Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Great Debate: Who Owns Yoga?

The yoga world has been all abuzz recently by the Take Back Yoga campaign initiated by the Hindu American Foundation. This foundation has launched a complaint about western-style yoga practices with a campaign of letter-writing to various national journals, drawing attention to its cause and sparking debate. Their belief is simply that yoga needs to be reunited with its Hindu origins. Well, this has gotten the yoga world into a tizzy of American-style defensive posturing, more or less claiming the right of Americans to take yoga and make it their own.
On November 27, the New York Times ran an article titled, "Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga's Soul" documenting the efforts of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). Diving head-first into the comment section, there was everything you can imagine in there, from incredibly ignorant people who clearly have never seen the inside of a yoga studio to those claiming both physical and spiritual benefits from a practice devoid of Hinduism. In a pool of about 50 comments (that is where I drew the line, though there were hundreds), only two really stood out for me:
"The purpose of Hatha yoga is to generate health that will enable individuals to attain spiritual and intellectual insights from practicing the higher forms of yoga as taught in the Upanishads"; and "Yoga uncoupled with a moral construct leads no where, except towards being more physically fit. Hinduism provides that moral construct".
Both sentiments ring true. The main focus of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is to generate health for more advanced spiritual practice, the underlying reason being that a sick or unfit body does not get far on the spiritual path. Those of us who practice ashtanga yoga are well aware that asana without the other limbs is merely "kindergarten", or a foundational practice to teach the mind to pay attention while strengthening and realigning the body. In reality, yoga asana as practiced in the west is not so much a spiritual practice as it is physical therapy. It is kindergarten in that we are not yet concerned with algebraic equations; we simply would like everyone to sit quietly in a circle on the floor without back spasms. The Hindu American Foundation would like Americans to get out of kindergarten and at least enter first grade with a mere acknowledgement of yoga's spiritual link to Hinduism. This is a fair request. Too many yoga studios and teachers have embraced Hindu words and symbols and have marketed them to great economic benefit without any proper education as to what these symbols represent. Take the Om symbol. It is a sacred symbol to the Hindu people and yet it has been marketed to exhaustion in America as a symbol of kindergarten yoga, when in fact it is really part of a greater algebraic equation that very few yoga studios are teaching! It does not represent a yoga studio. Or yoga mats. Or yoga t-shirts. I will never forget B.K.S. Iyengar voicing his concern several years ago about this sacred symbol turning up everywhere among people who barely grasped its significance. This is akin to the calculus professor showing up in the remedial algebra class. If Americans are going to claim relentlessly, as HAF claims they do, that Hinduism is not an important part of American yoga, then Americans must cease and desist with the Hindu symbols and the Sanskrit.
On the other hand, you can probably guess that this is most likely going to be a fruitless exercise on the part of a group that has failed to embrace the American principal of individuality, not to mention the American religion of Capitalism. Americans have always and will always borrow what they like from other cultures and make it their own, especially if there is a profit to be made.
There are indeed many American yoga instructors out there who do embrace Hindu principals and incorporate them into their lessons. But the majority of American yogis hit the studio for a good work-out followed by the feeling of calm centeredness they experience from spending ninety minutes moving, holding poses and paying attention to their breath.
America has always been the Land of Many Churches, and acknowledging and teaching Hindu principals in yoga class will most likely spark some interest in Hinduism. But it will evolve quickly into an American interpretation of Hinduism. Many Americans are practicing Christians, Jews or Muslims and will most likely walk out of a yoga class that spends too much time focusing on Ganesh, unless done skillfully within the frame of their "work-out". What Americans have discovered in yoga is how to pay attention, focus their energy, and by consequence, expand their awareness. This becomes a skill that people then bring with them to church or temple, a means for deepening their own spiritual practice. Those who are atheist develop a spiritual identity unique to themselves and begin to embrace life at a deeper level. It is not the Hinduism that causes this effect, it is the yoga. In fact it is Patanjali's yoga of the Yoga Sutras, an appealing handbook of spiritual enlightenment rejected by most Hindus as unorthodox and embraced by most Americans, atheists in particular, who have simply had it with the wrath of a vengeful God.
