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Friday, February 15, 2013

The props class

Don't forget the Basics of Prop Use this weekend, one of the Occasional Saturday Series.  In this second part of the series, we will look at the two main uses of props: 1) as a straightforward support when the strength or flexibility is lacking, and 2) as a guide for our own sense of direction in the pose.  Another way of thinking about is that we will use props as a source of stability or as a source of action, and sometimes both at once.  

There will be some additional discussion of the yoga sutra and Patanjali's thinking about the matter of support (alambana)  and being without support (niralamba)

  The class meets at 10:00am, not 9:30am as may be listed elsewhere. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

I read it on a bumper sticker and it changed my life

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.
Attributed to Lao Tzu.  

I found this on a bumper sticker yesterday morning and used it straight away in teaching a class involving a vinyasa type connected sequence of poses all on one side, and repeated on the other side.  Here's the sequence, for fun (note: all poses held for 30 seconds throughout.  Poses can certainly be held longer, and sequences can be repeated for fuller effect... poses can also be done near a wall to aid with balance or shakiness.)
hasta padasana
parsva hasta padasana
virabhadrasana II
ardha chandrasana
urdhva prasarita ekapadasana
utthita hasta padangusthasana
parsva utthita hasta padangusthasana
parivrtta utthita hasta padangusthasana
virabhadrasana III
urdhva prasarita ekapadasana

there were really two of these for the standing poses that we did on New Year's Day.  Here's the second one, involving the revolved standing poses:
hasta padasana utkatasana
parsva hasta padasana
virabhadrasana I
parivrtta parsvakonasana
parivrtta trikonasana
parivrtta ardha chandrasana
urdhva prasarita ekapadasana


Monday, December 24, 2012


I admit to you, both of my readers, that I do not have a full answer to the question of who or what is that which we call God. And if there is such a thing as God, I am sure I do not know what God is thinking or doing.  No idea.  Of course, I have my lifelong and ongoing education to rely on for help in the search, as well as my feelings, wishes, observations and experience all along the way.  All this has made for 1) waaay more questions, 2) a sense of patience with my unanswered ones.  3) It also makes me spend more time relating what other people think to what I think. I like being open-minded, flexible, and alert.

However, even if none of us had ever gotten a complete answer to rely upon as being true and not false, not conjecture or imaginative inference or analogy or some other shadowed, fractional or dubious way of understanding things, we still, always, have to figure out what to do.  Right now and in fact all the time, every moment, waking or sleeping.  Even if we admit that we may never know the answer to a single question, we still have to do something anywayEven though we may be on the verge of barking madness because we have no idea what we should or ought to do, as long as we are composed of matter whose atoms and quarks move, we will be doing something anyway.

What to do then? Not to be flippant, but it might as well be the right thing, meaning the thing that is good, any way way you look at what you are doing.   My experience in practice is that the right and the good things are right and good because the sooner you do them, the sooner they make things easier, and not just for me but for people around me, on and off the mat.  I think ultimately it’s what Patanjali meant when he said that asana (that pure doing part of yoga practice) becomes effortless when one is able to give up effort and still maintain the pose.  One can only do this when one is doing it right on many levels, from ethical to practical to spiritual. 

