Ahimsa in Asana

“If the practice of today damages the practice of tomorrow it is not correct practice.”  BKS Iyengar, Page 50, Light on Life

Early in my practice I injured my hamstring at the attachment by over-stretching. Although I was able to do the asana (from the outside) to some extent, my sensitivity and awareness had not yet been developed. My ego wanted to attain the pose and overpowered sensitivity, awareness and discernment and thus created injury.  There was an element of grasping, or wanting to possess, parigraha, and himsa, violence which went against the fundamentals of yoga. After that, I had to live with a torn hamstring attachment for two years. 

“The challenge of yoga is to go beyond our limits – within reason. Page 50 Light on Life

Now I am aware that there are many ways to practice. Some days I approach practice and work to go beyond certain limitations, whether physical or psychological. Sensing the integration between mind, body and breath is essential. If I am to break through limitations, it must be done with compassion and persistence rather than violence.

I aim to practice with both the long view of the path, that practice is progressive and “progress” happens in steps (not always in a linear way) and with the view that transformation can happen here and now, instantaneously, as our true nature is nothing but awake and aware.  While practicing asana, I work to feel the actions within asana which give life, as one of my teachers puts it, and avoid actions which cause pain, avoiding himsa or violence such as insensitively, hardness or doing by rote.

“We do not do yoga for just enjoyment; we must do it for ultimate emancipation.” p. 52 Light on Life

The above quotation is key. Yoga done with awareness leads to transformation. When I  look outward for enjoyment and gratification through the senses, such as doing the “perfect” pose on the outside, or curating the perfect conditions for myself, the enjoyment is short lasting and often leads more distraction and suffering. Yoga done for ultimate emancipation is yoga done with awareness, and life lived with awareness.

“Even the deepest rooted afflictions (klesa) can be mastered through observation in asana.” p.256, Light on Life

Learning to teach, especially beginners, I have felt it important to understand the the klesas (the obstacles in practices). We all have some dominate affliction that causes us pain. Getting to the root cause of our pain individually and collectively is, to me, what this practice is about. The klesas are ignorance, ego, desire, aversion, and fear (of death).

Observation in asana is a gate inward leading to self study. Ignorance, being the root of all the klesas means perceiving reality in a distorted way that leads to suffering. Basically it means holding on to things that are limiting and thinking in a self-centered way. When I start observing myself in asana those limitations start to break down, especially when new possibilities of “who I am” and “what is possible” and “what is really happening” present themselves.

Often fear will hold people back from fully taking action or expressing themselves. Therefore, from the beginning it is important that students feel safe, seen, protected and guided: in a realm of ahimsa, non-violence. When there is a foundation of non-violence, students can begin to be guided to move beyond their limitations and to know themselves in a fuller sense. Over time, with the development of discernment, they can learn to be their own teacher and guide themselves in a positive direction, and ultimately work out and transform deep seated afflictions.  

Common Sense + Viveka + Compassion: A Zen Yogi’s Response to a Diseased Planet

“The Buddha taught that there is no ‘sin’ as it is taught in some religions, the root of all evil is ignorance (avidya) and false views.” -What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, p.3

All around us is vast suffering. The Buddha based his teachings on this. The Yoga Sutras did not leave out this fact (see Yoga Sutra II.15). Sarvam dukham. Climate crisis, gun violence, racism, sexism, nuclear weapons, deep corruption in the leaders of our world, selfishness, shortsightedness, greed, ignorance. How can a yogi or any person respond? One way is by waking up and by developing common sense and viveka — to see clearly.

I am using “common sense” here to mean listening to our “gut feeling” and doing the right thing at that right time. Common sense is taught to us by our grandmothers and elders, by life experience and by simply listening to our bodies. Examples are: eating when we are hungry, not using excessively what we don’t need, listening to our feelings and emotions, and respecting our place amongst the web of life. Common sense can perceive that the universe is interconnected and that our actions have impact. Children can assess this sense of connection. 

Viveka, a Sanskrit word, means “right intuitive discrimination or discernment.” Viveka is discerning between truth and untruth, skillful or unskillful action. Rather than existing in the status quo without question and feeling a sense of malaise, viveka impels us to seek a kinder, more connected, healthy, authentic way to live life that is in alignment with the way things are. Viveka sees our common connection as a human species connected with the forces of the universe. In order survive, we all need to awaken common sense and viveka, which is the innate knowledge of how to live within that web of connection.

What is amazing it that this intuitive wisdom isn’t difficult to access. In fact, it is quite assessable, even obvious. But sometimes what is obvious is most difficult to see.  In yogic terms, the veils of our karma and kleshas (afflictions) stand in the way, and pull us back to the root affliction, ignorance (avidya).  Additionally, society, culture and media condition us see and act in a certain way.

