Sunday, 19 January 2014

Yoga Ego and Why Not to Ride It

"So funny. This is so not in your repertoire", or why I like getting my ass kicked

Everyone wants to be a guru these days. You want to be a guru, I want to be a guru. The woman on the second floor that went to a chakra balancing and primal scream seminar in forests of Sweden has something to say. So she fancies herself a guru too.

We live in this interesting multimedial world. The possibilities are so many that one is almost left feeling that something is wrong with him-/ herself if every wave that comes up isn't mounted and ridden like you're a pro. The world of yoga practice is no exception. There are schools, courses, festivals and seminars everywhere. There are workshops and styles and teachers of many kinds. I suppose that all roads still lead to Rome. Or was it Mysore?

I started practicing many years ago and I switch modes between feeling like a know-how egomaniac and insecurities about why I can't balance on the tip of my nose in the umpteenth series of Ashtanga vinyasa. I guess egomania and insecurities are tied in.

This is why I find that going to a teacher who deconstructs my notions and gets me to do pure "I will take whatever comes"- kind of practice extremely healthy for my path toward yoga. I try to call my practice exactly this: "a practice", instead of calling it yoga. I don't know what yoga is. Yoga is apparently a cessation of fluctuations of the mind. I haven't been there. I get small glimpses from time to time and I hope there will be more. I go to my practice. I can't go to yoga. A few more rebirths, and maybe then yoga will be a bit clearer for my simple human mind.

Back to the teacher I met in India in 2013. I went with a group of friends, all fellow practitioners on different levels. Some have practiced for many years and others for a few months. Being the one amongst them who practiced for 14+ years, I sort of felt I should have all the answers if anybody should wonder about anything. I should have this shit down. Yoga ego on the prowl.

And then we arrived to the shala. This humble, attentive teacher received us, let us do our own thing the first day, and I guess she observed.

Day two, she started adjusting and stiring our asana pots. She saw aspects of my movement patterns nobody else I have practiced with noticed or commented upon, as far as I know. I have a relatively broad range of movement, so my flexibility is often focused on. This teacher showed me that there are parts of my body where there is not much happening at all. We only had two weeks with her, so she went straight for the jugular. She led me into places where there was tightness and lack of dynamic energy that explained to me how the way I use my shoulder blades affects my udhyanabandha (it goes bye bye when I open my chest, unless I remember to do certain things). I was asked to roll my upper arms inward while doing a whole bunch of asanas, and my body didn't get it at first. "Roll them inward???", I thought. "So, funny! This is so not in your repertoire." she said once. Oh my! New stuff. New neural patterns and pathways being born. I fell, I shook, I resorted to straps and *GASP!* blocks to stabilize positions I though I was great at. Now I learned that I used my back where I though I was using my legs and so on. Pure student mode. So healthy! From arriving to the shala and thinking I was going to deliver this wonderful performance of my floaty intermediate series, I actually got to learn and to listen and to be humble. There was nothing to take pictures of to put on Facebook, as I was in training, being corrected, commented on and adjusted, so that I could be strong, healthy and calm. It was even a little bit scary going to practice every morning. I thought "what is coming today?". :-) Yoga ego. There came a point where I released myself to the teacher. Complete trust. The woman kicked my ass. Kicked it hard, in her calm, alignment conscious way. Surrendering to the teacher, there was not much room for ego to inhabit. No poetic yoga posts on Facebook. Just our tired faces and messy hair, and talk about how much we didn't know and how much there is yet to learn. I love this. That, for me is practice. Nothing to hang on the wall, nothing to filter on your Instagram. Because I am under training and it won't look especially interesting, unless the viewers see some beauty in my imperfection.

I love getting my ass kicked, because safe zones make my head swell. I start thinking that I have an answer to everything. In actuality, I have an answer to almost nothing. I might have a suggestion. I need a good beating, a teacher who leads me out of my repertoire. I have learned to float with what I am asked to do and ask for help when I am not sure where to go.

Yoga, meditation techniques, interpretations of ancient teachings and the new, the search for self-realization and freedom of mind and spirit have now become things accessible to anyone to ponder on, and express opinions about. You can enroll on a teacher training, we can buy books and the whole world is on the internet. Here's my blog, and who am I? We stumble upon websites of people who have practiced for a few years and because there is a website, they can be an authority on yoga. Perhaps some are. For most of us, it is that we crave to know the truth and it comforts us to think that we do. Attachment to that which is attained by non-attachment, if we are to trust the scriptures. Like Arjuna at the battlefield, we need to charge at our own perception of what we know to be true, blast it off and see what is there when the smoke has cleared.