So what is the right thing to do? It’s helpful to note that regardless of the differences in peoples’ notions of who or what God is, remarkable similarities can be found in the advice the many teachers give on how we should act here, on the ground.  In a yoga posture like Rajakapotasana (go look it up).  Cleaning up after the animals.  Living and working with your various partners in life.  In the midst of war; maybe in life you have had to actually fight for one side or another in a conflict.  There are some truly worldwide ideas out there about what is right action, right conduct.  Here are a few, off the top of my head; you should recognize them all from things you have been taught somewhere down the line, no matter where you that teaching came from:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Do not do to your neighbor what is abhorrent to you.
Relax your throat; relax your breathing; relax your mind.
Do no harm.
Tell the truth.
Control your appetites so that they do not harm yourself or others.
Do not take what is not yours.
Do not want that which you do not need.
Don’t worry, be happy.
Do your work with full intent to arrive at the goal, yet unattached to the results.  Just do the work.
Your way of doing things should be steady and comfortable.
Do your duty.  Do the job that is yours to do, no matter how it got in front of you.
Practice steadily and gain skill at what you do.  Skillful action always helps. 
Stay healthy or get healthy as soon as you can.
Develop the ability to focus one one thing for long periods of time, to absorb yourself in study and practice. Doing this requires stability and also a sense of direction. 
Don't worry about time. Also, don't waste time. 
Don’t be lazy or inattentive.  
If there is an obstacle in the way of your progress, become quiet, focus, develop your discipline, intelligence, and skill and move forward again. 
Have your feelings, but don’t get caught up in them; it keeps you from paying attention to what is.
Any amount of effort in the right direction will do.  No effort is wasted.
Be friendly, compassionate, joyous, steadfast and dedicated to your practice, and don’t get caught up in anyone else’s craziness, even if they are standing right next to you.  
However you discover it, if you find you are doing or thinking something wrong, or your position while doing it is wrong, stop and fix it.  Don’t wait.
If you find yourself psychologically in a bad "position":  unfriendly, uncompassionate, unjoyous, inattentive, unsteadfast or not dedicated to your practice, then your practice is incorrect.  Fix that. 

I can keep going through the more books to find more of what I think of as these universal useful words, but I would like to see if any among you have other ideas to add.   Suggestions about what might be included and what of my list could be taken out because they are not universal.  (I took a few out already).  What do you think of as a universal rule of how to act toward yourself and others?

Here is one more:  Make mistakes.     
I give credit for this to my friend Steve, who considers this a good and highly useful rule.    He keeps these two words printed out to fill one 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper and framed on his dining room table.  I think this one rule, Make Mistakes, could be practiced constantly and with little change of effort even--I mean my life is filled with opportunities to practice this-- but the trick, as always, is to know what is a mistake and what is not.

So we raised close to $700 for our Holiday Donation classes.  I am amazed and delighted that these large projects will each get a good deal of help.  Between Friday afternoon’s and Saturday morning’s classes, we had a lot of truly generous people in class this weekend.  You all did a splendid thing, and you did it well.  I never know what to expect for these events, but I feel brighter now because of such a splendid outcome.  And delight of delights!  Mary Scott brought us fantastic hot spiced cider for sipping after class.  We all thank you too, Mary, for that particular skillful action, and your compassion for us thirsty yogis.

Be well, everyone.
[Edit: updates throughout]

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Two Special Holiday Classes

 On Friday, Dec. 21 (the Advanced Practice at 4:30-6:30pm) and Saturday morning Dec. 22 (an All Levels class from 10am-noon), I’ll lead two classes for donations only,  with 100% of all proceeds split equally between two wonderful and worthy causes.   Note, the Friday practice is just that, our regular allegedly-advanced-but-definitely-hard-work practice time, where we together do a practice derived from the work of our wonderful senior teachers.  The Saturday class will be a holiday sort of restorative class, with me leading the sequence and giving instruction and assistance, and maybe talking too much or too little, trying, you know, to keep you conscious and not snoozing.  

Regarding the charities, the first is Mr. Iyengar’s project to provide health care, sanitation and higher education in his home village, Bellur, near Bangalore in the south of India. This project has been ongoing for quite some years now, and still more work and financing is needed to support such a large undertaking.  

The second charity is one of my personal favorites, Doctors without Borders, (because I saw them in action when I lived in Africa).  They provide medical care to the neediest in the most dangerous and forsaken parts of the world today.  Come enjoy what you love to do, and your donation will benefit the neediest.

Hot cider and snacks will be provided.  Come enjoy yourself.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Little More About This Emotion Thing

[note: slightly edited from first posting]
Here is another way of looking at the importance of getting one’s emotions under control (see the post below) before you try to do your work or engage in any sort of interaction with others.

