may we be together in protection, nourishment, energy, truth and grace

I can feel the ecstatic buzz among many Ashtanga teachers these days as they prepare for the upcoming KPJAYI special 2-month training. This mix of excitement, gratitude, anticipation, and celebration can be a powerful motivating force behind the extreme effort we make in Mysore trips.
I would like to express my wish for all those participating in this course in person and from afar, for students and teachers of present and future, for the entire worldwide ashtanga community to benefit from this experience.
There are many who, like me, are keenly interested in what Sharath will share at this course, but choosing not to attend because of other priorities (family, work, health, etc.). My dear friends Shirley and Thomas, for example, are home with infant triplets. My thoughts and prayers have been going out to them daily for many months now. I also appreciate that there are also many students for whom this course is an increasingly rare opportunity to actually get to Mysore – either parents who may not be able to get to Mysore during the usual yoga season because their kids are in school, or long-time students who have found themselves together with the hundreds of applicants not being accepted during the regular yoga season because the school is full.
May we all continue to find inspiration and support for practice. If that is coming from actually going to mysore, then may we embrace the challenge of making each trip a learning experience, of infusing the ritual with heart and soul, of turning the mundane into sacred sadhana. May we continue to learn to be open-hearted and open-minded, to see, hear and feel both that which immediately inspires us and also that which challenges us in new directions. May we be disciplined and true to our selves and also receptive to wisdom which will continue to change the way we think and perceive our selves and students and the world.
om saha naa vavatu  |  saha nau bhunaktu
saha viiryam karavaavahai  |
tejasvinaavadhiitamastu  |
maa vidvisaavahai  |
om shaantih shaantih shaantih  ||

 

The Lesson and the Boon

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Yoga and all the great adventure of that India has given to my life, has been an ongoing lesson in the illusive art of making ritual meaningful and letting that meaning organically flow into every way I engage in life.

At the moment, however, the lesson is bittersweet. I am now living proof that an advanced asana practice does not necessarily mean an advanced yoga practice. I am still somewhere in the learning curve of yoga when the extent of confusion in the mind is still showing more and more of itself.

What a year it has been. This year I have found a new spaciousness in my backbends and depth in my forward bends, and experienced the ecstatic physical sensations that accompany this grace. I have also encountered the same old stiffness in thinking, resistance in loving, and hesitance in acceptance. I’m almost 40 years old and still growing up!

Our school of yoga has a way of setting off some pretty extreme standards for physical strength and flexibility, and sometimes I feel these standards creeping into other realms of my life. Like so many of us, I am still chasing down some fancy asanas, even though I know and feel the lure of the more simple and advanced yoga of mental peace. The truth is that the asana practice really works for me now – to keep me engaged and balanced.

Yet in a way, the more confusion in my head, the more I turn to the physicality of the asana practice. Ironically, when I am most confused or in turmoil, my asana practice gets the biggest boost. So I tend to look on folks with advanced asana practice and wonder what is behind their momentous project.

For me the asana practice meets the meditation practice when my body teaches my mind to work skillfully, delicately, sensitively, to balance on what sometimes feels like the razor edge between pain and captivity. Life has a way of bouncing me back and forth between these two zones like a ping-pong ball.

India is the space in between the paddles, where I am flying, kept aloft by the precious energy of the living tradition of ancient vedic spiritual practice. I’m not saying that I know tantra, mantra or puja, I’m just saying I appreciate the energy of being near it.

I love India because it inspires me to perceive a sanguine, elegant melody of peace. For me it’s like swimming in a gently flowing river. And I feel deep gratitude for this boon in my life.

Change

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“Impossible. People don’t change!” exclaimed House, the brutally skeptical hero of the t.v. series with the same name. House’s assertion gave us an interesting idea to contemplate during our day cruise on the quiet winter bay yesterday.

House is so caught up in his life-long struggle to realize the Self beneath his tragically genius mind, rascally nature, and tender heart in a teflon shell, that he is sure we all are stuck in our own personalities. House is such a captivating character because he still has a coming-of-self struggle of a teenager (with teenage tenacity and terror;-) as an accomplished senior physician. He can solve even the most complicated medical problems, yet continues his actively engage in an exhausting struggle with the basic questions of life.

So, can we really change or not? I think that as people with personalities and minds we can change. No, I think that we must change with the flow of life. It has been in the times of my life when I have resisted change that I have felt furthest from my true Self.