To shed our ignorance is difficult.  However,  it said that enlightenment itself is obvious, it just entails a shift. What kind shift? It is like turning the lights on. One minute the room is dark and nothing can be seen. Then the light is switched on and forms can immediately be seen. When we sit quietly in meditation or pranayama, or practice asana in a deeply connected way, that possibility of illumination opens for us. In moments of connection, clarity can arise. By seeing clearly without the “filters” or “veils” of our thoughts, desires, aversions and persona, it is possible to shift our way of being. This individual shift is needed for each one of us, and it is also needed collectively.

Audre Lorde, writer, feminist and civil rights activist, in her Keynote Address, “The Uses of Anger” (1981, NWSA Convention) she speaks about the kind of shift needed to transform culture, specifically in this case how white women treat black women:

“I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration
in all those assumptions underlining our lives.”

In many cases, our minds are conditioned not to see what is inconvenient for us to see. We ignore reality so we don’t have to change. If we really did see (and understand) reality, we would have no choice but to change and to live truthfully with the way things are. Sadly, humans have the capacity to see and ignore the truth.

In this process of waking up, we all have moments of viveka, for example, “Oh, actually, I shouldn’t do __X__ because it is not good for ___X__.”  The message from viveka comes and then and sometimes we turn it off, or ignore the message. “Oh, I’ll just do it this one time…” This is like turning on the lights, seeing what is actually there, and then deciding the turn off the lights and live in a deluded state. Ignorance (avidya), by comparison is like being in the dark all the time without ever thinking that there is a light to turn on.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describe that when memory is utilized properly (aklista smriti), this is a ground for discrimination to arise (see Sutra I.11). This memory is not only in our brain, it is stored in the cellular intelligence of the body.  One key to awakening to our basic intelligence, is to connecting to the body and to nature, which in turn connects us to our needs, feelings, emotions and wisdom.

Most of the norms, systems and institutions in the U.S. are backwards and operate against common sense wisdom. For example, the U.S. spends 18% of its GDP on health care, and yet our health care system remains one of the most dysfunctional and ineffective systems because is is not based on healing or heath. The Standard American Diet is comprised of processed and factory farmed foods which cause many health and environmental problems. In mainstream U.S. culture, people are not taught to listen to or understand the message of their bodies, and process emotions and feelings. Much of society lives disconnected from nature and natural rhythms. Many children are not taught to cook or clean up after themselves. Thankfully, as adults we can still learn these things.

The first of the Buddha’s Eight Fold Path is sama dristi or “right view”. Our view is our fundamental orientation to life. If we operate with unexamined views including biases and assumptions, this perpetuates suffering. When these biases become widespread, then even larger societal and cultural problems result and biases spread. A contemporary example is how racist thinking is embedded into our unexamined collective bias:

The period after a mass shooting is often very telling. When the shooter is white, the context is the individual narrative – this individual disordered white mind. When the shooter is black or brown, all of a sudden the disorder is culture. The narrative we tell then is about terrorism or gangs.  ‘Dying of whiteness’: why racism is at the heart of America’s gun inaction 

In the work of waking up, compassion is crucial, as we are all in the dark a lot of the time. Viveka is wisdom, and in the spiritual journey both wisdom and compassion are indispensable. When every day we are faced with such heartbreaking realities, it is compassion that gives the heart nourishment and sustenance, otherwise the heart can feel hopeless and depressed. B.K.S Iyengar in the Introduction to Light on Yoga tells us that we should not hate the doers of evil, it is only the evil that they do we should despise (p. 32 Light on Yoga). Maitri (Friendliness), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy) and Upeksha (equanimity) are the foundational practices of both self care, care for others and the planet. I pray that we can all wake up together.

Reflections on Samadhi

 

“Meditation is to bring the complex consciousness to simplicity and innocence without pride and arrogance.” B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga

“Veil upon veil shall lift, but still veil upon veil will be found behind.” -Lord Buddha quoted in The Science of Yoga, I.K. Taimni p. 446

“Realization is not acquisition of anything new nor is it a new faculty. It is only the removal of all camouflage.” Sri Ramana Maharshi

Samadhi is the eighth limb of yoga. It is also the eighth of the eightfold path in Buddhism.  It is a fascinating area of study, as samadhi opens out the potential of consciousness which is beyond the scope of anything we can write, think, conceptualize or imagine about. Like the universe, consciousness is infinitely vast, and much is unknown and undiscovered by us. Similar to the quote by the Buddha, “Veil upon veil shall lift, but still veil upon veil will be found behind,” in the path of yoga, greater vistas of possibility and freedom are revealed, and still much eludes us. B.K.S. Iyengar writes in The Tree of Yoga, “Where there is no subconscious, no unconscious, but only consciousness, that is samadhi.” (p. 140) In this reflection/research piece, I am writing primarily from the perspective of yoga, though samadhi is also understood and practiced in many of the world’s contemplative traditions.