In that small shala in India, a teacher shot a cannon at my practice, took apart my skills and gave me new toys to play with. I arrived, not knowing what was coming, only knowing that I didn't know anything, so I hoped to learn. My own silly Yoga-Teacher-ego was left on the stairs, together with my flip-flops. I was so tired after practice that I forgot to take it back with me. This is why a good beating is fantastic for my practice and for who I am as a person. I (as many of you reading this, maybe) make all things personal, so my mastery of what I think I am a master of becomes personal. I OWN it. Then something happens, and a quiet woman in a shala in Vagator, or a skinny man at a yoga school in Oslo, show me that I don't own anything. The practice is not mine. It is taught to us all, same for us all. I wait for the smoke to clear and I am perhaps going to see where I am at. For this to happen, I need to be taken to a place in the practice where I have no idea where I am going, and I need to be led. My head can't be up my ass. I need to trust that although I have no idea, the one leading me does. I need to be exhausted. That is when my yoga ego doesn't draw energy from anything and what I learn lands on a humble ground and actually seeps somewhat in. "Somewhat" because I am thick headed and this needs to be repeated.

I recently left an Ashtanga Yoga discussion group I was a member of, on a social networking website. I left it because ordinary people, like me, hoping to have some understanding were battling about what yoga is and what true teachings were and which teachers were worthy and which not. I left it because it gave me an urge to convince people that my opinions were the truth. I felt compelled to label people as stupid because what they thought about yoga was not what I thought it to be. This cyber home of pseudo wisdom, fanned the flames of my ego, as if I don't get enough of that from before. I learn best when I accept that I don't know much and that my teachers are my teachers and I am here to practice. The less of this attitude I have, the further from my comfort zone, I need to go. "This is so not on your repertoire" is where I need to be. More sweat and less cerebral spin-doctor-action, I hope will be my mantra for the new year.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

My Love Letter to the Primary Series

Like coming home to a home cooked meal.

As I am writing this, I am in India, to practice with an exciting teacher that I am training with for the first time. A lot of new insights, and an amount of assist-attention I haven't received for many years. My fellow practicioners agree: the teacher is kick-ass. She is tweaking my intermediate series and the process is INTENSE. I am sore and actually happily nap in the middle of the day, something I usually never do. Of course, the blazing Sun of India does do its part too. The beatings I receive in the shala every morning make me hunger for that one day this week when I will be reunited, for a day, with my first love - the primary series. This is my love letter to Primary.

I honestly love the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga. It's the one we learn first and, really, for some, it is gives enough to work on your whole life. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is sometimes quoted as saying that the primary series is for everyone, intermediate is for teachers and the series that come from then on are for demonstrations. It is also called Yoga Chikitsa, meaning yoga therapy, and this is exactly what it is: healing, soothing when the intensity subsides,and both physically and mentally detoxifying.

I have always felt that the primary series, also referred to as the first series, is a little bit like a chiropractor of the Ashtanga system. In the beginning, it kind of took me apart and I felt like I was put together anew after that. Because it is the first of six series in the Ashtanga system, many of us do not appreciate Primary for the phenomenal vehicle of healing that it is. It is said to perfect the body for both your general life and for the subsequent series that might (or might not) be taught to you. When you are taught by a good teacher, you will be given an opportunity to work your entire body. Not much is left untouched and unworked once you are done practicing the sequence. Once forward-bending stretches give way to hip-openers, lifts and leaps that come to your door after Navasana, the primary series will present you with positions that will challenge you for years and years (forever?), even after you start practicing latter series. In one of her blogposts, Kino MacGregor, one of the most staggeringly advanced young certified teachers, wrote that practicing led first series with Sharath Jois, every day for almost a week, made her sore and challenged her strength. And she practices the Advanced B, the so called 4th series.

For me, Primary is what I return to when nothing else works. When I come to a new place, either because I travel, or because something has temporarily destabilised the structure of my regular life, I practice the primary series. In its sweaty, spine-elongating, hip-soothing, earthy, grounding manner, it is - and you will forgive me for resorting to a cliché, like coming home, no matter where I am. After injuries, the few I have had, a steady, careful practice of the first series is what got me back to being able to practice as if nothing had happened. It is very therapeutic, more so than any other physical training discipline I know of.

Maybe even more so than the series that follow it, Primary is such a great example of perfect sequencing. If you follow the sequence of positions with patience and trust, under the guidance of a good teacher, I believe that you can work your way back from anything. The Sun Salutation A and B alone are enough for many. If badly injured or lethargic, you may want to do only these, and they will start to fire up your flames until you one day find yourself ready for more. Then there is the standing sequence, giving strength to your legs, teaching you to pull in the thigh bone into your hip, while pushing your foot into the ground. Learn this and you will be able to transfer the technique into many other postures, and use strong legs and bandhas in order to relax your back and lengthen your spine. The standing positions will also start to gently open your hips and chest, rotate your spine and in some positions, like padahastasana and prasaritta padothanasana, even give you a sense of how to use your core and breath in order to balance while inverted. The so called sitting postures, will first lengthen your spine and backs of your legs, then start opening your chest and rotating you, before plunging into your core to strengthen it, open your hips even further, teach you how to move your weight in order to bend your body backwards in a way that heals and strengthens your body. And so on. The way I see it, it is all there. No matter what else you do in your practice, this is what we return to when other stuff stops working. The therapy series indeed.

