nThe LiteBrite's now black and white
Cause you took apart a picture that wasn't right… – Elliott Smith
If it were left up to me I would have quit yoga long ago and never would have delved into the depths of the mind and body. So, I first would like to say I am grateful to my teachers. A Good yoga practice challenges us, takes us out of a comfortable place, and exposes our hankerings for repeating patterns and normal samsaric thinking. That in itself is tricky. I have been lucky but still have a lot to work out.
Testimonials and video documentation incriminating Pattabhi Jois for wrongful adjustments has come to the light in the past year. These voices should be heard, defended and remembered so we don’t repeat our mistakes. I am sorry that it happened to those earnest practitioners. To the best of my knowledge any questionable behaviors have not been present for the last 15 years in the Ashtanga yoga lineage.
I am sorry for those that experienced Pattabhi Jois’ harmful touch and want to recognize their voices and say that they deserve healing. I also hope that this doesn't discourage anyone from the beauty contained in the teachings.
I do not in my own yoga school where I teach nor at other Ashtanga studios support on any terms, fondling, sexual behavior, harassment, flirting or questionable adjustments. Sexual assault is serious and intolerable. Those that support or make light of sexually oriented behavior are not welcome in the yoga space where I am teaching. Students should omit sexual behavior of all kinds as well. It is not a sexual space.
So now what?
I, like others have been deeply entrenched in many facets of study throughout my life. Religions, Science, music, Art, Skateboarding, yoga…etc. Most things I know have bad things that bubble to the surface in them. Despite their somewhat inherent hierarchical natures, however, many organizations can bear good fruit and perhaps themselves are a bit like fruit trees. You take the fruit and you are grateful to the persons that pointed out the pure as well as poisonous or inedible bits. That doesn’t mean you have to eat the whole tree or stop eating all together!
The yoga practice I have learned is good. The teachings ring true for many. There were bad things done by individuals driving “this vehicle” to be sure but I cannot in good conscience throw away the teachings. We should of course hold those accountable for wrong actions and point them out to ensure they stop happening but we must also reflect on them and find out how they were useful so I and others are not doomed to make the same mistakes. I think those pointing out these “poisonous parts” of the yoga tradition are doing just that, It is a very good thing they have shown us. But for me I still have some crazy desire to roll out my mat and cut out the poison in myself.
It is a dangerous place embracing the uncomfortable and investigating noticing our own habits including its tendency to recoil is what a practice is about. We are faced with continuing a dialectic daily on the dharmaksetra of the sticky mat not just with the uncomfortable parts we are confronted with from teachers but even in our own bodies. Even on our own unicycles (our “sat guru”), we will be called into question.
Finally, Since these claims regarding Pattabi Jois came to light none of the “older students” of Pattabi Jois’ era spoke up. No one except my teacher, Sharath Jois. Despite what some sensational Podcasters and others may have you believe, this deeply affected him. In addition to Sharath speaking briefly about the issue at a conference he immediately with the help of a Lawyer drafted a new “code of conduct form” for authorized and certified teachers. This form was given to students there and to those that are coming through the school that are authorized or certified. Among other things it states that we:
Provide a safe, professional environment free from sexual harassment or discrimination of any kind; to be respectful in conduct, speech and dress; To be held accountable for our own actions, behavior and speech, including anything which might be defined or perceived as abuse, harassment or otherwise immoral, unethical, or illegal conduct;
If yoga has a future, we must strive to create a dialectic and open lines of communication so that the wrongs of the past may be exposed and the garden may flourish. I hope for abetter systems of practice, education, and accountability that empower both students and teachers to live with greater purpose, inclusivity, compassion and intelligence.
