone.
Really, I thought I was. No, just kidding. As the Yoga World continues to spiral out of control this is the latest news...
Actually, I do recall hearing about this gal a few years ago who is now referred to as the YOGA REBEL....It is a whole bunch of hoopla about a former model doing yoga in her bedroom, in her socks and telling students, "it's no big deal if you stretch a little or not."
You can read the New York Times article here entitled, Yoga Rebels. A friend of mine in the US sent it over (good to have informed friends)!
The quote above is what people are saying about her. But that's only on one side of the fence. On the other, the purits are scolding her. I personally find it best not to get too involved in any of these conversations, which are basically going no where. I mean, if she were my daughter I’d probably be cheering her on. If, however, she were my competition I’d probably be envious. If she was my friend or teacher I’d be wanting to get on her good side and if I were a man...well, you get the picture.
In today’s yoga map world being a yoga teacher is also on the 'cool' list! No wonder Eddie Stern, a long time practitioner of Ashtanga-yoga, once wrote it was embarrassing to be a yoga teacher or rather to say you teach yoga.
Nothing against being cool....but has it missed the point (a bit)?
I feel like shouting from a mountain top...
WILL THE REAL YOGA AND ITS TEACHERS PLEASE STAND UP....
Taken in Hardiwar near the Ganges. When I saw this guy (often referred to as a Sadhu) I just had to snap a picture. I love the paradox it provokes. I also love the way it challenges the assumption that Sadhus (those who are seeking a spiritually inclined life) don't have fun. In fact, many of them are recovering drug addicts. I suspect they have had far too much fun and need a bit of balance.
So whose says Sahdus can't have fun or inspect a new toy car? It makes them lovingly human with all their weaknesses, fragilities and desires.
These lines might feel like unhelpful directions to a person looking to be told where to go, how to do it and what to do. But according to the Avadhoot Gita, a non-dual text, and interpreted by Mark Whitwell in Yoga of Heart this is how it really is.
The truth is, "no teaching, no teacher, no taught" is the path of Yoga and many other practices that ultimately are about the inner quest.
Funny, as connected to this esoteric discussion are the timeless questions of why are we here? what is the purpose? and who am I? I write funny because posing these questions to the modern-day student seems to provoke no reaction at all (as if they have been answered already) OR hostility in that this is getting "too deep".
Too bad, because these are the age-old questions that have been asked a thousand times over by the Masters, saints, sages and all those who have gone before in search of their earthly purpose. But in yoga's popularity today, it doesn't seem many people care to ask the questions or to know more. Perhaps it is fair to say that it is a portion of yoga that is losing face temporarily while exercise takes over. People will naturally evolve into the deeper realms just by keeping up the practice. While this is a seductive point it can also be argued that if the deeper meanings of yoga are not addressed one could miss the point for several years of their practice.
I have always found it interesting to learn how Zen Masters sat and meditated for years with no progress. They literally said, "they sat on stuff". It was not until they understood something of themselves and the deeper elements of practice (or were OPEN to receiving it) that they moved forward.
When I first read the line "no teacher, no taught" I was reminded of the book entitled, "If you Meet the Buddha on the Road Kill Him." This book, which gained some noterity in the 80's, sugggests a similiar notion in that someone 'teaching' you is a myth, a lie. No teacher can teach you anything unless you are prepared to walk the path and to test it out. If a teacher tells you this is the way and I will teach it to you, it is akin to meeting someone selling tickets to englighenment. The Buddha and the teacher are not outside; they are within.
It is also similiar to what the poet Gibran said on teaching...
Re: The teacher leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
This is how I see Yoga. This is why I practice. This is also why I teach.
The body is the external means, it is not the end. It is a journey in learning and being reminded of how we keep coming back to the body level only to be fooled again. We do many things with the body, but what do we do with the mind? People like to discuss how body/mind are linked and what you do with the body, you have done with your mind. Or, is it that you just keep repeating the same thing with no higher awareness. Kind of like going through the motions, brushing your teeth and all things that become routine.
Hm, this also sounds a bit like the dilemma of, "Which came first? The chicken or the egg?" According to the texts of yoga, however, the body came second and the mind created it.
These are of course murky waters. For how do we explain why people get into accidents? Why are some people born crippled? Why are some people less intelligent and others brillant? Buddhists say it is karma. And while this may seem a bit trite it is fashionable today to blame your situation on either karma or your parents!