The Sanskrit word samadhi consists two parts: sama, which means equal and dhi to fix or remain steady. Samadhi is yogas citta vritti nirodha, the cessation of the fluctuations of the consciousness, which is also the definition of yoga. It is the culmination of concentration (dharana) and meditative stability (dhyana) which lead to profound absorption where subject and object fall away.  It is the merging of the experience and the experiencer in a seamless flow where all self-consciousness or sense of “I” as the doer or experiencer has been dropped off.  Samadhi is oneness.20190413_083824

This chart from Taimni’s book, The Science of Yoga, shows the progression from ordinary thinking to samadhi. In ordinary thinking, the mind jumps from thought to thought, shown in the various letters. The circle around the letters show a sense of self consciousness. As one progresses though dharana (concentration) and dhyana (single pointed mediation) the mind becomes more one pointed and concentrated on its object, “A”. In dhyana the continuity with the object is maintained. In samadhi the duality, or self consciousness between the meditator and object of meditation falls away.

Samadhi is important because it is essential to developing the liberating insight and transcendental wisdom know as prajna. Prajna is transcendent wisdom which cuts through greed, hate, and delusion, founded on ignorance (avidya). Prajna liberates the Self from bondage and ignorance and reveals its true nature. Intellectual study of samadhi is extremely limited as samadhi denotes the pinnacle of meditative experience. However, it is important for people following the yogic path to have an understanding of what it is and what it is not.

There are basically two distinct types of samadhi, both founded on concentration. Mouni Sadhu, a disciple of Sri Ramana Maharishi, in his book Samadhi classifies them as “lower” and “higher” samadhi. The term “lower” samadhi is an advanced stage or concentration that can lead to the siddhis (occult powers) alone without the essential surrender and transformation of the “ego” and the development of wisdom. The other he calls “higher” samadhi is one in which the ethical precepts and natural laws are followed and leads to genuine insight and liberation.  I am interested in the latter – the former can be dangerous and lead to harm. Only by harmonizing with the natural laws of yama and niyama (the ethical precepts and disciplines) can true transformation and the fruit of spiritual practice be realized.  When followed as an integrated path, the deeper and more subtle domains of consciousness and the subtle ways in which we are bound to suffering are revealed by samadhi and the insight which arises therein.

Cultivating samadhi as explained in the Yoga Sutras can be practiced as a systematic technique as outlined in the eight limbs of yoga in which the body, mind and consciousness become more and more refined and sensitive (sattvic) and develop a discriminating faculty (viveka). Samadhi can also be entered by grace: paravairagya (perfected renunciation) and ishvara pranidhana (surrender, devotion to and love of God) in which all traces of self have been surrendered. It is interesting that these two almost distinct paths are given, astanga (eight-limbed) yoga for purification and increasing sensitivity, and ishvara pranidhana in which the quality of vaigraya (renunciation) is developed to such an extent that one achieves a state of yoga and merges the individual with the universal.

The Yoga Sutras explain that it is a rare person who can practice only devotion and achieve samadhi. This is due to their strength of practice accrued over many lifetimes. B.K.S Iyengar writes, “Only when body, mind and intelligence are fully purified, is it possible to surrender totally to God, without expecting any return. This is a surrender of the highest order, beyond of capacity of the average individual.” (p. 85 Light on Yoga Sutras). For most of us, the eight-limbed path is the most balanced way to cultivate the yogic path and to insure that we are developing evenly, with no part of our character or personality left in the shadows.

Even yogis who develop the siddhis (occult powers) due to advanced states of samadhi may fall from yoga due to the influence of desire, or may not be on the path to liberation at all if the foundational precepts are not cultivated. This is apparent in our age when spiritual teachers and guides of all traditions “fall from grace” by getting caught in and misuse personal power –  power vested in them either by their own attainment or their position within a certain lineage. That is why all practitioners of all paths are urged to examine first themselves and then their teacher to see if he/she embodies all aspects of true practice, or is at least working on it.

With regard to the stages of samadhi, the Yoga Sutras describe samadhi with support or seed, sabija samadhi and samadhi without support or seed, nirbija samadhi.  Support in this case means an object or symbol that is used in meditation. The Yoga Sutras elaborate on a number of different supports or seeds, such as meditating with the object of breath, OM, the characteristics of an enlightened sage, the luminous sorrow-less light of the heart.  Sutras I.17-19 and I.42-45 describe sabija samadhi, I.33-I.39 describe the different kinds of supports or “seeds”. Also discussed are: samprajnata samadhi (samadhi with prajna) and asamprajnata samadhi (samadhi without prajna) are described as stages to nirbija samadhi (samadhi without seed) which is explained to be the most profound samadhi: the state of absolute identity with the seer. (p.103 Light on the Yoga Sutras) Patanjali writes in the final Sutra of the Samadhi Pada, I. 51 that even the truth bearing insight of “rtambara prajna” which still operates within the discriminating intelligence is relinquished in nirbija Samadhi where the Self merges with the Infinite.

B.K.S. Iyengar has described samadhi as grace: the intelligence of the head merging with the intelligence of the heart. The head is the seat of intellect and discernment, and the heart is the seat of consciousness and the Self or Soul. Yoga Sutra I.17 is an important sutra which outlines the aspects of sabija samadhi.