While our karma (lessons learned and tendencies developed from the past) may indeed color every seemingly blank page or new opportunity we get, we all have the possibility to see the coloring of our own mind, to understand the distortion of our vision, and work with that.

This year I have done a lot of reflection on my past and realized that through all the various phases of my life, I have never really accepted the fact that my fundamental outlook in life is always changing. In fact, while my soul may remain steadfastly unblemished, like Lord Shiva sitting in Meditation up on Mount Kailash, my mind and personality continue to change with the dance of Shakti that is life.

If I engage in life, it is inevitable that my convictions, my ‘core beliefs’, the strands of thought that are so easily mistaken for ‘who I am’, are always developing and changing. If what I thought 5, 10, 20 years ago is different from the way I see things now, I have to realize that what life is going to look like in the future will be different from the view I have at this moment.

I have never had ‘born again’ experience in this life time, or taken any drastic turns in my mental, physical or spiritual life. But there certainly has been a net change in perspective through all the constant adjustments, the shuffling back and forth, the comings and goings of my life. Sometimes the dance of life asks us to go beyond the limitations of our minds and personalities and grow into better people.

While the seas are relatively quiet, navigating these changes is easy. It’s when the weather picks up that the process of change is the most work.

Our Experiment with the Simple Life

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As it turns out, the simple life is a bit complicated. For us to make it work, as we have recently learned, there has to be something more than single simplicity. There has to be connection with community.

Earlier this year we had a baby, closed our business and moved out of the big city (Istanbul) to a small seaside town in the South of Turkey (Göcek). Life in the city seemed unnecessarily hectic with the congestion, traffic, pollution, noise, etc. My wife had told be about this spectacular area called the Turquoise Coast.

So when our baby came, we welcomed the opportunity to shift to a more simple life, something of a Mediterranean retreat where we could nurture our little guy through infancy. In just a few weeks, we made a remarkably easy move; a friend down here found us a house to rent, we bought 1-way airline tickets that cost less than our Istanbul monthly bus/subway passes, sent some furniture down in a truck and voila – paradise.

Our cost of living here is a small fraction (literally) of what is was in the city. We walk out our door and stroll along a spectacular seaside for recreation, walk to the grocery and the farmers’ market for resupply, and enjoy sunny afternoons reading on the porch or evenings by the t.v.. There is not much need for a car, which we still don’t have.

‘Why’, I kept thinking, ‘do I not see any of the 15 million plus people in Istanbul doing this?’ Where I am from (the U.S.) people move pretty frequently, and small towns in pristine nature easily accessible to an airport are prime real estate . In Turkey, as I understand, people move less, and mostly to the city rather than the other way around.

But there is more to it than just that. After about half-a-year into this simple life, maybe I am seeing why this place is not inundated with weary city dwellers. I think that the divide between culture and community in the city vs. the village is too wide.

Even though we have made progress toward being able to support this simple lifestyle financially, it feels like it would be very difficult connect well enough in the community to flourish financially out here. Even though the people are very friendly and welcoming, it’s hard to imagine connecting well enough into the community so that we and our kid could contribute, grow, and be nourished here. Even though we actually live better here materially and without any pressure of keeping up with the guy-next-door atmosphere, it feels like there is something missing.

There’s more to it than logistics in what my global yogi friends are promoting on FaceBook: thinking/feeling/eating/speaking/acting/living a simple, natural, ecologically responsible life. There also has to be a feeling of sharing that intention with a community.

On some level, we are living this vision. We consume almost exclusively locally grown food we cook ourselves. We have an extremely low-impact heating (almost never use) cooking (propane) travel (public transportation to the city only about one time per month – haven’t been on a plane in more than six months), lifestyle. We use technology  (internet/skype/Kindle, etc.) to maximize our possibilities and minimize our footprint.

Yet on another level, it doesn’t feel like we are really participating in local life here. Sure, technology gives us the opportunity to like and share and message globally through FaceBook, but when I don’t have any likes/shares/communication with the people around, it feels wrong.

Those for whom living simply is a value, a practice, part of our effort to keep a pure heart, mind, body, house, yard, town, region, planet, etc. need each other. The key to making it work, I think, is sharing that value with others, being with other people who are choosing to live like this, connecting into a community whose intention it is to live with these values.