Still, and getting back to being taught or not being taught it is all about taking responsibility. In my own journey, my teachers have not "taught" me anything at all.
They have set out a frame-work and a structure from which it has been up to me to explore. One of the misleading and vast assumptions made is that the teacher's role is to "teach" you. As a teacher, I feel the only way around this is not to enter into the arguement as to how people should see things better or even a particular way. But rather to lead them in a way that brings them to closer to this simple point.
For example, when someone learns to do the headstand pose (shirshasana), who has taught themselves how to get there? It certainly is not me. I only showed what could be done technically to get there...the rest was up to them. The student has done headstand not the teacher. The student has taught themselves based on what the teacher guided them to do.
In part, education can be blamed for the attitude that the teacher will show you the way in 'every-way'. Modern education provides very little importance to self-exploration and inquiry. And as Jack Miller, a professor at U of Toronto has stated in books on a holistic education, "education ignores the inner life."
Starting off with Yoga may begin at the physical level. But the truth is, as well, it does not end there and teachers should make no mistake in reminding their students of this. This never takes away from becoming more flexible, strong and agile, but according to Sage Patanjalim these were secondary not primary goals. They were the by-products of yoga but not the central aim.
Many times, and for fleeting moments, I have discovered and felt the time-limited quality of this body (re: death). We may 'think' we understand this basic idea, but the notion of it actually being this way is something entirely different. A bit scary also since I am not familiar with death yet.
I, myself, started with Yoga as a means for body 'perfection'. But this very desire has, fortunately, lead to an understanding of the way that the body is decaying, subject to injury, prone to decay and never the same each day. And what's more, how deeply rooted the mind is to one's body identity and image.
Ah, body identity...a thousand images competing with each other. Which one is true, which one is real, which one is "me"? Being fat, thin, short, long, lean, tall, stocky, petite, small, large, etc...etc...There are no end to the adverbs.
Once many years ago I had the questions enter my mind:
"If you were not this body and this identity to this body WHO would I be?"
"What choices would have been different?"
2011 Charity of Yoga: Events & Donations
I am proud to support and contribute to the following events below. From karma classes to a donation box these are some of the places where the money raised will be going. Small steps for big reasons.
The Schizophrenia Society of Ontario (SSO) launched its Peace of Minds campaign earlier this year, and on March 5, 2011, they host the sixth annual Yogathon for Schizophrenia to benefit the campaign. The Yoga Way will be participating to the SSO for the week of March 1st-6th by offering a FREE (that's right free) KARMA CLASS.
Save the Date: Sat. March 5th at 2:30 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. Suggested donation of $15-20 for the class. Bring your own mat. Pre-pay or pay when you arrive.
Big Brother and Big Sisters of Toronto: Yoga Classes. During the month of January and February I will be teaching several classes in the GTA for the Go Girls Program. This is a a part of the BB & BS non-profit organization, which will help girls (ages 11-13 years old), with the skills and knowledge of living an active lifestyle, through balanced exercises, breathing and promoting positive self esteem.
Applegrove Community Complex: Serving as a non-profit organization for the Riverdale Community in Toronto. Holding their 5th annual Yoga-thon in 108 sun salutations. Bring a mat, bring a friend and donate what you can! Find out more Applegrove
Assaulated Women's Helpline: Donation Box. For December to mid-February there is a donation box making its home at the school. Leave a $1 or $2 when you come to class. All of the funds will go to maintaining and supporting phone lines in over 150 languages (including for the deaf and blind). What I love about this is that the money supports all the areas that the Ontario government does not provide funding for. Even better is that it is not going to admininstrative costs!
Yoga in Motion 2011. At the school find brouchures for this event to see how you can become part of a very special day. Combine fun with fitness and (bonus, support research for cancer. Did you know...
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Canadian women. In 2008, an estimated 22,400 Canadian women and 170 men were diagnosed with breast cancer and over 5,000 did not survive.
Sadly, I have known and know too many people both friends of my family as well as family members of prior students who have died of cancer. A great event...Learn more at Yoga.
Whenever I read very nice sounding words on love, peace, joy and extending out a big energy vibe to the world and those around us, I get a little bit nervous. It's not because I don't believe in it or feel passionate. It's more to do with the fact that it is easy to get caught up in words and "feel greats", which are in the end short-lived. Something of a Roman candle.