I. 17 vitarka vichara ananda asmitarupa anugamat samprajnatah

Practice and detachment develop four types of samadhi: self-analysis, synthesis, bliss, and the experience of pure being. – translation B.K.S. Iyengar

According to B.K.S. Iyengar’s commentary on this Sutra, vitarka is an act of involvement by deliberate thinking and study which leads one to the final point, or root cause. Vichara is investigation, reflection and consideration which stills the mind and leads to acuteness, clarity and subtlety. Ananda is the bliss that arises as vitarka and vichara take one closer to abide the Self alone, the core of one’s being. Asmita is the experience of pure being.  B.K.S. Iyengar correlates these aspects of samadhi with the four lobes of the brain. The front brain, the analytical part, relating to vitarka, the old brain or back brain, which stores impressions of pleasure and pain, and which reasons to vichara, the base of the brain, or brain stem to ananda, and the crown of the head, the seat of the individual self to asmita. Sabija samadhi is achieved by drawing the four facets of the brain towards its stem.” (p. 69 Light on Yoga Sutras)

Analogous to the aspects of sabija samadhi in yoga are the 4 or sometimes listed as 5 jhana factors in Theravada Buddhism. For more information see: http://www.leighb.com/jhana_4factors.htm

In summary, when the intelligence of the head merges with the intelligence of the heart, samadhi or oneness is experienced:

“When this synchronization has been achieved, a transitory state of quietness, manolaya, is experienced. Then, from the stem of the brain, consciousness is made to descend towards the source of mind, the seat of the heart. Here it merges into a mindless, beginning-less, endless state of being: amanaskatva, or nirbija samadhi (samadhi without seed or support). It is the conquest of the spirit. (p. 69, Light on the Yoga Sutras)

This to me points to direct experience, which cannot be further explained with words.

After reflecting on this subject for the last few months, one of the insights that has arisen in me is my deep trust of yamas and niyamas (in Buddhism Sila, or ethical precepts) as the gate towards the so called “higher stages” of yoga including samadhi. It is only through deepening this basic purity and innocence of the conscious (antarkarana sometimes referred to as dharmendriya – organ of Dharma) can remain clear and reflect the light of the soul.

In my own practice and experience, perhaps I have only touched on some preliminary stages of concentration and samadhi.  While practicing, concentration improves and deeper samskaras (impressions) are dislodged from the sub conscious to be seen in the light of awareness (similarly described in Sutra I.18). Deep stores of energy open up. The body and nervous system become more open, relaxed, sensitive. A deep sense of well being arises. The mind becomes clear and still like a mountain lake. The emotions and mind become steady… transformation happens at a level not known fully by reasoning. Intuition is developed. The eyes shine. Friendliness and joy arise. A sense of oneness and wholeness is felt.

May your practice go well!

References

Astadala Yogamala, Volume 7, B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on the Yoga Sutras, B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar

Samadhi, Mouni Sadhu

Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi

The Science of Yoga, I.K. Taimni

The Tree of Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translation by Dr. Edwin Bryant

20190413_084042

Above chart From I.K. Taimi’s book, The Science of Yoga

 

 

Insights from Prashant-ji and Geeta-ji, Reflections from the Centenary Teachings

Over the past two weeks, Prashant and Geeta-ji’s teachings have been full of gems. I am very grateful to have been present with them for the Centenary Celebrations. I will share some quotes I wrote down in my notebook and share a little context and reflection.

Some quotes and highlights I wrote in my notebook from Prashant’s classes and talks:

“Mechanically doing, that is not practice.”

Prashant spoke about this in the context of approaching practice as exploration, that was how B.K.S. Iyengar approached practice.

“The subject is difficult, the art is difficult.”

Yoga is something that takes a very long time to understand on many levels, on the cellular levels, the mental levels, the physical levels. Through practice, yoga samskaras slowly evolve the person who practices. But it is a difficult art.

“Treat the body as your child.”

For what? What are the aims? The body is at once a source of suffering and a vehicle of liberation. Better take care of it as it is our means to practice. 

“When we are busy we are occupied in reacting.”

Sound familiar?

“Don’t be a technician in asana and pranayama. Yoga doesn’t allow anything to be done mechanically.”

Sometimes getting stuck on the points of technique or doing the same thing everyday mechanically eludes us from seeing the vast scope of practice and finding freedom, exploration and spontaneity.

“Breath is a sculpture of mind.”

Prashant explained that observation of the breathing process and pranayama leads one to understand the different psychosomatic and emotional states, and that prayamana leads one towards cultivating vairagya (dispassion).

In Iyengar yoga you are drawn beyond your limits. This is its signature condition. 

By facing and transcending limitations, physical, mental etc, I am brought into a fuller sense of what it is to be human. The pain doesn’t kill you. You don’t die. But you do realize that one day you will die and you begin to imagine how you would like to face that moment and every moment of your life.

Nothing will escape the samskara cortex.

Everything we’ve done, experienced, felt, thought, nothing is lost. It is all there. 

Concepts: Lab condition. Playground psychosis.

