Working Backwards

So for those of you who still remember me after my increasingly long hiatuses, hello again and thanks for sticking around despite my perennial absence…inspiration is frequent but free time is not, as I am sure you are all well aware.

I began my yoga teacher training (well, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it actually began long ago, but now I am officially enrolled in a 200-hour course) at Starseed Yoga in September, and it has brought a great deal of sanity to my topsy-turvy life.  The teachers are knowledgable and supportive, and everyone in the studio is always so very friendly.  As a result of teacher training and in preparation for when I teach more classes on my own, I have found myself in a few beginner classes both at Starseed and at the studio nearer my home – and let me tell you, they are HARD.

As someone who always welcomes a challenge, I do not respond well to “easing into” things.  My usual modus operandi is to jump in not with both feet but headfirst, and wait to find out how deep the water is until I’m way underneath it, gazing back up trying to see the surface, awkwardly getting my nostrils full of water, and wondering how on earth I got there.  I always make it back up to the top, but sometimes it’s a struggle and I often swallow a lot more disgusting pool water than was really necessary.  However, I do think it makes me stronger and it definitely makes me appreciate just how difficult the jump and the ensuing battle with the basic laws of physics was.

Example: music.  My parents made me take piano lessons for a few years as a child, but I hated practicing scales and “hands separately” so I quit.  In high school I resumed playing of my own volition, but I jumped right in without a teacher, devouring music that was way too hard for me but thoroughly enjoying it.  I continued on to study music at university, people pay me to do it, and now one might even go so far as to call me a professional musician.  However, even now my main strength is not in performing perfectly rehearsed sonatas with an exquisite touch, or making my fingers dance over the keys to express delightful Romantic motives.  I have on occasion been able to do such things – but what I’m really good at is sightreading.  In other words, jumping behind a piano at a moment’s notice and playing whatever is thrown in front of me with the only delay being the time it takes me to check the key signature – and if there’s a soprano or someone on a podium waving his arms about who I need to be following, so much the better.  I can get through just about any piece of music in this situation- it is not always pretty, but each time I plough through something I’ve never seen before, I get better at it and in turn, being a musician.  Once I get through a piece once in this frenzied manner, it is a bit easier for me to go back to the beginning and practice it properly because I have an idea of the broader ideas behind it.  I can go through and work technical things like tricky fingerings and focus on artistic ideas, like a sensible person would have done from the beginning.  [Side note: I am not always a sensible person.]

My introduction to yoga was similar.  The first class I took at age 13 was a beginner class which my mum dragged me to.  I am not sure what I expected and my memory of the occasion is a bit foggy, but I remember thinking “these poses are too easy, I’m not getting a workout, and I am too frustrated by this arm-waving nonsense to be relaxed.”  I did not attend another class until I was 18.  This class was taught by Melissa, who to this day is one of my favorite teachers, and it was a modified Ashtanga Vinyasa class.  I was sweating after the first sun salutation, the postures had many variations to keep me challenged, and I was too focused on not falling over to think about anything other than the current moment.  Of course, my alignment must have been horrendous and while it was certainly a meditative practice, somewhere along the line I missed the part about yoga being kind to the body.  In the following months I twisted and jumped and back-bended and head-stood – in other words, I did anything but “ease in.”  I know I only got away with this because I am young, strong, and healthy – but if I hadn’t gotten into yoga this way, I know I wouldn’t have at all.  I needed the challenges, both physical and mental, to stay present and interested.  I needed to know what I was working towards.

So a few weeks ago, when I mentally prepared myself for an hour of boredom and walked into a beginner class, I got exactly what I expected: very basic postures held for a very long time, and lots of focus on alignment and breathing.  However, rather than finding the postures frustratingly easy and boring, I found it refreshing to slow down and focus on tweaking each asana to make it work better.  This is something so often overlooked in vinyasa and other flow classes, yet something that is so crucial.  But at the same time, I think it is an aspect of yoga many beginners do not fully appreciate.  It took me many months to understand the concepts of “active” limbs, opening chakras, and directing prana to specific areas, and to recognize the huge changes that subtle movements could bring to a posture.  As such, I see many beginners with slumped shoulders and shallow breathing who don’t understand teachers’ instructions to adjust, and view yoga as simply “gentle stretching”  rather than the mentally and physically challenging eight-limbed practice that true yogis delve into on a daily basis.

I realise that generally speaking, my sense of logic is unconventional and perhaps my headlong approach isn’t right for everyone.  I’m certainly not suggesting that beginner classes be saved only for advanced students, or that people new to yoga be thrown into physically taxing Ashtanga classes.  But once in awhile, jumping into something headfirst may make you a stronger person and offer you a dose of perspective.  And those of us who are experienced in our craft, practice, or profession can always benefit from taking a few steps back, treating ourselves like beginners, and doing things in a way we are not accustomed to.

Advertisements

Yoga in the News

Yoga’s been growing in popularity in the western world for awhile now, but it’s been a particularly hot topic lately with practitioners being accused of involvement in sex scandals and Wiccan cults, the New York Times writing about yoga wrecking the body, and now talks of it being an Olympic sport.

I find this incredibly disheartening.  First of all, these news items do not take into account the other five branches of yoga.  Yoga is not simply physical exercise; it’s not just contorting yourself into strange shapes.  While exercise and physical health is a large part of yoga for many people (myself included), it’s really more of a guide for living a meaningful life.  The branch of yoga that most think of when hearing the term is Hatha yoga- asanas, or postures, that are intended to clarify the body in order to calm the mind.  This is definitely important, but there are also Bhatki (yoga of devotion, love and acceptance), Raja (yoga of self control), Jnana (yoga of the mind, intended to unify wisdom and intellect), Karma (yoga of selflessness), and Tantra (using rituals to experience the sacred).  The idea is that a person can use a combination of any of these paths to travel towards enlightenment.  Each branch is important in its own way, and the most optimal way to approach nirvana is to integrate all of them into your life.

I love that more people are integrating yoga into their lives.  I truly believe that everyone can benefit from following any one of its branches, even just a little bit.  Yoga is an ancient set of methods designed to try to help citizens of the world heal physically and mentally to reach a state of peace.  Yoga as an art should not be judged because a few people abuse its ideals for personal gain, and it should not be judged because those who are inexperienced and lack a proper teacher injure themselves.

Yes, Hatha yoga started as a branch of Tantra- but even Tantra isn’t exclusively about sex.  It’s about experiencing the sacred, and while union between man and woman is part of it, it also includes many other aspects such as dedication, purity, and truthfulness.

You can injure yourself in any physical activity if you don’t know what you’re doing.  Would you try pole vaulting without someone carefully explaining it to you and taking you through small steps to get there?  Of course not.  Just like you shouldn’t immediately try balancing on your head without a careful teacher guiding you through the steps preceding it.  Yoga is entirely safe if you know your body’s limits and take it slowly.

This brings me to my last point: Yoga in the Olympics.  As I mentioned before, yoga is not just postures.  It’s a lifestyle.  If you can do the most advanced and complicated postures, that’s great- but that doesn’t necessarily make you a better yogi than someone who can barely manage a down dog.  Yoga is in the mind just as much as it is the body, and bring a competitive aspect to it is borderline sacrilegious.  I absolutely appreciate watching graceful yogis move through asanas, but I would never consider judging them.  There is no way to tell what a person is thinking, assess the flow of his prana, see how focused he is while he is practicing- and that is what yoga is about.  Bringing yoga to the olympics cheapens the yogic experience to merely contortion and physical strength.  I love the idea of accomplished yogis getting the attention and reverence that they deserve, but it shouldn’t be competitive and it shouldn’t be based solely upon asanas.  All yogis and yoginis should be honored for their yogic accomplishments in life so far and their progress on their spiritual journeys.

Shanti, friends. Namaste!

Attachments

I saw this NPR article the other day about how attached people get to their sofas.  I thought it was an incredibly bizarre thing to write about because I’ve never felt a profound attachment to my sofa.  I was thinking about it, though, and I am a bit attached to some of my other possessions.  I really like my yoga mat and my teapot.  I’m probably most attached to my handbag though, because I’ve had it for years and it has been with to so many corners of the world.  Many people have suggested that I get a new bag- my aunt even begs me to let her buy one for me.  Instead, I sit and sew patches over patches every time a new hole appears because it feels like an old friend, not just an object.

