Is Gratitude a Spiritual Bypass on the Road to Samadhi?

IMG_3246I’m at a four-day yoga therapy conference at a Hyatt Regency in Virginia. I’m sitting on the floor of a large, carpeted ballroom. It’s filled with one hundred beautiful, mostly mid-life women dripping in Lululemon, Om symbols, prayer beads and diaphanous Shakti-printed shawls purchased at the ashram in Buffalo where they attended their last silent retreat. 

Scattered among the women are a few earnestly bearded men dressed in baggy cargo shorts and shapeless, faded tee shirts.

This is my tribe. My people. We are all devoted to our practice. We are all devoted to helping others. But we’re all just a bit too grateful. We use gratitude as a balm to protect us from truths we’d rather have slide off our souls like rain on an oil slicked street. It’s no surprise then, that as I listen to the call and response of platitudes, I begin to fidget. My brain begins to twitch. It’s time for action because if I make no effort to stop the next person from proclaiming their gratitude for an injustice served my head will almost certainly explode. 

I raise my hand. It’s a first for me, speaking up in a crowded room. I’m a happy introvert and chutzpah is not in my nature. But when I see a woman across the room raise her hand, too, I take mine higher and suddenly it’s as if we’re competing to see who’s the most logically evolved. I win. I consider the repercussions for one tiny moment and then open my mouth.

“Gratitude is over-rated.”

Do I really mean that?

imagesThe Naas Bypass, opened in 1983, was the first of its kind in Ireland. Otherwise known as the M7, the highway connects the town Naas in County Kildare to the town of Limerick one hundred and sixty-eight miles to the southwest. In the thirty-four years since the ribbon cutting, new and upgraded bypasses have woven there way across the country. But the Naas Bypass has the honor of being the first road in Ireland to take a driver around rather than through a town. In doing so it relieves congestion in Naas’s town center and slices minutes from the journey.

UnknownIt’s a nice trade-off. We crave speed and ease and so when the goal is to get from Naas to Limerick as fast as possible then the town’s charming character, with its retro Eddie Rocket’s diner and Carphone Warehouse, is not a priority. We can avoid being slowed by the locals on their way to do a weekly shop at Supervalu. We don’t have to dodge truant children chasing runaway pups across the street. We can avoid anything at all that threatens our smooth journey to someplace else and enjoy the open road. The bypass is an alternative that’s both fast and direct.

In the ballroom I avoid the few pairs of eyes turned on me and look toward the instructor for some sign of understanding. She nods vague approval but to be honest I was expecting more. I thought there would be at least a smattering of knowing smiles and a few light chuckles. But the ballroom is silent. It’s not the dead silence of drop-jawed shock. It’s just silence. Silence that in one reckless moment I decide is my responsibility to fill. I attempt a clarification.

“Don’t you think we need to wallow in the muck before we can be grateful? When shit happens to me I need to sit with it. I need to figure out how I feel about it and hang with it until I can step back and stop reacting. If I can do that, then after the dust settles maybe then I can be grateful.” 

I don’t know why I feel that way. I don’t realize until later that anything less than standing in the middle of our discomfort is a spiritual bypass.

We hope that moving from pain to gratitude and bypassing the sticky stuff in the middle puts us on the fast track to samadhi but there are unintended consequences to avoiding suffering. Moving through misfortune directly to gratitude, without stopping to acknowledge and experience our suffering – or without considering the cause of our suffering – leaves an imprint of unresolved issues and open wounds. While the Naas Bypass is efficient and time saving, a spiritual bypass circles around our pain. It distances us from and delays the discovery of our authentic spiritual nature.

Changing the language we use to describe our suffering – whether it’s to a friend, a partner or the family cat – can rewire our brains to think differently about it. Saying “I’m sad” is very different than “I’m feeling sad.” In the former we are the situation. In the latter we are the observer of the situation. Prakriti and purusha. The ‘seen’ and the ‘seer’. This simple shift creates the space for us to sit in the middle of our discomfort without becoming the discomfort.

If our goal in practice is to still our fluctuating thoughts it doesn’t serve us to avoid the unsavory circumstances in which we sometimes find ourselves. Instead of choosing the bypass, let’s choose the slower scenic route.


When Did Yoga Arrive in America? It’s Complicated.

The thing about truth is that it’s not solid. It’s not one thing. It’s filled with light and shadow and nuance and biography. What is a wonderful truth for you may be devastating to the person sitting next to you on the bus. I suppose, too, that we can choose how we feel about a truth. For example:

Donald Trump is president. How do you feel about that truth?

