Some insights on the practice of asana and “Dynamic Extension” from Light on Life by BKS Iyengar:
“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.”
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. I 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.
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.”
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.
The first time I heard the word samskara, I was on a 10-day Vipsasana retreat at an SN Goenka Center. In some of Goenka ji’s talks he mentioned that the practice of meditation, or more precisely, the experience of insight, can actually burn up or purify the samskaras. Even though I only barely touched what Goenka-ji was getting at, what he said stuck with me. Recently, this topic has come to the foreground of my yoga and meditation practice, as it is a central theme in the Yoga Sutras. I am exploring what gives rise to habit, thought, and the formation of a sense of self. With reference to my own experience, this essay explores the nature of samkaras how the Sutras and contemporary masters describe the process of “burning the seeds” of habit, leading to real freedom.
What is a samskara? Samskara is a Sankrit term used in both Buddhism and classical yoga philosophy. Samskaras refer toimprints or impressions left on the mind by experiences, also called “subliminal impressions.” Subliminal, in this context, means in the impressions are lodged in the unconscious and subconscious mind. B.K.S. Iyengar writes that memory and samskaras are not only stored in the brain, but also in the body and in each cell (since the spinal column and the nerves which enervate each cell are an offshoot of the brain). In short, samskaras are impressions piled and stored in the unconscious and subconscious mind and body which propel us towards certain behaviors and their consequences.
The cause of samkaras or subliminal impressions can come from perception, inference, choices, practice, interaction with others, thoughts, intent, willful actions, education, background, culture, upbringing and even dreams and past lives. Samskaras manifest as habits, behavior (acara), character (silam), tendencies, and psychological predispositions. Actions based on samskaras can be skillful or unskillful, yet habituation based on samskaras is ultimately the cause of our limitations and a small sense of self (i.e. identifying with what we like and dislike, identifying with our habits or personality: “This is just how I am”).
Within Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, samskaras are also the seeds which cause rebirth and endless transmigration in samsara, the ocean of life and death or wheel of time, whose essential characteristic is suffering, disease, or unsatisfactoriness.
The theory of karma is essentially the principle of cause and effect – that actions of body, speech and mind bear fruit. From our actions of body, speech and mind, whether negative positive or somewhere in between, we reap corresponding results. Furthermore, the subtle imprints or “grooves” in the consciousness created by our actions become deeper and more enforced by repetition. Repetition is a key factor in the formation of habits, whether positive or negative. In a sense, it is easy to change our habits — we merely need to repeat certain actions of body, speech and mind over a period of time and the habit will change, or new habits will be reinforced.
In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar gives a down-to-earth example of how samskaras work, and how to break free of habitual patterns. B.K.S. Iyengar uses the example of coming home to ice cream in the freezer after a hard day’s work. After returning home from work and seeing something pleasing to eat, the hand impulsively reaches for the tub — knowing the the immediate feeling of eating ice-cream is pleasurable, based on past experience. This impulse can easily overpower the mind, especially if the “groove” is deep enough. Here is where the mind and intelligence can intervene in the usual habit pattern. Analysis and reasoning (vitarka) and reflection and consideration (vichara) are the first mental steps in overcoming habit energy. The mind needs to observe and reflect on whether an action is skillful or unskillful and anticipate the long term effects of the action, not only the immediate gratification. This process leads to discernment (viveka). After discernment has been reached, the mind is in a position to use its will (iccha) to act. This action, though likely more positive and skillful, is still in the realm of karma, and one reaps the corresponding effect, such as not feeling terrible after indulging in a tub of ice cream. After repeating this process the mind can create new, positive samkaras (or neural pathways). One is still not free from habit energy altogether, though the samkaras are being changed from negative to positive habits. However, the process of transformation has begun. In relation to this, I found this writing from Swami Chidananda, from the Sivananda lineage:
Over time, the effort to observe, reflect, discriminate and act bears fruit – one is no longer in the sway of the senses, habits and impressions. One is in a genuine position of choice and freedom as vairagya (non attachment) blooms. Vairagya can be understood as a subtractive principal – letting go of that which is unhelpful in the path. Whereas Abhyasa can be seen as the additive principle – repeated practice of cultivating the positive qualities which are helpful in realizing our deepest aspiration.
