The Real from the Unreal

  We are an irreligious lot.

   Rudderless, it is hard not to end up exhausted by the frantic, self-serving confusion of activity. When we lose direction, action is imperative. Orienting to our centre, we embrace the practices of yoga; yoking our attention to the breath, studying the wisdom of scripture, being truthful about what is real and what is not.

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  In this world of ticker tape gurus, we need to beware of who we follow. When the heart is dimmed or contracted, we need to listen. This is not the way of truth. Truth is blissful, clear and enormous. We are embraced by truth in a giant embrace that holds us all. There is no one left behind, not a single being, not a single soul. If your practice leaves anyone out, beware.

Always practicing balance, cultivating discernment and looking for the taste of one-ness in everything, the yogi abides. Not sallowed by gloom, not excited by hype nor swayed by the judgement of the masses, the yogi sees through to the core of life. Unscathed by one million breathless arguments, small, pulsating, yet immensely strong, is the song of eternal bliss.

   Blink, and you’ll miss it. Smile and you’ll come face to face.

Ecstasy or Cessation?

Yogis have followed one of two paths; the ecstatic or that of cessation. Are they necessarily distinct? Does it mean that in our practice we are guided either by that which uplifts us, pursuing our bliss or by creating rules that ensure we don’t go down the rabbit hole of desire?

 What then is the role of desire for the yogi? Kāma is a choice in itself. Have faith in your desire and cessation itself will be desirable.

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I would like to share a selected passage from the Kumārasambhava that describes Śiva in meditation. It is taken from James Mallinson’s book ‘The Roots of Yoga’

 

“Kāma, the god of love, his body about to fall,

Saw Three-Eyed Śiva in meditation,

Seated on a cedarwood dais covered by a tiger skin;

His upper body held steady by his yogic posture,

Straight and erect, his shoulders rounded,

Seeming, from the placing of his upturned hands,

To have an open lotus in his lap;

His crown of dreadlocks bound up by a snake,

A double-stringed rudrāksa rosary hanging from his hand,

He was wearing a knotted deerskin made a bluer black

By the glow cast from his neck;

With his eyes gazing downwards,

Their fierce pupils dimmed and stilled,

Holding the brows steady, lashes unflickering,

He was focusing on his nose;

As a result of restraining his inner winds

He was like a cloud without the rage of rain,

Like a pot of water without a ripple,

Like an unflickering lamp in a place without wind;

With the beams of light from his head,

Which had found a way out of the eyes

Of the skull in his crest,

He was dulling the splendor,

More delicate than a lotus thread,

Of the young moon;

Controlling his mind in a samādhi,

Checking its motion through the nine doors

And fixing it in his heart,

He was gazing on the self in the self,

Which the sages know to be imperishable.”

 

So much to love

 

how far is too far?

A question arose during the Asana focus workshop I taught last weekend that encapsulated a key consideration for those of us who practice yoga. A student asked: ‘for how long should I hold in virabhadrāsana II?’ simple enough, yet the implications go deep. As an instructor, I like to give clear guidance and so, taking a leaf from B.K.S Iyengar’s book, I answered: 30 seconds to a minute.

I was very happy when another student took the line of questioning further: ‘I’m curious,” she said ‘about when a long hold, which we may feel compelled to practice, gets in the way of the ever-important value of ahimsa or non-violence.’ What I believe is that it is this curiosity that keeps the yogi present. This very process of inquiry into whether we are pushing too hard or breaking down restrictive barriers; embodying self-compassion by coming out of a posture sooner or retracting from a necessary process of purification through intensity.

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When we practice discernment in our asana we are working out from whence comes the motivation to withdraw or remain. Discernment is discriminating wisdom, separating truth from non-truth, that which is conducive toward our liberation from that which is not. Are we being driven by the ego with its pursuit of measurable goals or by our higher self that so relishes the present moment? This sensation, is it pain or intensity?