We can admit that the yoga practice we have taken and Americanized originates from the Hindu canon, just as we can say that the English language we speak originates in England. The bottom line, though, is this: once it crosses the pond, it takes on a life of its own in a uniquely American fashion.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Practicing Yoga When Life Gets in the Way

I often joke with my fellow yogis that life is always getting in the way of my yoga practice. By this I mean that I have a habit of laying down a plan, a yogic plan, of how I am going to practice from now on, and then my plan gets derailed because of family responsibilities, work, emergencies, etc. Well, of course, that is the yoga. Trying to stay balanced and even-keeled wouldn't be much of a practice if life doesn't throw you a few curve-balls every so often. But how annoying! I want to practice Tapas by sticking to my asana and physical fitness routine, yet here comes a cold; I want to practice Ahimsa by nourishing myself better, yet here come the holidays and the bombardment of treats; I want to practice Pranayama but the phone keeps ringing. You get the picture. How often do we hear people say they would exercise more if they could only find the time? I have counseled many people over the years to make the time because time is not something that can be found. And so the same holds true for yoga practice. There is never a perfect time to practice. Something always wants to get in the way. And that is in fact part of the actual practice: staying present with our intentions regardless of what is currently in the way. This is not always easy - in fact it is usually pretty darn hard and we often fail! But the other part of actual practice is giving up the rigid structures we set up for ourselves in order to be more present with the true moment. My practice for this Fall is not to get down on myself when I fail to stay present with my intentions, but to try to remain conscious and open to the alternative experience. Being conscious of the fact that I have lapsed is half the battle. Staying present with the reason for lapsing, without judgement or resentment, is the other half and that for me is the trickier part!
I long ago gave up trying to meditate. It is either going to happen or it is not. More recently I gave up running a certain distance or pace. I just start running and see what happens. Sometimes I'm fast. Sometimes I end up walking instead. I gave up trying to get through the entire primary series. I get on my mat and see what happens. Sometimes I just sit there! And that is my practice.
It is good to have goals and to work toward them, but it is very liberating to give up the seeking of results sometimes. Usually what happens then is that you open completely to the reality of the moment rather than trying to force your ideals on the moment. Suddenly, you are practicing yoga.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Get your Mind in the Present.....

And the future will take care of itself. This is something my teacher says a lot and I think it comes from Paramahansa Yogananda originally. It is a phrase I come back to a lot and can apply almost daily to my life. We live in a society that spends most of life planning for some kind of glorious future and ruminating over a less than stellar past. Most of us forget to live during this journey. It is fine to save money for your future and to think about what you might like to do or where you might like to go at some later point in your life. It is natural and beneficial to plan ahead sometimes. But when does all this planning get in the way of our actual living today? When we are constantly thinking, believing, that we haven't yet lived, that the good stuff is coming later, that we have not yet arrived. We all do this to some extent and some of us more than others. The bottom line is that we are all headed to the same place - a coffin - so we might as well pay attention to the journey and stop worrying so much about where the journey is taking us!
Last night I watched an interesting documentary about a French con-artist who came to America in the mid-1990's, called himself a Rockefeller, and swindled many people out of millions of dollars! His victims were Hollywood celebrities and socialites from the Hamptons! Go figure! Aren't these the people with access to the savviest financial investors??
There were several things that struck me while viewing this documentary: 1) This Rockefeller spoke poor English with a strong French accent and claimed to be one of the French Rockefellers (has anyone ever heard of the French Rockefellers??); 2) No one ever googled him!; 3)He promised massive returns on investments in very short periods of time (Ponzi, anyone?), and only took investments in cash which was to be turned over in a paper-bag to a shady-looking character, dressed shabbily with no briefcase or other trappings of the "business-man". These cash hand-overs ranged from $25,000 to $500,000 at a pop!; 4) This French Rockefeller paid for everything in cash, rang up restaurant and bar tabs in the tens of thousands in one night, and partied like a rock star. Even the Kennedy's are not that ostentatious! Old-Money does not party like a rock star. That is for the Newbies.
What really struck me about all these victims was how desperately they wanted to ally themselves with a famous name and get rich quick. All of these people were already fairly well-off, upper middle class people. They were living in places like Hollywood and the Hamptons, yet somehow their current lives didn't measure up; they were hanging on to some future notion of living like a millionnaire and partying with the Rockefellers! That future was never really there because it was never anything more than a delusion. The best part of this story is that the con-man himself believes these people got what they deserved by being greedy and status-oriented! He has no regrets! (He did violate a whole lot of Yamas, though!)