Of course, some truths are absolute. They have no nuance, no foggy shadow blurring the edges. They are clear truths that stand on their own and have not been muddied by the filter of life’s experiences. For example:

Two plus two is equal to four. I’ve only met one person in my life who will debate this arithmetical truth, a fellow student during my graduate studies and a psychotic provocateur whose one mission in life was to irritate the sane, rational minds of our cohort (this is an opinion, not the truth).

I’m pondering the question “what is true?” because there is a great and varied debate about the origins of yoga in the West. Among my friends and fellow teachers, there are some who begin America’s yoga journey with the arrival of BKS Iyengar. And as much as my practice and teaching is informed by Iyengar yoga, I respectfully disagree. 

When I consider the story of yoga in the West I fall into the camp that looks toward the Transcendentalists, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot. In particular, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his buddy Henry David Thoreau, who has been called ‘The First American Yogi’.

But is that true? Did Thoreau know anything about downward dog or sun salutations? Did he begin his day with a brisk Ashtanga Series I or a simple slow flow? No. But Emerson and Thoreau were entranced by ‘Hindooism’ and we’ve been taught that when Thoreau decamped to his pond in 1845 he spent much of his time in deep contemplation; perhaps meditation. He was mindful of his actions, aware of the world around him and in communion with nature. Henry David Thoreau was a student of yoga.

UnknownIt was Vivekananda’s arrival at the World Parliament of Religion, however, that sowed the seeds of yoga across a wider receptive audience. His delivery of twelve off-the-cuff speeches stole the show and made him a sought-after teacher of the yama and niyamas, pranayama and Kundalini. Vivekananda’s yoga was Raja (Royal) Yoga. Raja Yoga is the practice of attaining unity with the mind, body and spirit. In other words, attaining a state of yoga. It differs from Hatha Yoga in that while Hatha intends to still the mind through the body and breath, Raja brings the practitioner to a state of yoga through the control of the mind. Hatha prepares the student of yoga to practice Raja. The practice of asana is not the key element in Raja Yoga as it seems to be in Western Hatha Yoga, and Vivekananda ignored asana. That doesn’t mean the practice of asana isn’t important, but the practice is intended to build strength and flexibility in order to tolerate long hours of sitting in meditation.

I know that I’ve skimmed the surface. Perhaps I’ll continue to explore how we all landed here and that will inspire more writing. Still, what I’ve written here is, for me, the truth of how Yoga came to America. The documented truth of Vivekananda’s impact is enthralling.

Yoga was here, in America, long before Jois or Iyengar or Bikram. But the story of asana, and how it came to America and morphed into a six-billion dollar industry…well…that’s a different story and a different truth. 

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within, by controlling nature. External and internal. Do this either by work or worship or psychic control, or philosophy, by one or more or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”


We All Have Something to Say

IMG_1815Last month I walked past the sandwich board outside of University Avenue’s Lululemon emporium twice every Tuesday and Thursday for two weeks and each time I wanted to kick it. In my wildest moments I envisioned myself carrying a can of spray paint so no one else would walk past, read its message, and have that little moment of feeling less than. What words did I find so offensive?

My mascara runs faster than you do.

I’m guessing the marketing genius who came up with that tag line believed she was being light-hearted, and that it was meant to inspire those women for whom running is a passion. But for the rest of us – the walkers and Sunday bikers, or the woman balancing work, kids and all of life’s unexpected surprises – it was offensive.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe.

Except that it happens all the time. Social media is crowded with words that, on the surface, appear to inspire. But pick at the corner and peel back the shiny veneer and underneath you’ll find a subtext – intended or not – that is mean spirited and ugly.

If your dreams don’t scare you they’re not big enough.

What?

I have dreams that are small enough to hold in my hand. I have bigger dreams, too, and I have dreams that are the size of all the beating hearts in the world and are unlikely to ever come true – but they still make me smile. Dreams that scare? Those are called nightmares.

We need to consider the words we choose, the words we share.

We’re all writers now and it’s a dangerous thing because it’s so easy to stick to the slick surface of a pretty sentence. But words and sentences and the messages we’re trying to send have layered context and connotations.

There’s an essay making the rounds on social media from a young yoga teacher. You can read that essay here. She screams her way through five hundred or so words, lambasting the yoga industrial complex and layering her argument with more than a few expletives. She ends her rant with this:

…It is ALL f***ing yoga! There is no concrete, set in stone, no if ands or buts way to teach or practice yoga…

As I watched the likes and hearts, the shares and affirmative comments pile up I had to wonder what I was missing.