Highly evolved yogis have endured excruciating intensity to overcome their identification with the physical body, the mere mortal shell that transports us on this finite journey. From the other side of their mortifications they report on what is really true, really real. The true self, they say, discriminates not. The true self, they say, is beyond good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. So, while we measure the seconds in our warrior II pose, please let’s remember that none of this is real, just the remembering is. And in our remembering we travel closer.

don't diss the asana

It peeves me, it does, the dismissive tone that can be adopted by people when referring to the physical emphasis of yoga practice.

Those lofty intellectuals view the yoga world as full of strutting Amazonians, balancing on one finger tip, mainlining green smoothies and taking nothing but their smooth rippled musculature as sacred.

Now, of course, I exaggerate, but there is something in this tendency to view things as good or bad, right or wrong, black or white that I find deeply unsettling. In part it is due to this polarizing human habit that I find the physical aspect of yoga so relevant. If there’s something that we all share, it is our physicality. Beyond our views and our percentage of “spirituality” vs. “rationality”, our body is, in a sense, where we meet.

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Recently I have been re-discovering the work of Peter Levine. His insight into how humans cope with trauma presents a very interesting take on our seeming intelligence. The way our physical bodies store the imprint of stressful situations seems so outdated. Our frontal brains, driven by speed and constantly chasing after things, do little to consider the body’s own rhythm. Through the prism of the gunas this is clearly an imbalance of rajas. We see for example incredibly articulate, clever and sophisticated individuals paying scarce attention to their physical health. Our entire culture seems built on this precedent. It is only when we slow down that we begin to notice the body’s own intelligence as something quite otherworldly.

Sensation has a lot to say.

Āsana, the physical branch of yoga practice, the most widely practiced, the great storehouse of postures, is deeply beneficial. Āsana goes beyond words, it begins to introduce the medicine of meditation. In āsana the subtle shifts of attitude and mood transform one’s very consciousness. Beyond the gymnastic façade of certain āsanas is a very real encounter with our deepest attachments and fears. The tension we visit and steep in throughout our physical practice allows us to uncover that version of ourselves that is unfettered, that is beyond body. We go through body to go beyond body.

Don’t diss the āsanas, but do please slow down. 

Asana focus: virabhadrāsana II workshop, at Yoga Akasha, 29th September, 12-2. Book through shop.

Sukham

This summer, I thought in the earlier months of the year, I will have the hours in the day to write. Writing is a process that, like yoga, requires both structure and creativity. I have indeed been writing, but the hours are not as unblemished as I anticipated. There is the lure of fun and games with the children, splashing in bodies of water, catching up with old friends, absolutely nothing to complain about! Meditating on the urgency of returning to my practice I wrote this piece which suddenly seemed useful to share. This summer period so mercurial is when we can finally allow structure to slip and new ideas to bubble up.

Practice benefits from structure, there are no two ways about it: To have a space set aside for your sadhana, to practice at a set time each day, to structure the sequence you practice with more or less precision, all of these are practicalities that aid progress.

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In the Yoga Sūtras the key qualities of asana are sthiram and sukham: steadiness and ease. Sthiram embodies the stability of structure and sukham the fluidity that can then be allowed to express itself.

The summer holidays are usually peak sukham time. If you are lucky enought to take this time out, it may be hard to keep to your yoga practice. Many people travel, are in unfamiliar surroundings, pass through different time zones... even the sheer excitement of breaking from our routine can make it impossible to stay focused on our sadhana.

Coming back to this balance of sthiram and sukham let us see where it is that we can cultivate stability. Where our usual routine provides us with structure, we need to find structure elsewhere. I would like to suggest looking to the practices themselves for stability. Practice a sequence you are familiar with, a few rounds of a familiar strengthening vinyasa perhaps. Surya namaskar or a sequence that befits your energy levels.

Take a piece of paper and jot down a practice that suits your setting. If your space is more restricted than usual perhaps it is a good opportunity to practice seated postures, or if there are features such as furniture that you can use as props, incorporate them. You can learn a lot from this exercise and become more involved in the architecture of your sadhana. Which asanas build stability? Tadasana (mountain pose), dandasana & urdhva dandasana (staff & inverted staff or plank pose), virabhadrasana I, II & III (warriors I, II & III), ardho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog)... are all postures that work on aligning and strengthening the legs, your body's powerful foundations.