I'd like to think that most of us are not this silly or desperate. However, we all give in to social pressures to plan, plan, plan and climb, climb, climb. A little planning is good, too much is not. If you inadvertantly climb, so be it, but be prepared to fall - it does happen. Get your mind in the present and the future will take care of itself is a powerful reminder that if we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, and want to be doing today, then tomorrow will unfold just as it is meant to do. It sounds simple enough intellectually, but put into practice it gets a little tough. Why is this? Because we all suffer from fear of the unknown. We don't trust that tomorrow will unfold as it is supposed to if we don't feel completely in control of it. Giving up the delusional control over a future we really have very little control over is the hardest part. Save your money. Get an education. Invest in a house. Have children. But take part in these moments without worrying too much how things will turn out later. Go with the flow and stop worrying. That is the key. Worrying is a waste of energy: you cannot control the future; you cannot control what your kids will be when they grow up; you cannot control the security of your life-savings or the value of your home down the road; you cannot control the security of your job. Just roll with the punches in the present and the future will take care of itself! Like all things yogic, it is easier said than done. But do the practice now so you can handle the upsets later! Life does take care of itself and things really do have a way of working out in the long run. The more we practice facing fear and abolishing worry, the better we will be able to handle ourselves when Life throws us a doozy. Start practicing now.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Celebrate Impermanence

My yoga teacher, Beryl Bender Birch, has coined the term, "celebrate impermanence". She has been using this term now for several years and basically it means: be here now, stay present, nothing lasts forever so don't long for the past or yearn for the future. Get your head in the here and the now. A few years ago she had a bunch of t-shirts printed up that stated simply and in relatively small print: Celebrate Impermanence. These are beloved t-shirts for those of us lucky enough to have one. And as you might expect, when they ran out, they ran out; celebrate impermanence. No this is not going to be an entry about how much I miss my old t-shirt; I still have mine. It is a term that has been on my mind lately, though. We always need to remember it and Beryl makes a habit of reminding us. Usually, when things are going well in our lives, it is very easy to understand "celebrate impermanence", at least intellectually. We think, "cool, yeah, I get it". By it is a much harder concept to put into practice.
My yearly 7-day retreat with Beryl is coming up, and I am grateful for another 7 days of truly doing the work of celebrating impermanence. This spring I lost my childhood friend to cancer; four bantam chicks, seven quail and one duck to predators; I nearly sheared off my thumb in the garden; and yesterday I had to give away my sole surviving duck, Gary, to a farmer who had more ducks for him to hang out with.
These are the kinds of things that make us think, "how on earth am I supposed to celebrate this?? This is when the real work begins. I celebrated my friend's passing with photos, a visit to her family and a FaceBook memorial page. I also planted a small rose bush in her memory. And of course, I cried. Crying sometimes feels like such a luxury! Our lives get busy and we feel we need to "keep ourselves together". Looking through old photos, visiting with her grieving family and planting something alive into the earth in her memory left me with a feeling of celebrating her life. How then to celebrate the impermanence of life? Being present with these little rituals I set for myself allowed me to cry and grieve, a very important part of letting go. The grieving was the celebration. What happens to us if we don't grieve? We get angry, we may enter a state of denial, we might even put something out of our mind, banish it altogether. This is a recipe for disaster: psychological and physical ailments will surely follow. Grieving allows us to recognize our own impermanence as well as that of other loved ones. It can actually help us stay present in the moment of our loss and with what we cherish.
Well, losing a few birds after that was no big deal. I mean, they're birds! We raised them from day-old chicks and we were sad to have lost them, but we did know that predators are definitely a risk when raising a backyard flock. We could celebrate having raised them, but how to celebrate their impermanence? This is when you really need to start thinking about the cycle of life, about how every living thing on earth is basically food for some other living thing! Most of the time we don't like to think about it, because then we start wondering who's is going to eat us! I did lose some sweet little birds, but now I have some well fed and healthy raccoons and fishers in my backyard! Dammit. Our sadness and grief are all part of that cycle, though. We can mourn a death one instant and rejoice at a birth the next. Staying present allows us to do both fully. We can't truly rejoice if we never allow ourselves to mourn. Mourning is a celebration of what we have lost; rejoicing is a celebration of what we have gained. Life involves both.
We can get good at this, with practice. Mourning, rejoicing, staying present. And then life throws you a curve ball.