Sometimes we think, “this is not taught, why would I do it?” Prashant emphasized that you are your own teacher and student. There is something inside that can assess, that knows what is essentially right and wrong. Experiment, explore, play. 

This globe is a paltry speck of dust. Within yourself, you are the universe. 

 

Notes from Geeta-ji’s classes. Actually I did not take notes during Geeta-ji’s classes, as she explicitly asked us not to. I will share my impressions.  

Geeta’s classes and talks were powerful, intense, full of compassion and made me feel absolutely with myself.  I felt like I was learning yoga again for the first time, with a scope much vaster and deeper than I had thought possible. She emphasized the Yoga Sutras and talked about 1.20 which inspired her. She taught both movement and action in asana, and especially used receptive movement to bring us deeper into the asanas, Chalana kriya, as she called it. One day, she taught the children’s class and had us join along with jumpings and surya namaskar in different formations.  She showed many examples of therapeutics on stage, her eye penetrating and seeing to the root cause of each person’s ailment. I was inspired by her embodiment of yoga.

I will end here, as I am catching a flight to Chennai shortly. Filled with gratitude for this opportunity.

“Where need ends and where greed begins, you have to have discrimination.” – Abhijata Iyengar quoting Guru-ji

 

 

Centennial Celebration, Day 1 & 2

We arrived to Balewadi Stadium on December 3rd to a very well organized event with over 1200 participants. We were given a badge and a group, coded by letters and colors which determines where in the hall we will sit for the day – the groups rotate positions in the hall each day. Abhijati opened the program and reminded us that we were all there to celebrate the life, teachings and 100th birth anniversary of B.K.S. Iyengar. Geeta-ji’s message was that we are one family. 

Prashant Iyengar opened the morning program and opened out a few key concepts in Iyengar yoga, including activity, awareness and sensitively. Yoga is not just doing to achieve an asana. Yoga is the unity of body, mind and breath and creating connectivity and an embodiment that is essentially even minded, equanimous, pure, sanctified: sattvic in nature. Prashant-ji elaborated on the centrality of  breath, and how breath is the main tool which affects and is affected by thought, emotions, posture, activity.  During the session we did a few asanas to observe the quality of breath in different regions of the body.

In the afternoon session, Prashant-ji discussed the evolution of Iyengar yoga. He discussed that evolution in Iyengar yoga has two aspects: the evolution of Guru-ji’s practice and the evolution of how Guru-ji taught. Prashant highlighted the fact that English was not Guru-ji’s mother tongue, which was Kanada. In that regard, Guru-ji was at a disadvantage in terms of articulating his experience and the classical yoga tradition. Guru-ji’s way of learning and teaching, according to Prashant, was highly intuitive. He said that to call Iyengar yoga a “system” is a misnomer, as a system implies a fixed framework, whereas Guru’-ji changed and adapted from day to day depending on the conditions and what was revealed to him through his explorations.  Prashant said, “Highly intuitive people don’t have systems.” He also emphasized the importance of pacing and adapting the practice to the circumstances and condition of ones body, mind, and stage of life.

Prashant also discussed how Guru-ji was an artist while demonstrating, a scientist while teaching and a philosopher while practicing. 

One thing that stood out for me in Prashant’s teaching was his emphasis that Iyenagar yoga is an open architecture, it is not rigid, fixed or dogmatic, and that yoga cannot be taught but it can be learned. That means that a teacher can teach a student the techniques of yoga, but cannot teach the essential inner process that makes yoga yoga and not just body exercise.   

On the 2nd day morning session, we did a comparative asana practice:

Trikonasana, Bhradvajasana, Trikonasana, Setubandha Sarvangasana, Trikonasana Virabhadrasana II, Trikonasana, Purvotanasana, Trikonasana, Standing back arch, Trikonasana, Sirsasana, Trikonasana, Supta Baddhakonasana (by my memory)

In the afternoon session on Day 2 Geeta and Prashant Iyengar discussed to topic of mentoring, learning and teacher training in Iyengar Yoga. The essential points from that discussion were that they themselves were not “trained” to be teachers, but after a long period of taking classes and observing classes, Geeta and Prashant began to teach. This long period of observation and apprenticeship is how one picks up ways of teaching different ages, abilities, conditions. Teacher training courses, which are more formal in nature, were not recommended in the long term. Now as yoga has already been popularized, what is more important than turning out a lot of teachers is the quality, depth and experience of teachers – and that takes a long time. 

There is much more, but I will share that at a later time.

Liberating Source: Navigating Darkness to Reveal the Light

Practicing and understanding yoga is about practicing and understanding key principles. From these fundamental principles or sources, flows the plurality of technique, expression, systemization and method.  If the technique follows from the source, there can be alignment, systematic intelligence, and authenticity. Yoga comes from the source and takes us back to the source. The journey to the source passes though layers of our being which may not be fully known to us.  Yoga is a process of self-discovery and penetrating deeper within to understand, and ultimately transcend our limitations, afflictions, and pains and to reveal the light and truth within.

What is the source?

The source of yoga is the light of the Self, which is inherent in all beings. The Self, core, or source (I am using these terms interchangeable) is beyond the influence of nature, prakrti, and the fluctuations of consciousness, vrttis. The myriad technologies and techniques of yoga, and the eight limbs of practice, are meant to guide us to ever increasing purity and sensitivity so that the light of the source may be perceptible and increase in radiance to illuminate our lives. As wisdom and discrimination clearly discern the causes of pain, the veils which obscure the brilliance of the source may be removed. This wisdom and discrimination is not a conventional wisdom or discrimination based in duality, but one that arises from seeing the undifferentiated source and the unfathomable connection and inter-relation of all things. The way to the source is the eight limbed path, which enables the awareness to become aware of awareness, like an eye seeing an eye.

Yoga was realized by historical and contemporary masters surely as a result of their practice and renunciation (abyasa and vairagya), but also no doubt through devotion to their teachers, gurus and those who came before, and to those divine beings who represent the divine within. A guru guides seekers from darkness to light, this is the literal meaning of the word guru. The concept of grace arises from turning ourselves over with deep faith to that which is beyond the scope of our will and intellect, yet is is something that our instinctual intelligence knows to be true. This is an aspect of vairagya. B.KS. Iyengar writes:Spiritual wisdom does not decide, it knows.” (Light on the Yoga Sutras p. 58, Sutra I.7)

Through our practice, abyasa, we also must learn to be our own guide and to move through the dark and shadowy places into the unknown, which slowly becomes known. We shed the light of awareness on places that we have ignored or bypassed. The practice of citta vrtti nirodha, or cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness, is moving towards and maintaining connection at the substratum of awareness. It is a consciousness that moves ever closer to its true self, until there is oneness.

As we travel on the path, our problems, obstacles, afflictions and pains begin to show us parts of our being that may have been in darkness. New layers begin to reveal themselves. Evolution in yoga is not possible without making a long journey though the unknown, through darkness. It is only by shedding the light of awareness and maintaining observation on these places of nescience, pain, difficulty, habit and emotional afflictions (klesas) that we can begin free ourselves from the suffering that arises from being under their sway and identified with their story. The path is long and can take a lifetime, or many lifetimes, but at times we catch a glimpse of the light and over time we witness ourselves changing, transforming in the direction of light. We are happier and more at peace because of it – and those around us are too.

light

Plastic Waste and Aparigraha

 

 

 

Two topics that have been on my mind: the harmful effects of plastic and aparigraha (freedom from greed, non possessiveness, non hoarding, without surplus).

Over the past couple of months, we have seen in the media photos of plastic covering the oceans four times the size of California, statistics such as by 2050, 99% of sea birds will have plastic in their gut and that there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish.

These current realities are a testament to our global shortsightedness and convenience culture, which can be traced to greed and ignoring the fundamental law of cause and effect. All living creatures on this Earth are affected by human consumption and waste, and we as humans have all contributed to the problem in some way.  Likewise, we all share in the responsibility to remedy the situation. Although larger groups such as corporations and nations hold a great responsibility, as their actions create a larger impact, individuals and communities also share in the responsibility to restore the health of the Earth.

I’m happy to see that people are trying to remedy the issue of plastic waste by banning single use plastics like bags, bottles and cutlery, doing large scale clean-ups and bettering recycling and waste management. We are also seeing in San Francisco more compostable cups replacing plastic single use items (Though I recently read about the deleterious effect of biodegradable plastics. Not only do they blow around and end up in the ocean like most plastics, but they require an industrial compost facility with high temperatures to decompose, which many areas do not have access to. Also: “To be called a bioplastic, a material only needs 20 percent of renewable material; the other 80 percent could be fossil fuel-based plastic resins and synthetic additives.”)

A much deeper paradigm shift is needed with regards to plastics, consumption and culture. Technology cannot save our world. It is people, habits, institutions, cultures, societies that have to change. But even that is at a superficial level, what really needs to change and evolve is our own minds and hearts.

As a yoga and dharma practitioner, I cannot ignore my part in the violence being inflicted upon the earth. I have been considering the niyama of aparigraha, a Sanskit word which translates as freedom from greed, non acquisition, non hoarding. From an environmental perspective aparigraha can be understood as living simply and keeping only belongings that are essential to thrive.

Aparigraha means not only non-possession and non acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thoughts.” BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga Sutras, p.153

By practicing apargraha, or non acquisitiveness, a kind of clarity can emerge with regard to cause and effect. By stepping back to consider, “Do I really need this: drink (which comes in a plastic bottle), packaged food item, new car, etc. the impulse to satisfy the senses is paused, and space for reflection is created. When the mind is not overwhelmed by the senses and their gratification, a kind of power arises. Also, by over consuming and hoarding, we are also robbing others of their basic needs.