Malcom Gladwell has written an interesting book called Blink, that explains the way we are able to make subconscious, intuitive judgements about things and people in the blink of an eye.  This capability is critical to everyone, from the teacher evaluating a student in class, to the customer and the salesman bargaining for a car at the dealership, to the appraiser evaluating a piece of art as genuine or a forgery, to the policeman or soldier figuring out whether or not to fire a weapon at an individual suddenly running toward or away from him. 

Gladwell makes the case that we do this sort of instant, subconscious observation of minute details in peoples’ facial expression, vocal tone, or body language, and we look at all sorts of other clues that the five senses provides us all the time, and we are by and large good at it.  He also makes two other points that are huge:

1) the more training you have in the particular work in question, the better the intuitive “blink”evaluations will be.   As a car dealer, you can better evaluate who is likely to buy and who is not when the person walks in the door; as an art appraiser, the more genuine art or artifacts you see, the better you can evaluate a new item; and the more experienced policemen are the ones more likely to hold fire and not react precipitously in a suspicious situation.

2) Except sometimes experience does not give any advantage at all.  It turns out that when ignorance and stereotyping exists, or fear or anger, or greed, or some other negativity enters the mind of the individual, the ability to use experience to evaluate and correctly respond to the situation in the moment is reduced.  Decidedly.  And at an instinctual level--in that "blink" moment. Because the mind is clouded by what we yogis see as the kleśas, clues that might ordinarily be clear to us are overlooked.  The mind reflects our klesas more than it does reality.  And bad decisions result.  Sometimes very bad.  Cornell West, Harvard professor, is arrested trying to enter his own house.  Amadou Diallo is shot 42 times in his own vestibule in New York, trying to get away from the policemen he thought were going to harm him.  The Getty Museum bought a forgery of a Greek statue for $10 million.  

Tell me you have not made some probably less newsworthy but still bad decision under the influence of ignorance, ambition, greed, hatred, or fear. 

This is not to say that these negative emotions have no useful purpose.  There are genuine reasons why anger and desire and fear arise, and those who do not acknowledge their arousal, or who never even feel them, might be missing parts of their neural circuitry, and are certainly suppressing or outright missing huge clues about themselves and the world around them.    But they are not helpful in seeing the deep truth of a person or situation, or in the development of yogic wisdom.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Be Happy or it's Hard to Practice

I’m picking up on something we discussed in the teacher training this past weekend:  the “theme” sutra was I.33 (see below).  Patanjali’s context is this:  three sutras before, he names the range of obstacles or disturbances to practice, and their concommitants (YS I.30-31), which to avoid for once my natural tendency to digress, I won’t go into here.  But you should look at them because this sutra here can be read as part of Patanjali’s explanation of how to resolve those obstacles.  Well, read the whole pada really; it’s all of a piece, and all relevant. 

To eliminate the disturbances, Patanjali says we should practice fixing the mind on one object. 

I.32:  tat-pratiṣedhārtham eka-tattvābhyāsaḥ
[Bryant]  Practice [of fixing the mind] on one object [should be performed] in order to eliminate these disturbances.
[Iyengar] Adherence to single-minded effort prevents these impediments.

Vyasa states that the disturbances in I.30 are to be counteracted by the practice and dispassion mentioned in I.12-I.16.  He considers this sutra to be Patanjali’s final statement in this pada on practice. 
The ‘one object’ is sometimes understood by commentators (see Vachaspati Misra, Iyengar and probably Bryant too) to be God, though other commentators (see Aranya, Vijnana-bhiksu, Bhojaraja) point out that Patanjali does not himself indicate anything other than exactly what he says in the sutra itself.  And throughout the entire Sutra (look particularly at the third pada), Patanjali gives us many different focal points for concentration and practice, all aimed at overcoming delusion and limitation, or developing capacity, or yielding lucidity and deep wisdom and understanding of existence.