Without this connection simple can turn into simplistic, simplicity can easily slip into stagnation. Maybe it is natural that when kids come, parents seek to be surrounded with like-minded people with common values.

I salute all those of you out there who have found a way to live simply in this complicated world, and    look forward to living among you some day.

Traditional

Every time I take another peek at Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Makaranda, I find something peculiar, intriguing and enjoyable.

Today I notice how the yoga guru and accomplished scholar puts yoga in the context of other Indian traditions. From Chapter 2

From ancient times, while doing veda adhyayanam, the svaras (the notes udatta (elevated), anudatta (grave) and svarita (middle/articulated) in the aksharas (syllables) of the vedas are observed and mastered without fail;

This is how that distinct sound of vedic chanting is made. He continues:

in music, the rules of sruti (division of octave), layam (metre or time), thrtam and anuthrtam are followed;

These are the basic structural elements of Indian music.

in mantraupasana, the anganyasa, karanyasa, sariranyasa, kalaanyasa, matrukanyasa, jivanyasa, tattvanyasa are experienced and understood.

These are some elements of how to make one’s mantra practice most effective – something I would love to learn more about.

Similarly in yogasana, pranayama and the mudras, the vinyasas handed down from ancient times should be followed.

It feels like there was very little ‘freestyle’ in the Guru’s vinyasa, instead a very distinct, structured, master craftsmanship. ‘Being traditional’, it seems to me, is about more than just following the rules, but learning the system thoroughly.

Much gratitude to all those who have made these texts accessible to us.

Patanjali’s 3 Gifts

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Sometimes a bit of inquiry into and reflection upon the opening mantra gives me more motivation to commence asana practice with the chant, and inspires me to let practice support a broad and deep experience of yoga.

Practice is always better when it starts with a mantra, which feels like such a natural way to ease into meditation on breath and vibration.

It strikes me as significant that Pattabhi Jois, an accomplished Professor of Sanskrit, chose to teach a method of yoga that emphasizes asana as much as it does, leaving the japa, pranayama, philosophical study and other gems in the treasure trove of yoga techniques for further pursuit upon one’s own perseverance, initiative and calling. These days we are hearing a lot of encouragement from our teacher Sharath to study and explore yoga techniques in addition to the asana practice.

Jois’ dictate of 99% practice and 1% theory has really stuck in Ashtanga lore, reflecting the collective resonance of his no-nonsense, down-to-action style. Yet, there is probably more to it than that. I do recall seeing a video (?) in which he said something to the effect that he wasn’t teaching western students more Sanskrit because there was not so much interest. Could it also have been that since his limited English was part of it?  This might be yet another good question for the old students.

My sense is that while our Guruji valued practice immensely, he must have had some connection in his mind between the practice of jumping back, opening hips, lengthening spines etc., and the lofty realm of the Vedas and Upanishads. Was his style of teaching somehow intended to cultivate the possibility of asana leading to the yoga of Sanskrit Philosophy, in which he was a decorated scholar  (Vedanta Vidwan)?

A student of Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga may or may not find her own way to let asana practice lead to other aspects of yoga. But when I look around among my own peers, it feels like a lot of folks are interested in Sanskrit, japa, kirtan, puja, etc.

My intuition tells me that Jois intended to use the asana practice as a practical way to find and stay on the path to yoga’s more esoteric knowledge of yoga. There are probably many students for whom being near Pattabhi Jois gave the feeling that through practice the sweetness of all yoga is there for us to experience.

In fact, rather than branding a ‘Jois Yoga’ or ‘Yoga for Therapy’, Jois called the method he taught ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ after Patanjali Yoga, which has minimal attention to the physical postures of yoga and puts much more emphasis on the mental aspects of meditation. Yet, he seemed to be reticent about students wanting to ‘do meditation’, pranayama, or even chant the Gayatri mantra on their own without a serious foundation in the basics from a qualified teacher.

So how did Pattabhi Jois choose the two shlokas (verses) for the opening mantra? I use the word choose (which ironically, Sharath says we are suffering from too much of;-) because, like so many other things, the opening mantra is a bit different among various Krishnamacharya students, which leads me to think that there was some choice made by Jois, Iyengar and others.

What we do know is that the first verse in the Pattabhi Jois tradition is from Adi Shankaracharya’s Yoga Taravali. We’ve noticed the images of this Advaita Vedanta guru on the wall of the yoga shala, and know that it is an important part of Jois’ lineage.  This particular verse in the Taravali pays respect to the gurus who have come before us and passed down the heritage of spiritual practice.