Because I believe she’s wrong.

And she’s wrong in the same way that Lululemon’s sandwich board sign was wrong and that passive aggressive adages reminding me that my dreams should be scary disguised as deep and meaningful philosophy are wrong.

The nuances of teaching are, of course, up to the individual teacher’s personality and whims but the core of yoga and the asana we practice is part of a system that has evolved over thousands of years. If we play music at savasana does it interfere with our practice of concentration and truthfulness? Yes, it does. It transforms savasana – the most difficult of poses – into sleepy relaxation. What is our intention as teachers? As yogis? If our practice has evolved to a state where anything goes – as this yoga teacher’s essay implies – then I want out.

Yoga, at its core, is about self-regulation. It’s about observing, understanding, reacting – all with clarity and honesty. It’s about being aligned with the Yamas and Niyamas.

I know that a dear friend of mine would suggest I’m taking myself too seriously. Taking yoga too seriously. Of course I am.

Yoga is not a witty aphorism. It’s my life.


Saucha

IMG_3064Our bodies are temples. Our positive actions are conduits for positive re-action. Our thought forms are pulses of energy with the potential to open hearts. But if we hope to raise our bodies, actions and thoughts to their highest vibration, a place where the catalyst for healing exists we must practice saucha.

Saucha, our first niyama, is purity and cleanliness.

Much like the Western mind considers asana as the first step on their yoga journey we are drawn toward considering physical cleanliness as we begin our practice of saucha. Yet physical cleanliness is not limited to what we see on the surface. When reflecting on saucha and how it pertains to the physical we must also look at how we keep pure that which is within us. What we choose to put in our body is as critical as what we choose to put on our body. How do we source our food, clothes and cosmetics?

Likewise, how do we manage our environment? Do we choose to create a space that aligns with the principle of saucha? My first request to a class that they stack their props mindfully was met with laughter. The second time, when I explained saucha, they still laughed but began to understand. The third time they smiled. And then I watched as blankets were folded, blocks were stored on shelves and bolsters were lined against the wall. It didn’t matter that in ten minutes another class would undo the effort we made to create a clean space. The energetic flow we manifested through our effort supported our practice.

Is it possible to practice saucha in order to create a clean and nurturing emotional environment? One in which mental impurities are washed away? I believe we can. It takes diligence and for that reason I am relieved that we call our yoga a “practice.” My diligence and discipline fail me more times than I want to admit.

Remembering saucha as we observe the world as well as our actions as we move within this world reminds us that it is possible to reframe our thoughts, our words and our behavior even while maintaining the integrity of the ideas we wish to communicate.


Safety in Moderation? Brahmacarya.

IMG_0200The yamas and niyamas are introduced in the second book of Patanjali’s sutras.  This book, Sādhanapādah, offers instruction as to how we might cultivate the quality of attentiveness in our practice.  Brahmacarya, our fourth of the five yamas, is the virtue of self-restraint.   But its more complicated than that.  This self-restraint asks for celibacy in the single person, fidelity for the married.

But it really couldnt be all about sex, could it?

Judith Hanson Lasater wrote a series of beautiful essays about the yamas and niyamas.  She breaks down the meaning of brahmacharya like this:

The actual definition of the word, she writes, is based on the translation of the syllables of the word.  Brahma comes from the name of the deity Brahma; char means to walk and ya means actively.  Thus brahmacarya means walking with God.

Yet I still find this yama far more complex and nuanced than ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truth-telling) and asteya (non-stealing) – especially when I try to place brahmacarya in a 21st century context.

It’s one thing to be called to celibacy but what about sexually active individuals who are not married yet in a loving, committed relationship?  Are they to be denied a yoga practice?  And by ‘yoga practice’ I mean one that is not limited to asana.  A living, breathing, walking-in-the-world yoga practice.

And assuming Lasater’s deconstruction of the word is correct, what does this mean for individuals who don’t believe in a god?  Is belief in a deity a pre-requisite?

I am in a loving, long-term, committed relationship with an atheist to whom I am not yet married. Once deeply religious I am now agnostic at best.  But our yoga practices are thoughtful and strong.  Is it possible they are fraudulent?

TKV Desikachar’s translation speaks of the vitality and strength we can gain through self-restraint and moderation.  Framed like this, brahmacarya has more resonance for the 21st century yogi.  It becomes something I can happily embrace and apply to my daily practice.  And yet this lightweight acceptance of simple moderation seems a little too easy.  It lacks power of a disciplined approach.

What if the celibacy were asked to practice has less to do with our relationships with friends, lovers, husbands and wives and more to do with unbridled compulsion, selfishness, blind ambition or extremes of emotion?  If I consider these ideas and pay attention to how I walk through life I can become aware of when I am compulsive, selfish, ambitious to the point of unfeeling blindness and over-reactive.  I can pay attention.  I can step back.  I can moderate my behavior. 

I can see my world with clear vision. 

The promise of brahmacarya.

As yoga teachers, a personal practice of brahmacarya energetically influences our students.  Our clear-headed and calm demeanor will instill a sense of trust.  Furthermore, our practice of brahmacarya will encourage the same attitude of restraint and moderation in our students practice.

Most of all, our practice of brahmacarya will conserve our energy.  That means well be able to teach our last class of the day with the same open heart as the first.


Room to Breathe

IMG_2289Room to breathe.

If I took a moment to deconstruct my teaching technique, that’s what it would amount to. My goal is to give you room to breathe. Room to breathe into your body, into your heart, into the space around you.

Because we fill our lives to the brim.

My fundraising project, A Woman’s Face, ended with its book launch on Saturday, the 2nd of November. The next day, there I was: a woman looking at a life that had some space around it. Finally, I had room to breathe. The problem is that space doesn’t always embrace its emptiness. A vacuüm longs to be filled. And when the universe provides our waking, working lives with a bit of room we love nothing more than to set goals and maximize production.

The gift of time and space is like that long, silent gap in the middle of a conversation. It makes some folks uncomfortable.

But not me. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a bit of space and some longed for silence.

And that’s what you’ll find in my classes. Space and silence. Room to breathe. Room to grow.

Because we’re trained to crave achievement, and because achievement implies hard work and pain, my classes might create a sense of unease at first. They might feel too easy. Too gentle. I have been that person who believed that if I didn’t feel a hurt, a pull, a sharp tug – then I wasn’t feeling at all. I have been that person who loved being yanked more deeply into the asana until injury finally forced the futility of the approach. But when we slow down and trust our body and our breath and give ourselves the space to experience the asana we gain a new perspective. Asana practice is about the body. We know that.

But it is also about our Self.

We are meant to move forward in our yoga practice. Our yoga practice. What does that mean to you? Why don’t you give yourself the room you need to find the answer?

I teach Hatha Yoga at Samyama Yoga Center, where the first class is free, on Tuesday and Thursday from 7:00 to 8:15 AM and on Saturday from 4:00 to 5:30. I teach Yin there, too, on Friday afternoon from 1:30 to 2:45.

I teach Hatha Yoga at California Yoga Center, the studio where I began my beloved yoga practice in 1984. My classes at CYC are on Tuesday and Friday from 9:00 to 10:00. I teach Yin there, too, on Monday evenings from 7:30 to 9:00.

 


There’s More than One Road to Travel

The Patanjali mural at Samyama Yoga Center in Palo Alto

The Patanjali mural at Samyama Yoga Center in Palo Alto

I sat in sukhasana for the first time in Mrs. Carey’s gym class. It was 1975 and I was a junior at Northwestern Lehigh High School. I didn’t know it was sukhasana. For that matter, neither did Mrs. Carey. Most of my classmates sat slumped, legs crossed. But I was in sukhasana. I didn’t know it. I could feel it.

It was ten years before I sat in sukhasana again.

It’s wrong to call the path I’ve walked for most of the past three decades a ‘yoga journey‘. If I’m to be truthful, it has been an ‘asana journey‘. Asana. Asana. Asana. For years I collected asanas like some people collect stamps. And why not? It was fun. I was young. And no one taught me any different. They may have tried, but I wasn’t listening.

I knew I was taking the ‘scenic route’. I knew there was more to yoga than asana. I craved something more – I was hungry for it – but I didn’t know where to begin.

I had the texts to prove it: the Gita and Upanishads, Patanjali and the Pradipika. I had books from teachers who brought yoga to the West. For a time I carried Iyengar‘s Light on Yoga with me as if it was the Holy Grail. I was a yoga poser. I was proving that what my teachers back at Northwestern said about me (“she’s a bright girl but she doesn’t apply herself”) was true.

Maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe it’s true that the universe conspires to open your heart only when you’re ready to receive. I’m ready. Patanjali, my heart is open. Teach me.

Chapter 1

Samadhi Pada

1.1 Here begins the authoritative instruction on Yoga.

1.2 Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.