I have experimented with this practice of observation and reflection followed by discrimination and willful action to overcome habit energy. Getting up very early in the morning has often been challenging for me. One morning, I pressed the snooze button and turned over a few times and then the passage from Light on Life came to mind, where B.K.S. Iyengar writes that one has to use tremendous will to overcome the especially deep rooted habits (the Hatha of Hatha Yoga, also means will, or force). For me, one of these habits has been turning over in bed and sleeping another hour, when I could be ready to get up and practice. So I experiment, use will and get up and begin the day with meditation. Sometimes, this practice does not go as well, and I turn over to sleep. Sometimes I need the sleep, and sometimes habit prefers this comfort. This experiment of working with habit truly takes time and fortitude.
The following Yoga Sutras may be applied to overcoming unskillful habits:
II. 33 vitarka bhadhane pratipaksa bhavanam
When you are disturbed
negative thoughts or emotions,
cultivation of their opposites
and firmness in the precepts. trans. M. Stiles
Principals which run contrary to yama and niyama are to be countered with the principals of knowledge and discrimination. trans. B.K.S Iyengar
Through cultivation friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent. trans. B.K.S. Iyengar
Both of these Sutras indicate that our troubles and afflictions are rooted in unwholesome activity of body, speech and mind, which are themselves rooted in ignorance of the true nature of reality. These positive cultivations are a powerful practices and are helpful in overcoming habitual, unskillful states. Additionally, according to the Sutras, burning the seeds of habit, requires transformational insight (prajna), and breaking through all duality of good and bad habits into the realm of the unconditioned. B.K.S. Iyengar elucidates this in Sutras I.48 – I.51 with the dawning of rtambhara prajna – a seasoned intelligence or mature wisdom accompanied by intense insight.
A new life begins with this truth bearing light. Previous impressions are left behind and new ones are prevented. Trans. B.K.S Iyengar
I bring in this Sutra in to inspire and give a vision that such things are possible, even for all of us beginners, if we persist. That such a penetrating insight can prevent the arising of future suffering, is an inspiring reason to practice. The Yoga Sutras go on to say that even this powerful insight must be relinquished, for it too is a seed, though a very positive seed.
Even this distinctive knowledge of insight (I.50) has to be restrained, subdued and contained. Then, as a flame is extinguished when the wood is burnt out, or as rivers loose their existence on joining the sea, all volitions and impressions of the unconscious, subconscious, conscious and superconscious mind cease to exist. All these rivers of consciousness merge with the ocean of the seer.
However lofty this may sound, this ultimate freedom is within the reach of each person if the aim and means are present. The yogic practices outline the path towards freedom, through seeing, knowing, discerning, practicing and letting go — the path to becoming free of habit and limitation. Our habits and our difficulties can be our teachers, if we use them to study the self and as a starting point for transformation. This does not happen over night, but the yogis have shown us the way… now it is our turn to walk the path.
Here is a distillation for ways of working with habit:
Identify the habit.
Identify what is deeply and spiritually important in your life.
Analyze and reflect if the habit is helpful or hurtful in both the short and long term – prioritize the long term in relation to your spiritual path and deepest yearnings.
Set your mind to be aware of the habit and the impulses of mind.
Practice not reacting to impulses.
Cultivate positive habits over a long time, until they become natural.
Practice friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity to yourself and others.
Persevere and do not lose sight of your aim.
Practice observing the mind in meditation, go deep.
Continue, repeat, let go, surrender to higher self.
In the “Hints and Cautions for the Practice of Asana” in Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar writes that the qualities demanded from an aspirant are discipline, faith, tenacity and perseverance. These are the very qualities that came to mind when I thought of what I admired most about BKS Iyengar.
The quality of discipline has many shades of meaning. While looking up synonyms for the English word, discipline, I found: control, training, teaching, instruction, regulation, direction, order, authority, rule, strictness. None of these words quite hit he mark, and for some people these words may strike a negative chord, based on their associations with these words. Although all these synonyms have their place in the discipline of BKS Iyengar, the Sanskrit word Tapas, based on the root Tap (तप्) meaning “to heat, to give out warmth, to shine, to burn,” comes closer. BKS Iyengar writes:
It (tapas) therefore means a burning effort in all circumstances to achieve a definite goal in life. It involves purification, self-discipline and austerity. The whole science of character building can be regarded as a practice of tapas. (p. 38 Light on Yoga)
Tapas, one of the five niyamas, is self-discipline with one’s highest aim always in mind. It is not a selfish quest, or a working to satisfy one’s desires in life, but a “conscious effort to achieve ultimate union with the Divine and to burn up all desires which stand in the way of this goal.” (p.38 LOY) Tapas means reflecting on one’s actions in body, speech and mind and refining one’s actions everyday.