Yet the practice of Yoga Taravali, as my very limited inquiry has revealed, is not exactly asana-based yoga, but subtle and advanced pranayama and nada yoga techniques. I am left thinking that there must be some connection here with our practice of building a foundation for yoga by daily repetition of physical posture sequences.

The second part of the opening prayer is dedicated to one guru in particular, the great sage Maharishi Patanjali. The Iyengar Yoga tradition also uses that same verse to invoke Patanjali, along with another verse. This other verse is also commonly chanted when reciting Patanjali’s seminal work the Yoga Sutras. It is:

yogena cittasya padena vacam malam  sarirasya ca vaidyakena |

yopakarottam  pravaram muninam patanjalim  pranajaliranato’smi ||

Let us bow before the noblest of sages Patanjali, who gave yoga for serenity and sanctity of mind, grammar for clarity and purity of speech and medicine for perfection of health (translation from here).

Yes, Patanjali is the name behind the royal path of yoga, but also a guru of Sanskrit and Ayurveda!  Maybe the many gurus from Patanjali to Pattabhi Jois are inviting us to study these subjects along with our yoga.

Integrating Yoga and Ayurveda

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Just how does Ayurveda synthesize with Yoga? How do these ‘sister sciences’ support and empower each other?

These are pretty big questions for those of us seeking Vedic knowledge, and fundamental questions for anyone trying to use yoga as therapy. Although some knowledge of Ayurveda seems pretty standard for yoga students, and some application of that knowledge in our practice and daily lives is something most of us share, we may not have considered the ‘classical Vedic scheme’.

Here is an excellent article by David Frawley on why to integrate Yoga and Ayurveda.

It seems to me quite reasonable why we should engage Ayurveda, it’s how each of us does that given our own constitutions and tendencies that is most interesting.

A Web of Thought

For someone whose natural inclination is to keep it simple, the 18 windows open on my desktop is extraordinary. Doing internet research sure can dilute the attention from infinite threads and links and sequences. Lots of my recent work research has been on Ayurveda, whose connection with Yoga has taken a prominent place in my curiosity.

The more I explore the Internet, the more I realize that it can also bring really valuable information into one’s awareness. Posts on Hindustani music, Ayurveda, Yoga and more coming soon.

For now, a few strands of content on my screen:

Back in my native place, the Americans are in the height of the Presidential election hoopla, recovering from a brutal storm named Sandy, are being cautious about allowing Ashtanga Yoga into public schools. Several initiatives to bring yoga into the public schools, as well as prisons, hospitals, and social services has been welcomed and applauded. In fact, New Age guru Deepak Chopra has teamed up with Ashtanga guru Eddie Stern of New York, to share the benefits of yoga with those who need it in and documented it in these amazing videos called Urban Yogis.  I bet there are lots of people on the East Coast who could have used some yoga this week!

The Jois Yoga half-million dollar service project to offer traditional Ashtanga yoga to public school youth, however, has met formidable resistance on the West Coast, where parents suspect this brand of a yoga to be a religious system of beliefs and practices. eeehh,, sticky business.  This incident, it seems, has stirred the pot in public debate (see this newspaper for articles) and given vent to building anti-yoga sentiment in Encinitas, California, a yoga (Ashtanga in particular) hot-spot since the 1970s.

Meanwhile, no news is good news for the branch of the program in Greenwich Connecticut. Ironically, the medical establishment in America is at the same time offering salutations to yoga’s benefits now recognized and proven by western science also (read more from this article in Forbes).

From where I am sitting (sunny and warm seaside), the benefits of yoga are an obvious waking reality. While I would very much like for as many others as possible to share this divine experience, I also feel that the roots of this experience in the Ancient Indian (including hindu) sages and yogis, seem worthy of embracing, learning and celebrating. I’m not one for dissecting or sanitizing a holistic, organic tradition.

Jamanagiri Swami

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Sometimes I catch a trace of something sweet in someone’s voice or eyes, and it feels good. The Cave Swami, as he is known by so many yoga students who have found him over the years up on Chamundi Hill in Mysore, has left that impression on me.

This artful film offers a glimpse into this endearing swami’s cave temple and wise heart. To my ears, his message is inclusive and inspiring, simple yet profound.