How delighted I was to finally have a raised-bed for my vegetable patch this year- no more grass creeping in, much better soil, a few cute stepping-stones I put in around the perimeter. All it needed was a good sturdy fence, you know, to keep the predators out. How proud and relieved my husband was going to be to find I had done the fencing all by myself! I had a heavy mallet, a tape-measure and all my metal stakes. I was ready. The first stake went in beautifully. I measured carefully for the next one and drove it into the ground, only to find it clanking up against a rock. I moved it slightly and pounded again; more rock. I moved it once more, checking my measurements, and started to pound. And pound. I choked up on that mallet to give it one more bang and..... pain and blood, lots of it! Oh, my gosh, even more! The top of my thumb had been torn of, just above the cuticle! I ran up the steep hill toward the house and I could feel blood splashing down on my legs. And splashing. And splashing. All from such a tiny little digit! This was definitely an Emergency Room moment! After washing it, nearly fainting, and then drinking some water, it was off to the ER for me (so much for impressing my husband - he drove).
A few hours, a few stitches, and one tetanus shot later, I found myself at home wondering, how the heck did that happen? I realized I had not actually hammered my thumb but rather tore it from the top of the metal stake! Not exactly a moment of aware presence! It was only then that I noticed I was still wearing my grungy gardening clothes, now quite blood-stained. I looked down to notice just exactly which t-shirt I was wearing that day: Celebrate Impermanence.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stealing Wreaks Havoc with your Karma

It has been a while since I have updated this blog. Lots going on, life and work, the death of a friend, and an upcoming trip abroad. I have been trying to write about dharana, or concentration for a while now, and interestingly, I have not been able to concentrate!
Today I had some time to spare and went to a local coffee shop for my favorite double breve. I sat outdoors at one of the cafe's tables and was right next to a book display from the book store next door. There was a sign there that read:"Please Pay Upstairs. Remember that Stealing Wreaks Havoc with your Karma". This really made me laugh and I thought it was a great deterrent to anyone thinking they might just take a book and keep on walking. It's a little bit like, "God is Watching", which frankly, despite one's religious views, is probably a better deterrent than "Violators will be Prosecuted".
Once the caffeine kicked in, my mind was off and running with asteya: non-stealing. (If I laid off the caffeine I might have a better chance at getting around to writing something interesting about dharana). I began to think about whether "borrowing" one of those books while sitting there sipping my coffee might in fact be a form of stealing itself. After all, we've all seen people at Border's making themselves comfy in one of those arm chairs while reading an entire book only to put it back on the shelf when done. The book I was eying did not belong to the cafe. It belonged to the used-book store next door. But the cafe's tables were right next to the book display. Oh, the temptation! I could reason that, of course there is no harm done in just taking that book down and reading the jacket cover, and maybe the first page or two. However, if everyone did that, how long before someone spills their coffee on one of those books? They are already devalued as "used" books. If we spill, we devalue the book further, in effect stealing from the merchant. My mind really does get going on caffeine. In fact, I may be stuck on pratyahara forever.
Well, I did what I thought would not leave me with "bad" karma. I stood up, read the jacket cover, put the book back on the shelf and then sat back down to finish my coffee. And guess what? No regrets!
I was still buzzed with caffeine, though, so my mind jumped on over to how different people would answer the question: is it a form of stealing to sit and read one of these books while being a customer of only the cafe? If I had had more time and more guts, it would have been fun to do a street survey, asking everyone who passed by. Some people, I am sure, would think it a perfectly harmless act, while others might not. This then would be a good example of the chaos of democracy. Uh-oh. The brain was off and running with that one.
The idea of karma is that every action is linked inextricably to another. If we do not put enough thought into our actions we may suffer undesirable outcomes. There will be an outcome and we do not always have control over it, but mindfulness goes a long way toward avoiding unnecessary suffering. The karmic effect of the caffeine was a hyperactive mind. However, that mind has gotten good over the years at following a train of thought for a long distance. One might even argue that a gentle state of pratyahara is reached when the stealing issue is discussed internally at the expense of all other subjects. Alright, that may be pushing it a bit, but it was a beautifully written sentence, was it not? Withdrawing all other issues from the table to concentrate on non-stealing. At least that is how my mind is working today!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Living and Dying

I seem to have reached the stage of life where people dear to me are starting to die. This is part of the natural cycle of life, yet knowing that does not make it any easier. My childhood friend is dying of cancer. She is forty-three years old. I have spent many weeks thinking about her, our history together and about losing her. I have also wondered how I would handle such a death-sentence myself.
Two years ago, both my father and my aunt were dying of cancer. They had radically different approaches to dying. My father spent his final days in denial and my aunt spent her final days partying. I distinctly remember feeling grateful for the experience of watching these two different ways of dealing with death. I hoped that if ever I faced a similar situation, I would have the courage to live out my final days as well as my aunt did.