If you do find yourself lazing on your sunbed, mildly disturbed by a missed yoga practice, rest your palms on your belly and connect to the source of your breath. Notice the gentle rise of the belly beneath the hands as you breathe in, the belly sinking as you exhale deeper into your sunbed.

Summer holidays are a time to unwind, break from the usual, notice where you become mechanical in your usual life. If you miss out on practice time remember that yoga keeps giving, come back, keep coming back and remember yoga is a place to which you can always return.

be your own yogi(n)

Studying and reflecting on the history of yoga is an interesting way to ‘feel up’ your own relationship to the practice.

By traditional standards, I’m a complete lightweight. My average daily sadhana lasts between 45 minutes and 3 hours and is really dictated by exactly how I feel. I barely practice pranayama, I like to feel and muse and daydream, I have long ago given up the intention of stomach churning or nostril cleansing or enemas.

In fact it would seem like I am totally caught up in the realm of languor, one of the afflicted states that is an obstacle on the spiritual path, except that merely the thought that I might be will get me practicing kapalabhati, complicated inversions, backbends and fasting like there’s no tomorrow. Complacency is not my game either.

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This piece is a reflection on the modern yogi. How it could be possible to coolly navigate the cultural, societal differences that set apart our world from the world of the Vedic seers who first came up with the notion of yogic sadhana, without losing that fiery heart that burns through the thicket of distraction that keeps us from awakening.

Yoga is a warrior path. You have just to think: B.K.S Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois. That most revered yogi Krishnamacharya is said at times to have been so stern as to put students off practicing yoga altogether. The qualities of perseverance, consistency, relentless dedication... on inspection are essential. But so is the moral practice (niyama) of Ishvara pranidhana; surrendering the fruits of our practice to the creative source Ishvara. This is a foundational consideration in the yoga sutras of Patanjali. Are not the qualities of yielding, listening, opening softly, also aligned with this all-important niyama?

The Middle Way is a snail thread, it glistens and disappears depending how the light hits it. In our yoga practice we are attuned to our midline, our central axis, our sushumna nadi, grasping at the very principle of balance in our own being. The Middle Way is the way to illumination, clarity and all that is pure and light. I would say it takes a little grace to align, we can't do it alone alone. 

Sometimes however, we are attracted by the dark and stormy. We slide into the murky subsect of our inner world and consciously take joy in lingering there. How as yogis can we integrate the shadow into our spiritual journey?

Study. Learn from the sources that surround you. Learn about how the yogis lived before you. There are so many assumptions about the yogic path; the blissful yogi, untouched by the sharp stabs of emotional pain that afflict us mere mortals. If you read a bit further you will find that yogis in the past and now too, have chosen to make the stab wound deeper and feel what it’s like in there. You will also learn that the creative source is triadic by nature. One needs to recruit the destructive forces of nature in order to not be overcome by them. You will learn and in learning there is great joy, great bliss, and yet ultimately: Ishvara pranidhana

Yoga is yours, no one else’s. 

Don’t let anyone tell you what to do with your heart.

holding it all

We are good at reading. We may have forgotten but it took us years to learn, initially not even marrying the meaning to the words, eventually delighting in the richness of content.

When it comes to the descriptions of spiritual states, language is an interesting thing. It is both a gateway and an obstacle. We all know that reading about the experience of meditation, for example, is not the same as experiencing it. The instance where this is most heightened is when it comes to the experience of bliss.

Bliss, sat-chit-ananda, is a concatenation of so much more than intellect and physicality. We may read of it but there is very little we can do from that point.

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Another of our tendencies, you see, is to categorize things as good or bad. This sets in at a very early stage, and though it is a graduated evaluation we can pretty much always determine which side of the spectrum an experience is on: the good or the bad. The pleasant, the slightly pleasant, the unpleasant, or the not-so-pleasant.
What we are not so good at, or at least, not when we are on the level of deciphering language, is accepting that an experience can be both good and bad. It doesn’t fit with our brains’ neat way of categorizing. The thing about sat-chit-ananda is that it encompasses all everything. It is what we have read about and it is what we have not read about, it is the argument and the counterargument. It holds in the same space: the understanding, the not quite understanding and the not understanding at all. That is the point. This is it.