Today I was surfing around and reading what a few other people had to say. As I continued with one blog on what it means to be 'spiritual' (and that's a loaded word anyway) it had a few interesting catch-phrases.
The arguement or rather dialogue was laid-out as a series of questions on what it means to be spiritual? Do you have to join a meditation group? Do you have to repeat mantras? Do you have to become a convert of some practice?
The next line read you don't have to do any of those things. Really?
It is right you don't have to do any of those particular things, but you do have to do something. Gautama Siddhartha (The Buddha) did not become Buddha by sitting on his ass and reading a book on love. By doing something I am referring to practice. What struck me as misleading is the way people suck up well-sounding words, repeat them for themselves and others to hear and read. They fail to really look into the deeper meaning or even question their meaning, and relevancy.
It's not that we have to pick issue with everything we hear and read, but it is good to become a bit more critically minded and discuss rather than blindly accept. In fact, Swami Vivekananda clearly stated many times that you should not believe anything he says. Get out there and find it for yourself.
How's that? By practising.
The fact is practice (and not words) is the only way to understand anything related to spiriutality. It cannot be understood through words alone. And this is precisly the problem with a lot of Western pop-self-help books today. They candy coat the hard work of practice and the continous struggle of it.
We can all talk up a good storm and story (lawyers are too clever on that), but in the end do you practice?
Today there is a huge arena to choose from. Practice could be yogasana, breathing, sitting, meditation, mantras (as was poo-poohed earlier), walking meditation....It really does not matter....It's that you have some kind of framework from which to learn to dance within. And something to practice what the 'word' cheer-leader professes can be skipped.
As the Buddhist Monk Choygam Trungpa said there are 3 basic points to being on the path (or a path):
1) you have a teacher;
2) you have a practice and;
3) you practice.
One of the greatest blind spots that Master Sivananda spoke about was that 'real' spiriutality has to do with burning off your asuric (Sanskrit word) tendencies. These are the negative qualities of being human. He went onto say that one should never believe they are even close to the goal. Because who among us has truly freed themselves from greed, lust, anger, resentment, hate and pride?
It is practice...and practice alone which is the "REAL" teacher....and only practice that will bring one closer to understanding what love is, what repsect is, what a hug means and how we can become kinder people not just meaning well but 'doing' well.
What I understand from "you don't have to do any of that stuff" is that it gets you off the hook and appeases laziness. It's similiar to the advice that the Moscow Art Director Constantin Stanislavsky gave his actors.
He said something to the effect of, "Fear your admirers for they will never tell you the truth about your art." I don't think he meant be afraid literally (there is already way too much fear in the world). I believe he meant one should be on their toes and not give in to well-sounding words.
Keep practising...All the Greats say it.
What you practise is, of course, up to you.
Ya man...Jamaica in 2010...and January 1st, 2011!
Left Toronto December 25th and arrived in Montego Bay and stayed at the Negril Yoga Centre. (I will talk about that experience later, which consisted of the walls shaking and screams from the room above). No one said this was a club for celibacy.
It was definitely surreal sitting at the beach on Christmas day with somewhat swollen ankles from the flight and on TO (Toronto) brain-waves. Still, getting away from it all is unmatched from what we met up with in Jamaica.
I learned to cook the national food (akee), a fruit that is absolutely delicious, rented a scooter and paid a security guard to allow us to have a guided 5-minute walk-about tour on the plantation (a complete scam). I was so furious my corel stoned bracelet got scared and popped off. So not only was I ripped off in Jamaica but I lost precious jewellery.
On the beach there was every attempt on my part to stay secluded while being sold everything and anything from fruits, bowels, shells, grass and drum-sticks. (I just threw in the latter for effect.) It was what I came to refer to as 'Highway Beach Robbery.' One morning I bought an avacado for $200 Jamaican (about $1.90 CDN). At those prices I could have stayed in Canada and shopped at Whole Foods.
So stay tuned for the upcoming posts on:
Akee & Irie
(the national dish & the Jamaican word for 'great')
Morgan Freeman at the Negril Craft Market
the Jamaican Handshake
P.S: It will take some time to get this done. And it will take some time to get un-done.
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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