Cancer can be seen as cruel, a long, drawn-out death sentence that forces us to think about our own death daily for weeks or months. Or it can be a gift: I remember reading a post-mortem account of a woman who had written at the end of her life that the best days of her life were her last days. She did not miss a minute of her final weeks and months, choosing to stay present and enjoy family and friends to the very end.
I spoke to my friend's sister the other day to find out how things were going and she said to me, "She's really not handling this well at all. But then again, how can she be expected to handle it? How would we handle it?" The question has been on my mind ever since. How can we be expected to make the most of our last days, knowing they are indeed our last days?
Reading Physics of the Soul by Amit Goswami I am attempting to familiarize myself with the physics of dying as well as the spiritual aspect. This book is no light read, but it is fascinating nonetheless. The author speak of the Creativity of Dying and that in order to make dying a less frightening experience we must prepare ourselves for the process of both struggle and surrender. If you have ever witnessed the dying process you will immediately know this process: from denial to anger to management to surrender. For even those who struggle the most mentally, the body slowly gives up the struggle to survive and the mind soon follows by disconnecting from the vital body. An individual can continue to live for several days to weeks in this state, but it is a state of mentally withdrawing from the action of life and the busyness of the mind. It is generally a very peaceful and even enlightened state. The yogis refer to it as the highest samadhi. But as in any other state of samadhi, it is going to require abandonment of the ego. This is where preparation comes in handy. We generally cannot reach a state of samadhi without first preparing: working the limbs, so to speak. So the creativity of dying requires a similar inquiry, examination, and the eventual work of detaching from the ego-centered form of existence.
What I come away from this reading with is that the more we live our lives consciously, with greater and greater awareness, the more prepared we will be for the process of dying creatively. In other words, the fear of death is lessened when our lives are lived with awareness. We've all heard the phrase, "Live Each Day as if it Were Your Last". This is the First Limb of Dying Creatively.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Yoga Cults

It is very easy for people to take their spiritual path and get a bit carried away with it. By that I mean preaching to others how they should live, eat, sleep, worship, etc. As Ashtangis, we are reminded that ours is an individual journey. We can learn from yoga teachers and gurus, but ultimately we must decide what is right for us as individuals according to our means and to our discoveries through the work of Yama and Niyama.
I came across a truly appalling story written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in the February 18 issue of Rolling Stone magazine about a yoga cult called Dahn Yoga. If you are a Dahn practitioner, be warned that what you are practicing is not yoga and doesn't even vaguely resemble yoga. What Dahn Yoga is, in fact, is a scam run by a middle-aged Korean man named Seung Heun Lee who has managed to con a great many college students into thinking they can buy their way to enlightenment by giving all their money to his organization (Dahn Yoga) and relentless fund-raising. These students are drawn in gently by tai-chi and yoga-like exercises and are gradually driven to maxing out their credit cards in trying to make their weekly fund-raising quotas. They are then chided and driven toward damaging and humiliating acts such as: excessive exercise; holding their breath under water until their lungs strain and then jumping out to sing songs of praise to their Korean Master; drinking toilet-water; rubbing their faces in dirt; and even being sexually molested by the Master himself. In the end, those who make it that far are coerced into giving up all contact with family and friends and dedicating their lives exclusively to Dahn Yoga. Meanwhile, the Master himself is basking in his glory, jet-setting around the world, owning multi-million-dollar properties and canoodling with lovely young ladies. All, of course, paid for by the money he has stolen from these naive young people and their relentless fund-raising activities.
The former Dahn members that Ms. Erdely interviewed for her article all had plenty of moments where they felt ridiculous and seriously questioned what they were doing. Yet they were somehow always convinced that their doubts were a sign of weakness and that they just had to try harder. These doubts were a very disturbing aspect of this article; everyone seemed to have them and yet no one ever heeded them. Doubts are never a sign of weakness; they are your inner voice warning you that something is not right and should always be heeded. Yoga is not boot camp - you do not need to "try harder". Yoga does not entail acts of self-humiliation. Yoga does not require payments of money if no service is being rendered. And yoga does not involve worshiping any individual.
More disturbing still was the fact that even two years after getting out of this cult, the former members were still psychologically disturbed and confused about how to get on with their lives. The only enlightenment any of these former members seemed to receive from this experience was that they had been scammed and had wasted a few precious years of their lives. That is not the kind of yoga we want to be practicing.
Living a yogic life means checking in daily with those doubts and your values. Please do not let anyone, under any guise of yoga, tell you what you need to do to be enlightened.