The quality of faith in BKS Iyengar’s life is exemplified by his faith in his guru, T Krisnamacharya, faith in the practice of yoga, faith in himself to overcome all obstacles and faith in (or surrender to) the Lord, True Self, or Ultimate Reality (ishvara-pranidhana). Faith comes through very strongly in his personal religious devotion and his faith in the transformative power of practice which he worked hard to teach to his students.
Tenacity is linked to tapas and faith. Tenacity is putting the qualities of the heart (faith, devotion, tapas) into action until one’s ultimate aim is achieved. It is the unstoppable urge to reach perfection and freedom.
Perseverance is closely linked to tenacity. It implies that one continues in practice and faith even when times are difficult and obstacles (क्लेश, klesha) are many. BKS Iyengar has illustrated these qualities in his own life on several occasions: when he was young and overcoming tuberculosis and other health problems, when he failed for years to understand or properly practice pranayama, and when he lost most of his asana practice after a scooter accident. After all of these various setbacks, BKS Iyengar did not give up or become complacent. Instead, he applied more interest and application in his practice to overcome what stood in his way to reaching his aim. He was strict with himself, yet compassionate to his students. This is what made him a remarkable teacher and human being.
Classically, in the Bhagavad Gita, there are four main branches of Yoga: Jnana (path of knowledge), Dhyana (meditation), Karma (selfless action), Bhakti (devotion). Here, I will focus on the Yoga Sutras as complied by Patanjali, called Astanga yoga or Patanjali yoga. I have been blessed to study Patanjali yoga with two long-time students of Yogacharya BKS Iyengar for the past three weeks and this essay is my reflection of their teachings and my personal studies.
Yoga is an ancient spiritual science, moska shastra, or science of liberation, originating in India in the Vedas (rites), Upanishads (philosophy and theory), and epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana as well as scriptures such as the Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gherenda Samhita, Siva Samhita as well as commentaries from yogis of various spiritual traditions including Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and others through the ages. Throughout history to the present day, the yogis have shown us how to liberate ourselves in this very incarnation from the endless cycles of birth and death, and to avoid endless pitfalls that lead to ignorance, disease and suffering.
The practices of yoga are vast, with differing practices to suite individual temperaments. However, there is a single thread, or sutra, that unites all practices and that is union itself, union with the source of all life, union with the current or universal energy of all. This union it is called by many names including Brahman, God, ultimate or absolute reality, the source, and the truth. The name itself is not as important as the experience that liberates. The path of yoga is to shed the layers which obscure our true self which is, as revealed in the scriptures as sat-chit-ananda, being consciousness bliss. As our yoga teacher here is reiterating in numerous ways, this bliss (which is love) is in the heart of each being and is our true teacher or guru. The quest for liberation and self-realization begins with a heart and mind seeking to know and realize its true nature and abandon the causes of suffering.
Astanga Yoga begins with the external path of yama (universal ethical principals), niyama (personal discipline), asana (posture), pranayama (regulating the breath, vital energy), pratyahara (internal withdrawal of the senses), dharana (stabilization of mind), dhyana (meditation or sustained concentration), and samadhi (absorption, profound meditation). Patanjali yoga progresses from the external to the the internal universe of prana breath/vital energy, manas (mind), chitta (consciousness), and atman (soul). Progress in yoga would be impossible without an ethical foundation yama, and personal discipline, niyama. Through yama and niyama, our whole life becomes yogic and sets a foundation for the internal practices, in which one works with the subtle aspects of ones being to culture the consciousness and uproot the source of ignorance.
Yoga points to the kleshas, afflictions, as a source of suffering, afflictions, pain and distress and the vrittis, or mental fluctuations, as obscuring clarity. The kleshas are avidya (ignorance), raga (desire), dvesa (aversion), asmita (ego clinging), and abhinivesa (fear of death). We are constantly in the swing of the kleshas. Avidya is said to be the source of the other klesas. Avidya is essentially seeing the unreal as real and identifying with unreal, i.e the body as the Self. Avidya looks to gratify the senses as the way to happiness. In other words, avidya looks externally for happiness, when the true source of happiness is internal. We see avidya manifest everywhere – in the unquenchable thirst for material riches, status, position, rank, prestige, class etc, to gratify a fundamental seeking for happiness. These means of seeking happiness at most provide an external mask of happiness or momentary pleasure.