I have always been a fan of being good at the fundamentals of what I do. That way, if something that comes later on needs to be tweaked or re-assessed, I will always have the starting point to look back to and reconsider. This is because, in my heart of hearts, I am drawn to being sloppy. So, I hammer in the basics of what I do, and that way, I am never without a good point of reference. This is a good advice for all ashtangis. You will be uncertain of things, you will feel lost and you will doubt. The primary series is so specific and its fires are soothing. If anything else in the Ashtanga method, which is seemingly designed to challenge us and whip up all the primordial crap we carry around,throws you off, knowing your first series and trusting it, will lead you to the path you need to be on. I honestly think this applies no matter which level you practice on. I have seen amazing, advanced teachers hurt, and I have seen how they apply this almost magical method to heal. One of the biggest mistakes a practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga can do is underestimate this place we all start at and look down on it. If you don't get its power, its purpose and the lessons of patience, respect, breath and alignment, you will be reminded. Sooner or later, you will need to loop back and learn the power of the first step. Many of us, perhaps all, have been there. Real practitioners of this method don't care which series you practice. We all come from the same root and when we know it, we see that the starting point sets you up for all that comes after.

So, Primary, my true love, you have been there when I couldn't tie my shoes because my body felt broken. You lifted me from the depths of physical and spiritual unfitness, and led me into the whirls of flaming discipline and an awareness of the comedies of my restless mind. When I get stupid and think all other doors are closed, I know that yours isn't. That is how I remember that the aren't any doors to be closed. First series. I love to love you. Baby.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Is Asana Madness Messing Up Your Practice?

I still remember the first Ashtanga Yoga workshop I ever went to. It was year 2000 or 2001 or so. Alexander Medin, who is now my teacher, arrived to Oslo from London. He was one of few certified teachers in Europe, and I was both in awe and nervous. This was the time when my ego was super tied up to my mastery of asana (the way I defined mastery of asana those days), and I knew the workshop was going to draw quite a few advanced practitioners. I fancied myself to be one, of course. I had practiced for about a year and I progressed pretty quickly. My teacher at that time had already pushed me through most of the intermediate series. Basically, I was like a low frequency appliance plugged into high frequency electricity. Long story short, the workshop was ferocious. I was exhausted, mentally and physically. At the time, I thought this was because Alexander was such a tough teacher. I actually didn't dare sign up for his next workshop when he came to Oslo, where I live, the year after.

Why I am writing about this, in an article about how asana can mess up one's practice? Because years after the experience I described above, I now understand that the horror of the workshop had little to do with how tough the teacher was. What it had a lot (everything!) to do with, was the fact that I hurled myself into the kind of practice I wasn't ready for. I was still struggling with aspects of the primary series that should be mastered before going further. Bandha was still a vague concept for me. Bhujapidhasana was a huge struggle. Drop-backs seemed unattainable. I hated putting my chin on my shin in utthita hasta padanghustasana (when I practiced without anyone looking, I mostly omitted this movement, as it demanded more from my strength and sense of balance than I could be bothered to exert). But most of all, there was this: deep inside, yoga was just gymnastics for me. I wanted to do all this stuff so that people would admire me more, I wanted the wow's, the oooh's and the aaaah's. So I could love myself more because others liked me more. I had a teacher who wanted the best for me and who was very ambitious on my behalf. I called this "yoga". What it really was, I don't know. It wasn't yoga.

Here's the tricky part: "Patanjali's Yoga Sutras" states that yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of the mind. We are also supposed to be cleansed through the challenge of the system and through flames of wholesome discipline. The practice is a tool we use to break out of the bonds of conditioned existence. Challenges we face through asana practice teach us that defining what's possible or not is none of our business. We're supposed to follow the method and the fruits will come. True knowledge comes, in a sense, through not taking our reality on face value, but letting the practice reveal what is real. Applied to asana practice, this might mean that difficulties and apparent impossibilities are meant to be met with the same attitude with which we would meet the things we find easy: Steady, regular practice according to the Ashtanga method. Doing this while not getting caught up into ambitiously chasing asana and not constantly spewing the pictures of ourselves balancing on an eyelash on Instagram demands a lot on our poor, overexposed egos. In Bhaghavad Gita, Krishna asks Arjuna to surge into battle and fullfill his dharma. For Arjuna, this meant a complete surrender to a reality he doesn`t yet see, masked behind a situation seemingly extremely opposite to what his sense of moral dictated.

Now, let`s pull all this esoterism back to the yoga mat: Say, I`m on my mat, with my laptop in front of it, Kino MacGregor`s Third Series - dvd on. Sthira Bhaga ftw!And I want this. I want that leg behind my head, as I recline back, my other leg straight and strong, glued to the floor. Look at me - Sthira sukham asanam incarnate!So, I do one position, because I can, then I skip three because I can`t get into them, but then I do the one after it. As fun as experimenting with asana might be, I ask myself whether yoga has left the building and circus has come to town instead. Sooner or later (but mostly sooner), every Ashtanga Yoga practitioner will face something like this.If you have practiced for a little while, you will be tempted and try to do stuff that is beyond where you really are or should be. You will attempt stuff your teacher wouldn't let you do, as it's energetically and physically beyond where your truth currently is. And these days, you will feel a pull to put this on your Facebook wall.

I have so been here. Years before I started practicing intermediate series of Ashtanga Yoga, I performed a very back-bendy version of pincha mayurasana (I'm sure the vertebrae in my lower back were dialing the emergency room number, crying on the phone) and I took a photo of myself. I edited out the laundry drying behind me and put the picture up on the internet. It was a cute picture. Was it yoga? No. It was me doing gymnastics and selling it off as yoga. Which is fine, as long as we don't mix things up. This had nothing to do with me being present and definitely nothing to do with cessation of fluctuations of my mind. Au contraire. Look away, Patanjali. My mind was racing mad and I wanted people to admire my physical prowess.

So, if I have learned anything through my years of yogic practice, trials and tribulations, it might be this: as much as the practice shouldn't be taken so seriously that we never attempt to bite more than we can chew, relaxing into the practice is a prerequisite if I am not to turn into a conceited freak. The lesson: relax and breathe and don't think too much. Today, every time I find a position frightening or tensed up, I get my Bhaghavad Gita on; I breathe and do what I can. There's the enemy army, so Arjuna get yourself together, boy. I used to not be too crazy about back bending in the intermediate series. Until I started doing the movement with my mind in a sort of "fuck it, let's go" - mode, under caring eyes of my teachers. Kapotasana and I are BFF's today. When my hands get to my heels, my heels want to make them a coffee. My experience is that you achieve this through relaxing into a regular practice, with a good teacher. Being overly ambitious about asana is tension. Wanting to be where you're not is tension. Tension is the opposite of presence. You get where you want to be by doing what you can today and respecting it. And then you kind of flow into things. This is when we find that we genuinely come to be able to do all the cool stuff without the freakishness of grasping what's not ours to grasp.

The concept of avidya in yoga, the blind ignorance of not seeing the reality the way it is, helps us here. Avidya is beyond ignorance. It is filtering how we perceive the world and ourselves through our ego. The truth we think that we live is a lie. Ashtanga is tough and it will show you that the way you perceive asana can feed into this blind delusion. You will think that mastery is something else than being present in anything that you do. You will think that mastery is about what your kurmasana looks like. If you get there, you will be pushed and pushed and pushed until something happens - an injury, a word from someone, or just the passing of time - and the bubble will burst. Unless you decide that you trust the practice before you go bananas and before there is a bubble.

A major part of the human experience is that, more often than not, we feel inadequate, somehow not good enough, somehow lacking. A major part of what our yoga practice can do for us, is putting this humanity under a magnifying glass, so that while feeling inadequate, unloved or whatever, we might experience that doing what we can with what we have, from where we are, we are suddenly at the place we dreamed about being. Asana-wise for me, I remember that years ago, I couldn't fathom how I would ever be able to do drop backs. This is one of those things you can't fake yourself into safely. Neither my head nor my body understood how this movement was possible to execute. I did the only thing I could: I followed the sequence until the time to attempt drop backs came, and I tried. My teachers helped me. I breathed and trusted. Today, I think I could do them if I got up in the middle of the night. When this suddenly became a possibility, I have no idea. The thing is that at some point, I accepted that I didn't care if I ever got to this back bending craziness. I did what my teacher told me, when they told me to do it. I have also experienced a state where I was in such pain (not because of my practice, mind you) that sun salutations were all I could do. Asana madness ceased to be an option. I had to accept that I might never get back to where I once was, when it came to my circusy skills. For the fact that I actually regained them, I believe that I can thank those small things like sun salutations, standing postures, breath and most off all, doing what I could safely do, doing it well, not caring what it looked like.

So there. Next time you're on your mat, no matter who you are, practice like no one is looking, like you're caressing yourself with asana. Do the positions like you want to heal yourself with them, not like you want to be on the cover of "Yoga Journal". This is how your asana practice, no matter what it looks like, ceases to be madness and starts being rock star practice. This is how it is never a nuisance. Go. Try. It will work. See?

Friday, 17 December 2010

I Almost Didn´t

Don't give up
'cause you have friends
Don't give up
You're not the only one
Don't give up
No reason to be ashamed
Don't give up
You still have us
Don't give up now
We're proud of who you are
Don't give up
You know it's never been easy
Don't give up
'cause I believe there's a place
There's a place where we belong

Peter Gabriel "Don´t Give Up"
*Gasp! Not "The Bhagavad Gita" or "Patanjali´s Yoga Sutras"???* :-D

Today I started my practice with pain in my lower back. I almost didn´t. Practice that is. I lay on the floor listening to Eurythmics and thought "Nah, my back is acting up. I might skip yoga today.". And so I almost did.

Then I somehow just got up, changed, rolled out my mat and practiced. I did it pretty gently, without thinking too much. The asanas were gentle, but I had a pretty fiery pace. I wanted the heat, so I went for it in big style.

And you know what? I would have been... well.... let's call it "less than smart" if I skipped today's practice. It fascinates me how after all these years of practice, I forget how important this is. Not that it stops me from practicing, but the mere fact of having the thoughts of "maybe I'll skip it today?" are interesting. Already while doing the Sun salutations, I felt like "God, this is good, what was I thinking?.".

So, try not to skip your practice when in pain. Instead, adjust what you have to, so that it becomes soothing and therapeutical. I have no idea where my pain came from. I have had a fast paced, stressful week. A lot of meetings, A LOT of sitting. Might be that. I don't know. But all the same: My practice is a major therapeutical tool. I feel so amazing now. My thoughts have settled down, I am comfortable and calm. I think I'll do primary for a couple of days, before returning to my regular practice. Monday is a Moon day, so there's some more rest. :-)

What I am trying to say is that I almost convinced myself that the way to handle an achey lower back was not to do yoga. And when people tell me they way back pain, I recommend yoga to them! Major case of tamas-attack! :-D (just in case: Tamas is the lowest of the three gunas, or afflictions. It brings about laziness, slows you down. Like when you have major trouble getting out of bed).

Let us not forget why we practice. Ashtanga yoga is training of spirit and mind. It's about not giving up and giving in to what seems to be reality, when you know better. Yoga is citta vrtti nirodha. Cessation of the movements of mind. This particular day, I managed to raise above the rut of my restless mind.

Progress. Nice. Thanks.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Yamas of Vegetarianism

As Christmas is drawing near, all yogis are given a new opportunity to remind ourselves of and practice the first limb of Ashtanga Yoga, as presented in Master Patanjali's Yoga Sutras - yama.

As yoga practicioners, we focus daily on asana practice and postural techniques, on breathing techiques, health, different scriptures and many other aspects of the great art of yoga.

As we refine our minds, bodies and spirit, we start focusing on widening our perspectives and our compassion, so that they not only aply to other humans, but also to other animals and to nature, as we should.

I stated in an earlier post that vegetarianism is a crucial aspect of the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. For many westerners, it is also one of the most difficult ones.
When ethical and enviromental aspects of meat-eater-diet versus vegetarianism/ veganism is brought up, I have noticed that arguments often get heated.

For the yogis amongst you, here is a short presentation of yamas, applied to compassion towards non-human (and human) animals:

AHIMSA - non violence

Don't hurt them. Abstinence from violence, ALL violence is one of the corner stones of yoga practice and of many other philosophies and practices that resemble it.
As much as we humans try to rationalize it, eating animals implies that we accept that other living beings are killed. Everything and everyone strives to have a long and healty and safe life. So do animals. There is no reason to believe otherwise. The same way we used to enslave other humans, the same way we kill and butcher when we wage wars against each other and we managed to create "rational" reasons for that, we imagine that we have rational reasons for killing animals. All of us have an opportunity to widen our compassion and enrich our and others' lives by respecting all life and abstainings from eating meat and using fur. This is really real non-violence. Ahimsa doesn't mean that we are required to abstain from violence solely when it is convenient. Prime-ribs, meat balls and other meat based foods are cooked parts of animals that were held in captivity and killed.
Even a shell, what many of us consider to be but a mindless muscle has enough consciousness to hold on tighter to the surface when we try to touch it. This is because they too want to be left alone. They want to live. So, leave them alone.

Let us practice ahimsa and take a real high road. When you enjoy a vegetarian Christmas dinner, don't see it as difficult. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to practice ahimsa and it will surely inspire someone else to consider a path of non-violence and compassion.

SATYA - Truth

Don't lie to them. We breed animals on farms, we feed them, we tend them only to kill them and/ or skin them in the end. This poses a problem and a conundrum, especially for those amongst us who hold the opinion that eating wild animals/ game and so called organic meat is more acceptable ethically.
Consider a possibility that allowing an animal a so called good life only to kill it afterwards is the same as lying to animals. Imagine - someone loves you, is kind to you, feeds you and then they take your life. Organic meat is most often produced only so that it will be heathier and more tasty for humans. These animals lead good healthy lives, at least by human standards, and then they're killed and hung on a hook.
To breed something, to give it food, to let it procreate and so on, only to slaughter it and turn it into food is lying. It is not the practice of satya. This is not a white lie. Lies that lead to killing are mean when applied to humans and they should be considered so when applied to animals and other aspects of nature as well.

ASTEYA - abstinence from stealing

Don's steal from them.

Taking meat, territories, skins and milk of other creatures can be seen as stealing.

Humans are one of very few animal species that keep drinking milk as adults and that drink the milk of other species.

In many western societies, young calves are taken from their mothers right after birth and the mothers are milked and the milk they produce for their offspring is used for human consumption. Consider the ethical implications of this and try to imagine the situation if the mother and child were human.

Many western societies use more than their "share" of meat and milk. In a world where millions of people suffer of starvation and malnutrition. This is not practice of satya. If USA alone reduced its consumption of meat with only 10% and the freed resources were used to feed the part of the world stricken by hunger, the picture of world hunger would be dramatically changed. If the whole world consumed 10% less meat and these resources were directed to feeding the hunger-stricken part of the planet, there would be no hunger in the world.
And consider this: If India, where close to 80% of the population is apparently vegetarian, started consuming as much meat as USA does (when we consider the ratio of meat consumption compared to the size of the US population), our planet would be stricken with a global hunger and polution catastrophy.
When you consume an animal, you consume the vegetables, fruits, wheat, earth and water it "consumed". A vegetarian diet is uncomparably gentler to the ecology of Earth.

Eating meat is stealing from both animals and from humans and the planet.

Practice non-stealing, asteya.

BRAMACHARYA - sexual continence

Don't abuse them sexually.

In order to breed animals, create new breeds of desired size, taste, shape, or with desired quality of fur, animals are genetically modified, inseminated against their will and bred with partners they wouldn't chose naturally.

Cows are often inseminated with large devices that are inserted into their vaginas.

To consider this as acceptable, you need to decide that animals are things. These animals often need to be restrained or sedated when this is done to them. This is because they don't want to be inseminated, touched and genitally penetrated by their "owners" and against their will.

Seen through a prism of loving kindness, this kind of treatment is both ignorant and can be seen as sexual abuse.

So, leave them alone. We humans are an ingenious species and for all we need to solve, we are capable of finding better solutions if the present ones are inhumane and less-than-gentle to the planet. We could when it comes to this matter. If we wanted to.

APARIGRAHA - non-grasping

Don't take more than what you need.

In the part about non-stealing, asteya, I have already written about several parts of the world taking far more than what they need. This results in an imbalance that causes hunger and suffering in other parts of the world and also an ecological imbalance. Aparigraha is about not taking more than you need. Also when it comes to milk/ dairy for the non-vegans amongst us.

Very few people in the world, especially on the western hemisphere, need meat to survive. Very many people in the world, and again, especially in the west, would be healthier to themselves and kinder to the planet if they didn't consume any meat at all. The same thing with fur.
To my great disappointment, I recently saw fur in an otherwise fabulous yoga studio, full of great and otherwise aware yogis. And then there was that fur on their floors and chairs. In a yoga studio. Such a pity. So unnecessary.

Take only what you need. You don't need meat. And you don't need fur. You probably don't need dairy either. If you do, how much milk do you need?

Yama is easy....

When we honestly do what we can. It is a start for all of us.

People imagine that going vegetarian is difficult. It is not. Educate yourself about what you need and start.

If you have an aware relationship with your yoga practice, then vegetarianism is something you need to consider. It is probably as important a part of the yogic lifestyle as your asana practice is.

Really, do consider to apply the practice of yama to more than the human world. It is all the same world and mess and cruelty at one place will resonate somewhere else, sooner or later. The practice of yama is meant to be universal, which means that it is about animals and nature too.

This Christmas might be a nice time to start a more compassionate and kinder practice and spread some awareness to your loved ones too.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Seat

Sthira sukham asanam
Prayatna saithilyananta samapattibhyam
Tato dvandvanabhighatah

Asana is steady and joyful
Asana is effort turning into balance turning into stillness turning into revelation
Then, one is no longer disturbed by opposites

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, sutra 46, 47 and 48

All of us enter the world of yoga with all kinds of different motivation, ranging from a wish for better physical fitness, to relaxation, to peace, fascination with Indian traditions and sometimes a mixture of all of these. Also, the gates we enter through are often times more or less different, as some of us start up in different yoga traditions and then move on to others, or sometimes we stay where we started.

The three sutras cited above are the only three in the "Yoga Sutras" by master Patanjali that specifically mention asana, or yoga positions. This is very interesing as asana is, for most of us, the first thing we get to know as we start practicing yoga.

A funny thing I think I see in almost everyone who sticks with yoga practice for several years or forever is that no matter why or where they started up, even if it was just with more flexible and stronger body as the only goal, a new spark gets ignited. Some people start reading the scriptures, some get curious about Sanskrit and/ or chanting. People start going to India and spend time and money on yoga workshops.

Asana practice, also in the Ashtanga yoga tradition according to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, consists of many aspects: In addition to the yoga positions, asana, we practice bandha (the energy locks), dristi (the gaze focus), ujjayi breathing, in addition to a specific sequence of postures. In other words, a steady yoga practice gives us quite a bit to do.

It is very usual to get very caught up in the physical asana practice at first. A good friend of mine often uses the term "to master" when he speaks about different asanas. He gets unhappy and frustrated when an asana he considers desirable seems to "resist" him. Of course, this is a tendency I recognize from my own years of practice. I still go crazy. When I have to roll out (as opposed to elegantly leaving the position) of pincha mayurasana because I lose my balance, sometimes I get very frustrated. The physical practice gets the best of me.

At such times, it is useful to remember that going through this is one part of the practice. But what does it mean to master a yoga position?
In sutras 46 to 48, Patanjali tells us that a yoga position is to be steady and joyful. Through the effort that hopefully results in steadiness and joyfulness in any yoga position, we reach balance, through which we reach stilliness and then maybe revelation. This is a road toward dissolving opposites.

Patanjali doesn't say anything about a practicioner needing to tie him- or herself into a knot. We work on mastering our body, but mastering is not the same as coersion. It might even be the opposite of it. You master an asana as you would master anything else - by doing your best, wherever you are, step by step, respecting your body in the process. Wholesome discipline, folks. And maybe one day, you find yourself in a deliberate knot. Maybe not. But in a knot or not, hopefully we are nearer to balance and peace in any position, no matter how difficult we find it physically. Through this, we start deconstructing the world of opposites. We start liking the things we didn't like before. Like a great warrior, when we see challenges,we stand, steady in our breath and focus. And we stay and we breathe. And hopefully, we realize that there's nothing to get elated about, nothing to fear. Steady and joyful. This is one of the greatest things Ashtanga Yoga has given me (so far). One of the most tangible things.

As in an asana I might find difficult, I have started to be able to stay in challenging situations in my life off the mat and I stand and most often I am calm. Things are as they are, I need to stay, so I stay, and I don't lose my head. Mostly. This IS one of the gifts this yoga has given me. When I do get insane, it is comforting to know that I am capable of taking other choices. It actually helps remembering this.

This is how Ashtanga practice, seemingly turbulent, really is a meditation technique: You follow the sequence, your breath is strong and focused, your gaze is focused. Your thoughts might be racing but the asana sequence, the breath and the gaze bind them and you are steady and you keep doing what you need to do. This is how we work on turning the movement into meditation. After a while, there can be joy even in initially unpleasant positions and situations. You might have experienced things like this: You might be in an asana you find difficult, but you stay and you breathe and you find that you are actually quite happy. In this way, it doesn't matter how deep in a position you are on the physical level; you master it by mastering your mind while in the position. Yoga is staying present no matter what, leg behind the head or not. It does not matter. What matters is that you are doing your best and that you are present. For us westerners, our bodies are often times the most accessable tool when we start up this kind of work. Our bodies are then the gates into something far larger.

The physical progress will come with regular practice. Seen from this perspective, firmer and stronger, more flexible bodies are a bonus, but never our final goal. If physical progress is the only goal, we are still at the gates. Pre-yoga, someone called it (I don't remember who). Mental balance, joy, steadiness, stillness, peace and maybe glimpses of revelation of the fact that there is little to be concerned about is the real soul nutrition, while strength and flexibility are the toy in your cereal. The real yum-factor comes from the cereal itself. The toy is your additional gift. Strong, healthy body helps you detach from your body. You can meditate easier, you can start practising more advanced pranayama- and kriya (purification) techiques when your body is properly wired up for this. For this, you need to do your practice and find peace in your practice. This is so big! Finding peace in your practice. Gee....

The great thing is that through some effort, through realizing that an aware relationship with the tradition of our practice matters, we kind of start realizing, often cloaked in small glimpses of clarity, that very few things matter. A contradiction? I don't know. Ask me in 50 years. What I hope that I have started understanding is this: There is nothing to go crazy about.

And craziness is not to be underrated. One version is where you can get stuck up and arrogant in very athletic and advanced asana practice. This is not too constructive, considering the fact which tradition we apparently belong to. One meaning of the word "asana" is "seat", a connection to the ground. So to "take off" in ego-terms seems to be the opposite of what asana practice leads to. What it leads to is grounding and a healthier pespective on our egos.
The other side is where it is pretty easy to bliss out in a cross legged seated position, with a bolster under your ass. But go ahead and practice awareness and peace and joy in positions like lolasana (check out the picture above). Or any position that challenges you in some way. Practice not longing to get away. Practice not convincing yourself to get out after 5 breaths when your teacher asks you hold it for 15, especially if you are capable of these 15 breaths. Whether we do things like this, is what might determine if a position is a yoga position or a new party trick you can demonstrate to your friends.