I try very hard not to get attached to things, because all things are temporary (people are temporary too, but they tend to get their feelings hurt when you explain that you’re not attached to them).  Monks and priests of all sorts of different denominations understand the idea of remaining unattached to worldly things, and I think it’s a noble goal.  On the one hand, it’s not good to be wasteful as a result of being unattached, but on the other hand, it’s important to be able to let go and move on- both in terms of things that are too broken to fix and people you’ve outgrown.

At the same time, the world isn’t as much fun if you don’t get attached to things once in awhile.  It would be a boring place if you only had utilitarian objects that didn’t make you smile once in awhile- I like getting up in the morning to use my bright green tea kettle and I like to see my frog-shaped humidifier in the corner of my room.  I like having friends and getting to know people.  I understand that these are not essential on the path to ultimate enlightenment, but as long as they don’t get in the way I don’t think it’s a problem to enjoy things like this.  I don’t advocate frivolous consumerism by any means, but we’re going to be around in this world for awhile before we move on to the next one, so why not keep around a few things and people to make it more exciting?

You can get as attached to them as you want, as long as you recognise that nothing is permanent and you are prepared to one day let go.  As you continue your quest for happiness, your mindsets will change and you might find some of your friends drifting away and others moving closer- perhaps it’s time to let them go their way while you go yours.  Maybe that old hobo bag you really love just isn’t efficient anymore because of all the time it takes to mend the holes.

Enjoy attachment to possessions and people while they’re around, but do not depend on them for your happiness.  Be prepared to one day let everything go when you move on to an exciting new phase!

Om, Shanti…Mantras

Mantras are an important part of many yogis’ practice.  They can be anything from the traditional “om” to something complex and unique to the individual.  It’s something that I gave a lot of thought to while I was in the Tibetan settlement Bir, India last month.  I hadn’t quite made the connection between mantras as used in yogic practice and mantras that are religious prayers, but they really are quite similar- even in Western religions the idea of mantras or repeated prayers are pretty prevalent.  When I was in Bir, I noticed that many people carried malas (the Buddhist equivalent of  rosaries) and even walked around chanting.  It seems like something that brought a lot of peace to them as individuals.  Something as simple as mindfully saying words that bring positivity really can make a difference.

To me, it seems that the chief difference between a mantra and a prayer is that a prayer is usually asking a higher power for Om mani padme humguidance, while a mantra is introspective and reminds the individual to find inner power and contentment.  A popular Buddhist mantra that is printed on many of the colorful prayer flags and wheels that I saw in Bir and Dharamsala is “om mani padme hum.” The syllables have literal, earthly translations like “self, “lotus,” and “jewel.”  I was told that it’s impossible to translate the deeper implications of the words, but they represent something like “generosity, ethics, patience, devotion, poverty, and wisdom” respectively.  The idea is that these are the six tenets of life that all people must try to purify- renouncing pride, jealousy, lust, desire, ignorance, possessiveness, and aggression.  Another, more simple mantra that I often choose to use when I meditate is the hindi “shanti,” or peace.

A mantra doesn’t have to be something complex and in a foreign language, though.  It can be something as simple as “this too shall pass” or even “just get through today.”  Maybe it’s as simple as a word that just has a good rhythm when you say it.  You don’t even have to commit to only one- perhaps one day you need to remind yourself to stay grounded, but the next you just need to remember to breathe.  The important part is to identify and connect with whatever words or sounds you choose.

The power to synthesize our thoughts and contemplate the deeper meanings of them is one of the main things that makes us human beings rather than simple primates and it’s essential to making the most of this earthly life before moving on to the next one, whatever that means for you in your belief system.  Keeping a personal and positive mantra in mind both when you’re happy and when you are experiencing something difficult is a great way to keep your inner self content and perhaps even in tune with your higher power.

What’s your mantra?

Sh*t Yogis Say

Hey, at least we don’t take ourselves too seriously! I’m definitely guilty of about 50% of these.