My yoga teacher here uses the analogy of eating an ice-cream to express avidya. First, the senses look externally for a source of pleasure. Then, the mind and the senses get fixated on the idea of eating an ice cream, in which pleasure is remembered from past experiences. Finally, the senses are gratified when one eats an ice cream. There are five minutes of ice cream induced pleasure, and then that is gone. Sometimes one is left feeling worse after the ice cream. Our teacher even told us of how chemical laden the ice creams often are in India: one evening, an ice cream was sold to him from an insistent ice cream vendor while traveling. The ice cream lay by his bedside through the night and in the morning it was still the same shape as the previous evening – no melting! Often, the things that the body construes as pleasurable cause much toxicity in our mind and body i.e various forms of media, consumerism, gossip, junk food.
Another way we are distracted from our true nature are the vrittis, or fluctuations in consciousness. The second sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s states: yoga chittavritti nirodhah, yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness (Light on The Yoga Sutras, p. 49-50). The vrittis are: pramana, viparyaya, vilkalpa, nidra, smiti – correct knowledge/discernment, misconception, fantasy, sleep and memory. The vrittis causes a continuous oscillation of the consciousness. When the consciousness is stilled, the yogi abides in samadhi – profound meditation and abiding in the bliss of ones true nature. BKS Iyengar writes, “Thus yoga is the art and science of mental discipline through which the mind becomes cultured and matured. . . The sadhaka’s aim is to bring the consciousness into a state of purity and translucence.” (Light on the Yoga Sutras)
There are also various obscurations which impede progress in yoga and are a cause of distraction. In the Yoga Sutras they are defined as disease, lack of interest or sluggishness, lingering doubt, pride or carelessness, idleness, sense gratification, living in a world of delusion, lack of perseverance and backsliding. (Sutra 1.30, p. 83) The direct antidote to the obscurations is cultivating the Brahma viharas (divine abodes), which are shared with Buddhism: mairti (friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), upeksa (equanimity).
The yogic practices work to balance the qualities of nature called the gunas. The gunas are comprised of tamas (intertia, lethargy), rajas (activity) and sattva (purity, balance, clarity). Much of the modern world lives in a rajastic state: busy and running from one activity to another with little pause – mentally, physically, and emotionally. This affects the deeper layers of our being and prevents true spiritual development. For evolution to occur, the body, breath, mind, energy, psychology, emotions, all must be brought into a sattvic, pure state through life style, diet and practice of the eight limbs of yoga. Through consistent practice and adherence to a yogic lifestyle, one naturally gravitates towards sattva. I have been aware of this in my own practice: as life has become less busy and externally demanding, I can devote more energies to the inner world, and find the correct balance between inner and outer involvements.
Ultimately, as ones consciousness becomes purified and rarefied through continuous connection to the source of being (samadhi), and one transcends the gunas and merges with the whole. Shankaracharya writes about this state:
When the mind, thus purged by ceaseless meditation is merged in Brahman, the state of Samadhi is attained. In that state there is no sense of duality. The undivided joy of Brahman is experienced. (p. 109 Crest-Jewel of Discrimination)
There are endless paths to yoga – this essay just scratches the surface. One thing that I have realized is that yoga is a personal practice and each person expresses and practices the teachings in a way suitable to their disposition. One may practice yoga in accord with their own spiritual tradition – and thus strengthen their faith through direct experience of truth. The practices ground one in virtue through the yamas and niyamas and orient the spirit towards its highest expression of self-realization. Asana cleanses and tones the physical body and pranayama takes one into the subtle realm of breath and life energy. The mind becomes still, rarefied and prepared to enter the forest and clear lake of the inner most being – full of light, effulgence, its nature love and bliss.
On April 2nd, Dillon and I arrived in New Delhi at 1:30am after about 20 hours of air travel. Stopping in Shanghai, our trip to India started by visiting two giant cities with serious environmental pollution. It has been alarming to see a grey/brown sky with no horizon in sight. The hot sun of Delhi found its way through the smog and the temperature peaked around 40 degrees C, or close to 100 F.
We’ve spent our first “night” (2am-6am sleep) in Paharganj (the only place I could book a hotel the night before), which is not recommended, as it serves as a budget travelers transit neighborhood. The second night we spent in Manju-ka-Till, the Tibetan refugee camp in Delhi.