Iyengar points out that for most of us the notion of surrender to God is not comprehensible, let alone attainable.  Throughout most of our practice, we ordinary people remain caught up in the delusions and disturbances of our myriad likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows, advances and setbacks.  I would add here that regardless of the God issue, for most of us this act of concentration on anything is not easily attainable.  We often spend our time on and off the mat or the cushion caught up in some form of negativity.  We relive a problem, we have imaginary yet vivid conversations with those we feel are our antagonists, or in other ways burrowing deeper into our fear, dislike, or delusion. Only when the tendency to dwell in these negativities and distractions is eliminated, is the mind clear, calm and capable of prolonged concentration on one object. 

So then comes a series of sutras (I.33-I.39 ) on the topic of how to cultivate that steadiness of mind and consciousness that allows this single-pointed focus.  The first sutra of this section is our subject:

I.33 maitrī-karuṇā-muditopekṣāṇāṁ sukha-dhḥkha-puṇyāpuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanam
[Bryant] By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.
[Iyengar]Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent. 

The general idea from all the commentators, Vyasa and onward, is that the sutra is telling us to be happy when we see others’ happiness; to be compassionate when we see others suffering; to be joyous at others’ virtues; and to be detached or benevolently indifferent toward those who are not virtuous.  In other words, no negativities allowed.

Here is Bryant explaining additional points made by both Hariharananda and Vacaspati Misra: “ By being a well-wisher toward those who are happy, as well as those who are virtuous, the contamination of envy is removed.  By compassion toward those who are miserable, that is, by wishing to remove someone’s miseries as if they were one’s own, the contamination of the desire to inflict harm on others is removed.  By equanimity toward the impious, the contamination of intolerance is removed.  By this removing these traits of envy, desire to inflict harm, and intolerance, which are characteristics of rajas and tamas, the sattva natural to the mind can manifest. “

I think Patanjali is telling us that we cannot progress beyond the superficialities of yoga until we take a deep look at, and clean up the roots of our emotional interaction with the world around us.  Every mind state Patanjali and the commentators bring up—happiness, compassion, joy, benevolent detachment; and the “contaminations” they dispel: envy, anger, and intolerance—are all what we Westerners would think of as emotional states.  They exist not at the intellectual level (buddhi in yogic terms), but at the more instinctive and visceral level, the level of feeling (manas).  They are whole body-mind states, certainly recognizable to ourselves, and also to any who look at us. 

Once again, note the primary placement of this sutra in the list of ways of cultivating sattvic lucidity and the calmness necessary for concentration.  As we know, when something comes up first in Patanjali’s lists of things, it usually means that first item is a sort of primary or baseline thing that needs to be attended to first before what follows can be practiced or understood properly.  The message is that in order for the mind to be lucid and level enough to concentrate, it must be emotionally balanced.
Proof of this is to be found in an examination of the sutras that come next:

I.34  pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyāṁ vā prāṇasya
[Iyengar] Or, by maintaining the pensive state felt at the time of soft and steady exhalation and during passive retention after exhalation.
[Bryant] Or [stability of mind is gained] by exhaling and retaining the breath.

If you did your reading on sutras I. 30-31, you have already noted that the direct concommitants of the obstacles or distractions to practice are (I.31] suffering, dejection, trembling and unsteadiness of body and breath.  In other words, that “pensive” state that comes from a steady breathing pattern is likely to be rather elusive if one is suffering in a negative emotional state.

Likewise, the rest of this short series of sutras are all about ways of cultivating “steadiness of mind and consciousness,”  contemplation of a “sorrowless” light or the sages who are “free from desires and attachments” (in other words, free from negative emotional states).  They are all aimed at arriving at a calm, steady and negativity-free mind state.

Many of us practice without understanding the primary necessity for emotional stability, because nowhere does Patanjali speak of it using that term.  But this does not mean it wasn’t important to him.  It’s only that he didn’t use the word we use for that part of our selves.  And why that is is for another post, another time.