I honestly try to have a pretty strong practice. I find it strong in its regularity, in my effort not to lose my mind and in knowing that the body-stuff is the tool for something larger. And this is when I started seeing it as "pretty strong": When I started getting flashes of awareness no matter whether I "liked" where I was or not. The practice is what it is, like it or not. Trancending the preferences, I think, has started to show me that I actually love what I thought that I didn't. The initial impulse is just that - an impulse; sometimes correct, sometimes less so. My job is to practice. Which I do. "Sthira sukham asanam" is serious stuff. Peace and joy in seeming adversity is radical. This is where we start tearing up the wrapping and going for the real thing.

And just to be 100% clear on this: I LOVE the toy in my cereal too. I love physical agility and strength. I love feeling healthy and flexible and strong. I don't think developing our bodies is mundane. I actually find it very important. And I especially love (what I think is) the fact that all this, as huge as it often is for me, is just a beginning of something far bigger. I trust Patanjali, you see. ;-)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

A Leaf, a Flower, Fruit or Water

Ashtanga Yoga is a demanding lover. All yoga is. Take wisdom from ancient scriptures and let it take you through your Christmas (or any other holiday) with humble ease and smoothness.

In chapter nine, 26th verse of "The Bhagavad Gita", Krishna states to the mythical warrior Arjuna that if something is given out of love and reverence, it will be accepted, even if it is just a leaf, a flower, fruit or water. The essence is not in what is given as such, but within the intent that infuses the gift. The intent creates the essence. It is the essence.

This might be especially relevant, on many levels, now that Christmas is drawing near.

As I stated in my previous post (and mentioned in several of the earlier ones), simplifying our practice in less then ideal conditions is sometimes a usefool tool that helps us maintain regularity of practice. This doesn't necessarily mean that you don't do an entire practice when you know you can, but that the energy of the practice is adjusted so that you, through that energy and your intent, show respect for wherever you are at, energetically, physically, timewise or all of these.
What Krisha teaches us in the abovementioned verse is that the inner force, the intention and the energy of what is given is what's important, and not necessarily the form of the gift. Show respect for this in your practice. You might even want to dedicate it to someone or something that drives you and inspires you. It might be your teacher, your partner, a cause or anything. When you hit an especially challinging piece of your practice, go back to what or who inspires you and "give" your practice to this person or cause. It doesn't have to be much. It can just be a straighter back in navasana or more active legs in kurmasana or whatever. You do it in the best way you can, safely and with love and you give it to them. Remember: "a leaf, a flower, fruit or water.". Easy. It doesn't matter. Do it with love and reverence and it will be enough.
If you, at some point, don't quite feel like dedicating your asana or your entire practice to anyone or anything in perticular, give it to yourself. Rather than just going through the motions,let yourself be inspired by Krishna and the lovely "Gita", and make the practice a gift to yourself. It doesn't have to be more complicated than pouring yourself a glass of clear icey water when you're thirsty would be. This means that gifting yourself with your yoga practice is not the same thing as you going all Cirque-Du-Soleil-esque-crazy on your mat. If it is not quite where you are (if it is, go ahead and swing it!), let what you do on your mat be this proverbial leaf or fruit or water, a simple and beautiful thing,you do for yourself from where you are. Remember that it is the intent, the substance that counts and not the form. The form grows out from the substance.

And then there's Christmas.....

And the spirit of giving?

"However humble the offering....". "The Bhagavad Gita" teaches us that it is the way we give and not what we give that is the real gift. The physical gift is the symbol. This does not mean that you should go to your nearest and dearest and go "I present you with these bird droppings with love..". :-) They probably won't get it. I am not sure I would either. If you can easily afford lavish gifts and you want to give them to your loved ones, by all means, knock yourself out. But if you are "temporarily short on cash", why not give them a flower, a simple book (a cheap edition of the "Gita" with a good translation and commentary?) or something along those lines and give it with love. Love will make it lavish. It is like the aforementioned straight back in navasana (when your lazy mind says: "droop!" and you know better and you straighten it instead) - you do what you can with the most love and kindness you can give. And that is the gift. It will most probably be accepted with the same love and gratitude.

Go back to the scriptures for simple and powerful stuff like this short passage from "The Bhagavad Gita". Many of you, if not all, who invest your time in reading blogs and websites like this one, tend to have vast amounts of dormant knowledge that gets triggered by the simple means of being reminded you have it and that you can put it to use. That is the beginning of yoga outside of the mat. Go! :-)