I am filled with memories and flashbacks from my time here 10 years ago, when almost no one had a mobile. Now smart phones and wi-fi are ubiquitous. Ten years ago, in my more youthful days as a 20 year old college student, I found everything fresh, new, adventurous and mind expanding. Now I find myself 10 years older, 30, with some significant life experience. Having loved, studied, traveled, worked, experienced heartbreak, and followed the spiritual path to some extent, there as been an enormous change in me. Am I that same 20 year old? No – but those impressions and experiences have lead me to where I am now. I am, however, interested in retaining that freshness of vision and curiosity that taught me much about myself and the world.
Sometimes I wonder why I/we decided to return to India. What is it about this place? I know the trials, hassels and constant encounters with people who are seriously undernourished and living in very difficult circumstances are a part of life here. Delhi is especially trying to traveler as everything is hot, dusty, noisy – cars, motorbikes, buses, rickshaws constantly honking – and for me is quite overwhelming to a jet lagged and newly arrived traveler. As the days have gone by, it has become more clear to me why I have come: The gravity of this place, its ancient spiritual sciences that have survived by a small number are pulling me back to my very center as a human being.
On April 3rd, we took an afternoon train to Haridwar, 5 or 6 hours North of Delhi in the edge of the Himalayas where the Ganga river flows swiftly into the heart of India. A hot ride and humid ride, my clothing sticking to every part of my body. It was not entirely unpleasant; there is an underlying gentleness and humanness to many people which makes connection come naturally.
Our first morning, I took a bath in the Ganga, the cold water rushing quickly and pilgrims bathing joyfuly, splashing themselves and each other, praying, enjoying the sacred banks of mother Ganga. Our 2nd night in Haridwar, we discovered an old-style ashram right on the banks of the Ganga called Vanaresi Vaisram built around 2 generations ago when the surrounding land was still jungle. Our room was right on the edge of the fast flowing Ganga. What a blessing.
The next day we left by train uphill to Dehradun, where we are now, in Rajpur, a small settlement in the foothills of the Himalaya. We began our Yoga course yesterday with Rajiv and Swati Chanchani at Yog-Ganga. Much to say about this, so I will save that for the next entry.
It seems the internet connection is too slow to upload photos. Those to come as well.
“By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.” -Mother Theresa
“The fool thinks, “I am the body.” The intelligent man thinks, “I am the individual soul united with the body.” But the wise man, in the greatness of his knowledge and discrimination, sees the atman as reality and thinks, “I am Brahman.” – Shankacharya, The Crest-Jewel of Discrimination
“The navel chakra: a vortex into the sanctum sanatorium.”
“Satiated in Radiance.”
– Rajiv Chanchani (paraphrased)
However beautifully we carry out an asana, however flexible our body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath and mind we can hardly claim that what we are doing is yoga. What is yoga after all? It is something that we experience inside, deep within our being. Yoga is not an external experience. In yoga we try in every action to be as attentive as possible to everything we do. Yoga is different from dance or theater. In yoga we are not creating something for others to look at. As we perform the various asanas we observe what we are doing and how we are doing it. We do it only for ourselves. We are both the observer and what is observed at the same time. If we do not pay attention to ourselves in our practice, then we cannot call it yoga.
“There is no state to be attained other than our practice of letting go.”
Letting go is a commitment to return to what is in front of us, rather than dwelling in the world of the mind, fabrication, habit, or karma. Continuous practice is the practice of letting go and fully experiencing each moment. When we practice in each moment, life becomes a gift, as each moment is unique and full.
“This life is fleeting, wake up, wake up! Don’t waste this life!” Living in a Zen temple we are reminded of impermanence and fleeting nature of life. We are reminded that there is nothing to hold on to or take with us. We exist in a world where nothing is “known” and the best we can do is act in harmony with the unfolding of life.
In letting go, I return to what is most immediate, the breath, the body the sensations of being alive. In letting go, I acknowledge the powers of the mind, of planning and discernment and practice awareness, knowing how easy it is to identify with thoughts and feelings. The base of practice is awareness.
How can I let go and not be governed by impulse and desire? How can I flow with the constant changes of life and maintain my inner compass? I am realizing slowly that to sit quietly, live and move with awareness, notice and let go, over and over again is the practice of Zen. Letting go, letting the thoughts of the mind, and the pieces of the broken “self” be offered up to the empty sky – in their place, moments of peace and appreciation of this very life.
Describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and belief in some sort of beauty – describe all these with a loving, quiet humble sincerity, and use to express yourself the things in your environment, the images from your dreams and the objects of your memory.
Raineer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet