Thursday, May 28, 2009

Turning In (And not for the night!)

Pratyahar in Sanskrit means the inward turning of attention and is Patanjali's fifth limb of yog(a). If unchecked, the whole life long will be spent with our awareness and five sense habitually going out - out to many things necessary, and a whole lot unnecessary as well. The habit is so ingrained that we, perhaps as a society, maybe as a humanity, have become uncomfortable without something out there to capture our senses, partly because there is in fact nothing "in there" to do that.

Patanjali says that the practice of pratyahar will result in the control of the senses, a phrase I try to avoid using in yoga classes. The senses are likened to that of five wild horses, running high speed to try to get themselves filled with the likable experiences, and running with equal exuberance away from the things they dislike. For example, my two-year-old logically concludes that if one piece of chocolate made his mouth happy, that five pieces of chocolate is going to make him five times as happy. We know from experience, however, that if we fill the senses excessively, a few things happen: We get over-stimulated to the point of anxiety (picture a room full of two-year-olds on five pieces of chocolate), and then that over-stimulation turns to dullness and even sickness. And the kicker is, if we keep eat too much of any food in a sitting, our taste buds stop registering the experience.

Four days at the Winnipeg Folk Fest used to burn out my ears so that by the end of the festival I could as if hear the music, but it wasn't reaching me or giving me any joy. As a meditator I learned, however, when this began to happen, that I went off, found a quiet place to close my eyes and my ears, come back quite ready to absorb and be delighted by more high music culture.

Traditional yogis, before the days of the Buddha, were expected to renounce sense experiences and become ascetics in favour of the experience of God. And still modern day priests are asked to take a vow of celibacy (though that may be changing), and Indian gurus will tell their aspirants to practice brahmacharya, a conservation of energy that includes the practice of celibacy.

But here's the paradox... Unlike the deadening of the senses that comes from too much input, requiring more and more of the sense object to satisfy, the practice of pratyahar, taking our attention away from the beloved objects, makes the senses more alive and sensitive as ever. Open your eyes after even a few moments of meditation, and wow, the colours are more vivid than before. Close your eyes, and wow, the sounds in the atmosphere come into focus. Every practice of inward attending is matched by a resounding bell from our senses that they exist and are delighted by their objects.

The recommendations of teachers and so forth that students practice asceticism have often been accompanied by stories of behind-the-scenes behavior. For example, Indian gurus telling students not to have sex, have often later found to be having sex with everyone. Priests who dedicate their lives to marrying the church have frequently been engaged in sexual abuse and even with children! The repression of the sense instincts serves only to push them into the unconscious, from where they proceed to rule with the very power of the unconscious, and unfortunately, with hugely crappy outcomes, especially in the realm of the spirit and where students give teachers spiritual authority over them. This kind of spiritual abuse is much deeper and damaging than emotional or physical ever can be.

Pratyahar is actually a grand favour to us, if we are in favour of sense experiences. The inward attention is going to give us an accurate picture of how we are doing under the influence of one or many pieces of chocolate.

When the senses register the Space, the very place from where the senses arise and to where they return, they will call that Space nothing. The senses require an object with light, sound, flavour, odour, and feeling. So when they go "inside" to the centre of our being (and every being) we have to train ourselves to realize that when the senses are out of their realm, that we have reached the core of our Self, a fine and healthy resting place for our over-worked senses.

Please let me know what your experience is. Kind cheers to all!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In Loving Memory of Shri K. Pittabhi Jois, Fatherof AshtangaYoga

(Image a super nova tracer from the Hubble website

In 1992 while traveling, working and studying in Nepal and India, I tripped on one of Shri K. Pittabhi Jois' long-time students and Ashtanga teacher, John Scott.  I watched his practice every the morning at the hotel I was staying at on the southern tip of Kerala, and said to myself, never having done yoga, that I would never be doing yoga.  The grace, strength and flow I most certainly saw in John, I most certainly did not see in myself.  

However, the charmed (likely thanks to Guru-ji) city of Mysore kept drawing me back from the coast.  The third time there, I surrendered myself to go and meet John's Guru...just meet.  The next thing I knew, as a brand new beginner, I embarked on what would be a sixty day intensive study with the living father of the Ashtanga lineage.  In those days there were no more than 10 or 12 students in the room at a time, a small studio in his house.  He told me to go to the local jail, a right of passage in itself I felt, to purchase myself a woven yoga mat.  

My first practice was about five minutes of Sun Salute A - that was all my out-of-shape body could take after a decade of adolescent self-abuse.  He spoke very little english so all his instructions were hands on.  My body never forgot the poses into which he would contort my body, and that was long before my body was ready to do it on its own.  In fact, I cried every day for the first month, as I watched the cells let go of memories I had no idea were there, present and past lives contained.  He would prepare to put me in Marychyaasan, for example, and took to saying in his limited english, "now don't cry."  Projecting on to him the emotional difficulties I was having, I felt like he was beating me up every day, squished into that sweaty little room.   

Something like the infinite love of the Guru I could not yet identify kept me showing up day after day.  And I woke up one morning after the first month with a new realization - that perhaps it was me being rough with myself, beating my own self up in the form of Guru.  That day, and from then on, the practice was very different - even, focussed and so much more gentle!  I added a daily meditation practice to my second month in Pittabhi's care, and started to feel like a million dollars.  Thanks to this Light Being, and many other teachers to come as well, my life has unfolded as a yoga teacher, kirtan singer and devotee of Life itself, who can be kind and loving with the practice of yoga.  Thank you Guru-ji for your life so brightly lived.   

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Yoga of a Temper Tantrum

What brings us to our bended knees? Not just in defeat, but hopefully also in love? On the subjects of surrender and devotion, eeshwar praanidhan is art and science in the realm of yoga.

In the practice of swaadhya (see previous blog entry), Patanjali's instruction was to study the Self, the universal life element present in every living being.  In this next thread or sutra, Patanjali is inviting us to deepen the practice, which already seemed so complete, to the level of not just noticing and being curious about the Self, but practicing eeshwar pranidhaan, devotion and surrender, to the Self.

We're not that fond of the idea of surrender, let alone the practice.  And devotion is traditionally found in religious spheres that require a particular membership to be considered valid.  In yoga, often free of sign-up contracts, surrender refers to a state in which we are able to unclench our everything, especially our striving to get control over that which is uncontrollable, i.e., the natural world.  For example, a two-year-old, a wild and uncontrollable natural phenomena.

I recently had the good fortune of coming across a library book called "The Happiest Toddler on the Block," which I highly recommend.  I had been enduring regular tantrums from my newly-two boy, and could barely keep it together myself, and that's after 18 years of daily meditation.  

It didn't seem to matter what I did or said, my son would rage to get out of basic things like diapers, tooth brushings, baths, getting dressed, getting out of the car, going into the car, comings and goings of call kinds.  It was exhausting and demoralizing to us both. 

What I learned then, in the "Happiest Toddler," was that toddlers can hear three only things, and require all three things, while they are in a tantrum and you hope it to end:   

To be heard, to be understood, and to be respected.  

Being heard isn't enough; being heard and understood, still not enough; you have to add (and muster up with full honesty during a gale-force behavior storm) respect.  

I might add, you don't have to give the toddler (or presumably anyone) what they want, or let them get out of doing the thing they don't want to do.  When I'm able to pull off the technique, it works 100% of the time, what a shocker!  I now realize that we likely all need these three things when we lose our marbles, even in our sophisticated, socially acceptable ways.  

This falls perfectly with what Patanjali is saying.  The force of life (is there a bigger example than a two-year-old?), even in a violent state, is not to be hated and fought against, even if that did work.  

What happens when we hate and fight with a natural force?  One thing is we miss the opportunities for resolution, said Tony Krawats from my Thursday yoga class.  If we are consumed by fighting against and being unsatisfied with what’s happening, then we can't see the cracks, or finite, fleeting and passing nature that is inherently there in any weather system.

Another way to say this is: 

Come up with enough awareness in the moment to love what is there unlovable by our standards, and flow with the situation, be with it, if only briefly, as it is. This can bring it to extremely quick, nearly miraculous resolution.  

The flow of life is always our teacher, a deep angle message in the sutras on eeswar praanidhaan  If we can set this as a goal, what is happening, in the moment, will tell us how to be, what to do and where to go - our dharm, in Buddhist terms.  If we fight against what it is trying to teach us, we of course miss the teachings, but also the satisfaction with your every day, every moment to moment life.  Simple and yet incredibly difficult to practice.  Tell me what you think!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sky Kissing the Ground

Our culture has become accustomed to self-reflection, with a small "s" on self.  The practice of swaadhaaya, the study of the Self according to ancient sage, Patanjali, with a large "S," is less popular.  The capital letter denotes a person, place or thing whose nature is divine.  

This week, while I muddled through the challenges of keeping it together as a mother, and not, I threw water melon at my kid.  I meant to throw it, but not at him, and in my madness, it slipped out of my hands and got him.  It was a moment of break-through realization that I need not lose it like that, and that I was caught like a fly in my small "s" self.

We become so obsessed by our small "s" self - body, mind, intellect, ego, that  we feel separate from every other small "s" self, and even from all the events that connect every other one.  We are stuck in a moment that no longer exists.  Perhaps that's because we haven't learned to do swaadhyaa, study the Self that is common to every being, that is alive and fully present in every moment. 

It's a snake eating it's own tail.  

A cosmic loop.

The full moon.

A repetitive joke. 

Infinite flow.

Low lying cloud,

sky kissing the ground.