This moment is translucent, uncoloured. The colours we choose to paint it will necessarily be limited by our choice. The spiritual path is one of simultaneously emptying while realizing that true fullness can be emptied indefinitely.

There is no place to go to find this, wherever you are, there you are. There is no moment more precious than this one, that much we know. But can we know this and hold the possibility of there being no moment at all?

Greater minds have puzzled these questions and more elaborate explanations have been presented. The restless mind demands these things but really, actually, there could be nothing more beautifully complex than the pure simplicity of it all.

the relationship with relationships

I got myself all into a proverbial flap over the weekend after trying to write a coherent piece on the value of asanas, one that only now I will try to untangle.

The thing is I get very overexcited about language, I get so overexcited in fact that the words can spill out and by the time I’ve finished what I’m writing, the writing itself has become so convoluted that I have a hard time reminding myself what it was I was trying to say. Point in fact.

So, I was all set to write an interesting piece on the value of āsanas and ended up confusing myself utterly in the process. I identified the ultimate meaning of yoga as being one’s relationship with relationships and having reached this aha! Moment in my mind, had to rewind and try to remember how I’d got there. So then I gave up, which is why I’ve never dared go that far as a writer.

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Anyway, NOW dear reader, I have finally remembered what it was I was getting at with this cryptic definition of yoga.

Yoga is my relationship with relationships. I have reached this understanding because I know in my heart of hearts that my relationship to yoga is the most important relationship in my life. Gasp, shock horror, sorry kids and family. But its not as heartless as it sounds. In fact, without yoga I would not be able to relate to my loved ones in the way that I do. I am so grateful to my practice for being the one that keeps me attuned, present, alive and loving. I am grateful to my yoga for granting me gratitude, compassion, joy, sukha. My relationship with yoga, that practice to which I return time and time again defines my relationship with all other areas of my life. It is my relationship to relationships.

I think this question; what is yoga to you? Is of so much value. It is not a selfish musing, a navel-gazing preoccupation with your inner dancing fairies, it is not indulgence or escapism, in fact it is the complete opposite. It is harnessing your inner resources, looking at the phenomena that are presented to you in your daily life straight in the eye and engaging wholeheartedly in the relationship with your ‘life’, the moment-to-moment electricity of it.

Asana is your way in, for what more intimate relationship than that with your own body? Let the ‘work’ that you do on the mat, to call it something, teach you something about that which you encounter off the mat.

There is an excitement to progressing further in an asana, be it through slowing down to take the time to really feel the recruitment of all your various synapses, or be it through finally taking that leap into a handstand. Is it not the same in your day to day?

But also, there are difficulties, challenges; the days where you realize you will never get into that shape, where your mind has been distracted by gibberish throughout or when you keep getting interrupted in meditation. What are you doing all this for anyway?

I don’t know, I just wanted to ask that question.

Namaste.

the true guru

Are our minds too distracted for the true practice of yoga?

The sheer volume of communication we participate in makes it necessary to create new mind ‘filters’ for the information we receive. The valuable teachings of yoga run the risk of becoming dissipated, equated with the one hundred thousand other meaningless, self-serving messages we encounter in the course of a day.

How do we keep our mind honed? The physical practices of yoga keep us sensitive and discerning. For more and more modern practitioners, yoga is not about cultivating taut muscles and toned abdomens but cultivating a supple mind and sophisticated discernment; to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Receiving clear guidance is refreshing and liberating, not confusing and obfuscating. To channel the wisdom of ancients is no easy task. Seek for a teacher who elucidates. Remember the true meaning of the word guru; one who sheds light on the darkness. Accept nothing less. To become aware of your own darkness is to take a step towards liberation. Where do we find such a guru?

As one of my great teachers once said: the most valuable journey you will ever make is the shortest; from head to heart. This is where we hear the voice of truth; the greatest guru of all.

I have started work on my book on Self-Practice. It is aimed to inspire you to work with your own guru. I hope to be free from distraction so it won’t take too long!

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