Those of us who live in urban areas or use the internet or social medial are continually bombarded with advertisements for things things or experiences to bring us greater happiness. It doesn’t take too long to realize that getting caught in the web or pursuing one desire after another or one material possession after another is actually the cause of great discontent. The reason for this is that it takes us out connection with ourselves, with others and the Earth. By identifying happiness with an object, we forget that the source of happiness is only found in the simplicity of a clear, wise and compassionate heart. Fundamentally, when we are not consumed about gratifying our wants and desires, we can actually recognize and appreciate all that we already have, which is a deeper source of fulfillment.

In his commentary of the Sutra related to aparigraha, Edwin Bryant writes, “One might imagine the citta (mind or consciousness) as a lake, and samskaras (impressions, unconscious habits) as pebbles within it. When a lake is crystal clear, one can see the pebbles at the bottom and easily retrieve them. When the lake is choppy or murky, one cannot.”

Therefore, when the mind is free of acquisitiveness and unconscious habits, this facilitates clarity and stillness mind.  Clarity of mind and heart, just like clarity and purity of our oceans is essential for the optimal functioning of life, and in yoga is the ground of liberation and freedom from suffering. We see what is essential, like clean air and water, loving relationships, the basic requisites for life, and abandon what causes harm.

Some of my related goals:

  • To eliminate completely the use and purchase of single use plastics and as many plastics as possible
  • To track any wasteful items that I do use and make other choices, such as plastic toothbrushes
  • To continue to simplify my life with regards to the possessions I have and what I purchase.
  • To move towards a completely plastic and waste free lifestyle
  • Eliminate online shopping because of the excessive waste produced
  • To notice if I become rigid in thought or heart, and if judgement arises to cultivate patience and equanimity
  • Continue to study and apply the principle of non greed.

Dynamic Extension

Some insights on the practice of asana and “Dynamic Extension” from Light on Life by BKS Iyengar:

Urdhva namaskarasana
BKS Iyengar in Urdhva Namaskarasana

“Extension and expansion always stay firmly rooted in one’s center. They originate in the core of one’s being. When most people stretch, they simply stretch to the point they are trying to reach, but the forget to extend and expand from where they are. When you extend and expand, you are not only stretching to, you are also stretching from. Try holding out your arm to the side and stretch it. Did your whole chest move with it? Now try to stay centered and extend out your arms to your finger tips. Did you notice the difference?”

“Always stretch from the source, the core, the foundation of each asana. This is the art of dynamic extension. It is not yoga the injures, but the way on does yoga that leads to injury. The moment space becomes narrow, it means you are injuring. In the correct asana, there is no narrowness. Even if your body is stiff, you have to bring space.”

“Always try to extend and expand the body. Extension and expansion bring space, and space brings freedom. Freedom is precision and precision is divine. From the freedom of the body comes the freedom of the mind and then Ultimate Freedom.”

My Actions are My Only True Belongings

Facing death, illness, aging, loss and separation often bring about a fundamental shift in priorities. Situations which bring to light our mortality and interdependence can be catalyst for deep transformation. The understanding that the time of death is unknown, and that there is nothing material that we can take with us, can arouse a fundamental reorientation to our priorities and way of living.  There have been times in my life when the clarity of these realities have prompted a fundamental reorientation of my values and way of living and practicing. In this essay, I will explore Buddhist and yogic teachings which turn the mind toward these eminent realities and point to compassion and right action as a way to live this understanding.

One of my earliest impressions of the teaching of interdependence was my first trip to Nepal in the winter of 2005. I had stayed in Boudhanath to study thanka painting and take in the culture of this important religious and spiritual center.  had just arrived in the chill of December, and in my naiveté, had my wallet pick-pocketed out of the back pocket my Jansport backpack while walking in a crowded section of Kathmandu. Alone with no money, aside from about $10, I made due on roadside paranthas and the generosity of the kind owner of a Tibetan Restaurant called Shambala who served me dinner for free every night and gave me blankets, while I awaited the arrival of a new bank card. During the day, I was painting a thangka of a Kalachakra mandala, the same year which in which the Dalai Lama was teaching on the Kalachakra in South India. At one point during this time, I caught a terrible flu and was taken to the hospital in the middle of the night by a monk who attended the hotel.

The experience of completely depending on the generosity of others, almost strangers, while working on this devotional piece of artwork, which signifies enlightenment within the manifold cosmos and wheel of time (samsara) was deep and profound.  The thought that kept coming to my mind as I was painting, with a fine Nepali brush, was that further refinement is always possible, and a new height of perfection can always be reached – not only in painting, but in life and spiritual practice. By remaining open to and working towards greater refinement, in actions of body, speech, and mind, the infinite potential of life and illumination within the world full of suffering, war, poverty, and violence (samsara) remain open.

IMG-20150711-00013
Kalachakra Mandala I painted in Nepal in 2005

Relating to this potential of refinement of actions, and turning the mind towards the taste of freedom, the Buddha taught the Five Remembrances. “My actions are my only true belongings: I cannot escape their consequences. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” This is a quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh is based on the traditional five remembrances, taught by the Buddha.

The traditional teaching are:

“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?

I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.

I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.

I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.

I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.

I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

These are the five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.”

-Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The value of these contemplations, is that they can bring home the reality of impermanence and the law of cause and effect (karma). Although these five statements appear simple and straightforward, their implications are profound: by remembering and familiarizing ourselves with these five contemplations, we can avoid getting trapped in a petty mind which sees only its own self interest and views. This is a mind which is limited and in a state of ignorance (avidya). According to Buddhist and yogic traditions, avidya, or ignorance of the true nature of reality, is the ground of all suffering and afflictions (Yoga Sutra II. 4).

Awakening is returning to reality. Prajna, or transformative insight into reality, removes the veils of ignorance. The means are: meditation, reflection and cultivation of body speech and mind. The Tibetan word for meditation is སྒོམ, sgom, Skt. bhavana which also means cultivation. It is related to the word Tibetan word གོམ་, gom, which means becoming familiar with or accustomed to. By becoming familiar and intimate with the teachings, such as the Five Remembrances, our distorted views which lead us to believe on some level that we are separate from the whole, immune to aging, loss, separation and death, can be softened and dissolved. This leads to greater freedom, acceptance of life and living in harmony with the whole.

The experience of intimately knowing for oneself cannot be learned from reading books or studying sutras alone. Transformation comes from experience, and nothing can replace practice. In my own experience, the times when I have had glimpses of freedom, are in a mind that is radically open and present and not consumed by usual thinking, planning, worrying and upholding a sense of self and security. My experience of being cared for by benevolent strangers showed me that it is how we meet and show love and compassion for others, that bring these teachings to life.

In the Kalachakra Mandala, the center most part is the center of an open flower around which encircle the mandalas of body, speech and mind and the vast universe of all elements of creation, cyclic existence, or samara. Within this complex mandala, samsara manifests, and in the center a flower is open.

In this complex world, may I remember this:

“My actions are my only true belongings: I cannot escape their consequences. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”

Abhyasa and Vairagya

 

patanjali-as-envisaged-by-krishnamacharya
Bhagavan Patanjali with 4 disciples as envisaged by Sri T. Krishnamacharya from: krishnamacharya.net/blog

Yoga Sutra I. 12

Abhyasa vairagyambhyam tannirodhah

Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness. BKS Iyengar (trans)

According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the principles of abhyasa and vairagya are the two wings of yoga sadhana (practice). Abhyasa means “effort of long duration, without interruption, preformed with devotion which creates a firm foundation” (Light on Yoga, p. 28). Vairagya is renunciation, detachment and the absence of worldly desires. Together they are the means advised by Patanjali to restrain the fluctuations of consciousness: the vrittis (fluctuations of mind) and kleshas (hinderences) and obstacles in practice. The practice of abhyasa and vairagya function as both a means and an end in yoga sadhana; in the perfection of abhyasa and vairagya the sadhaka becomes a master of him or herself.

Abhyasa can be understood as the active component of yoga sadhana, which conveys a sense of cultivation, observation of precepts and repetition comprising of the path of action (tapas), whereas vairagya is the surrendering or letting go component related to svadyaya (self study) and ishvara-pranidhana, surrender of oneself and actions to God. In his commentary on this Sutra, BKS Iyengar also draws a parallel between abhyasa and the external quest (bahiranga sadhana: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama) and vairagya and the internal quest (antaratma sadhana, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi).

Practice and renunciation are equally important and interdependent. Sutra 1.32 further elucidates the connection between abhyasa and vairagya:

1. 32 tatpratisedhartham ekatattva abhyasa

Adherence to a single-minded efforts prevents these impediments. BKS Iyengar (trans)

Through abhyasa, the practitioner cultivates, purifies and guides body, mind, and intellect in a virtuous direction and prevents the arising of impediments.  In proceeding sutras, Patanjai elaborates of the ways of practicing to prevent the arising of obstacles and impediments: repeating the sacred sound of OM, cultivating friendliness compassion, joy and equanimity, maintaining the pensive state felt at the end of a soft and steady exhalation, contemplating a luminous light, contemplating on enlightened sages, recollecting the the experiences of sleep, and absorption on any desired object.

Patanjali gives all of these methods, and the eight limbs of yoga to suit the needs and temperaments of practitioners of differing capacities. When done repeatedly with focused awareness and devotion (abyasa, tapas), these practices purify mind, body and intelligence. “Only when body, mind and intelligence are fully purified is it possible to surrender totally to God, without expecting any return.” (Core of the Yoga Sutras, BKS Iyengar). Here we see the connection between vairagya and pranidhana.

“To contemplate on God, to surrender one’s self to Him, is to bring everything face to face with God. Pranidhana is the surrender of everything: one’s ego, all good and virtuous actions, pains and pleasures, joys and sorrows, elations and miseries to the Universal Soul. Through surrender the aspirant’s ego is effaced, and the grace of the Lord pours down upon him like torrential rain.” BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras, p. 78

Abyasa and vairagya are like the Ha and Tha of Hatha yoga, fully complementary and interdependent.  Practiced, experienced and realized, they are both a means and a culmination of yoga Sadhana.