Once I heard this teaching in Dharamsala, India, in which His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama criticized the monks because they were doing too much analytical-type meditation (vipashanna). Instead, he said that they also needed to practice the calm abiding or single pointed concentration type of meditation (Shamatha). More here: In the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga method I tend to gravitate toward the Mysore style self practice. It is, perhaps, because the led class forces me to hone in on one thing (i.e. the asana, breath, drsti…), listen to the count, and to surrender. I much prefer the Mysore style, where the freedoms allowed cause the more rajasic nature of my monkey mind to continue to bounce around my mat. All too often, my mind shifts from drsti to breath, to where the teacher is, to what the other people in the room are doing, etc. Even though my mind is desperately looking for an escape route, the beauty of Mysore style self-practice is that it allows me to frame myself on the mat and focus on my own problems. During attempts at moving meditation – and everything is moving – I often find it difficult to still or hold an object for very long, and the rare thoughts of cool things like subtle movements, much less the subtle body, or thoughts of deities, are fleeting. Lately I have been considering the differences between the beautiful and the sublime. I just got this beautiful White Tara thangka in Mysore, India and it is framed in silk. But that thangka has no more god, prana, or Buddha nature, in it than the wall that holds it up. However, from where I am sitting it does and perhaps this is how beings ‘gone to thus’ see things differently. This beautiful process of segregating good, bad, and framing, seems to be necessary at first to thoroughly thresh out our patterns of behavior so perhaps we recognize on a level that imbues every thought with compassion that they were never different and separate. This tapas though seems to continue endlessly as a necessary ingredient for submerging ourselves in the selfless sublime. I suppose we all have to go through a phase of separating out the beautiful. But in my case I feel a bit more like Milarepa building houses just to have my teacher tell me to tear them down. So it seems the process of containing and framing my own issues in Mysore style practice is great for breaking me down and the led counted vinyasa classes (or even group chanting) submerge these patterns for rare glimpses into a potential selfless, Samadhi-like state that mend the unexamined ‘me’ back together. In Buddhism, there is the idea that on a basic level, because everything can be broken down into innumerable parts. Everything is both one and many, and, because they are labeled by the perceiver, they lack inherent existence. Every named thing is also dependent on its parts. It exists and functions, in part, because of the name you give it, but also, because the imputed thing couldn’t exist without the whole or some sort of reflection. In the weekly practice cycle, it seems we need both, led counted vinyasa and Mysore self-practice style. However, most of us prefer one over the other. I like Mysore because I can breathe at the pace I want to, though not completely it give me a bit more control over the practice. If I am injured I can take my time in a certain area. And many of us like led because we can surrender to the count and let the practice and the group carry us. In the counted led vinyasa it is most apparent that we are one and many, and it is in this environment that I am most uncomfortable. Perhaps, it is the uncertainty that makes me uncomfortable. We jump into bakasana and is it going to be, “1…, 2…, 3…, 4…, 5,” or is it going to be, “1….., 2…….. hey what are you doing…., 3….. show me your pass…, 4... both feet together…, 5”? I can feel the instructor watching more and it is the not knowing, the lack of control, and the fear associated with this that I resist. Thinking, “I know” usually causes me to spiral downward. Moving away from the thought that ‘I know’ allows space for my mind to change. This change may go from thinking my mind is just my brain, to ok well maybe it includes the neurons in my foot, to possibly connecting synapses between a group of ~70 as we move as one. It is here in the discomfort of being one AND many, that my ego decides to be my own worst enemy but where samapatti may be possible. Just like counted led and Mysore style practice, asana itself oscillates with further and further refinements of strength and flexibility. There is a cool thing that sometimes happens in the Shala (particularly in Surya Namaskara), where all of our breathing becomes synched. The transcendent surrender of the seemingly monotonous count of led class allows space for us to let go and be come like some sort of super-organism, and, in the safety of our number, we allow for the uncomfortable to settle *(ys 2.46-47). The rhythmic breath and movement gets lost somewhere, and we lose our teacher’s count. Most of us can’t keep a rhythmic flow through the practice so our group breath and movement ends up more like Indian traffic, and less like the north-south lanes through the streets of Manhattan. Sometimes, I wonder what it would feel like if we could keep the breath perfectly as a group throughout. Would we start to think as one organism for longer than a few fleeting moments and would our seemingly many (mini J) minds become greater? Enlightened beings don’t seem to be and perhaps they do not even attempt to be caught up in this ridiculous notion of a separate self. If we think and concentrate on the feeling in our hand, for example, we may think, “I feel one hand”, and put our strong awareness towards that. Then, if we take hold of our other hand, and put our attention in that, we can put strong awareness into feeling both hands. These enlightened beings don’t stop there, but apparently continue with their awareness sutured together like a mala. Perhaps when they think of their ‘self’ (or atman) the nonexistent bounds of at the end of their skin is not the stopping point like it is for me and most people but their concern can migrate freely and acutely. They have an ability to feel, and, ultimately, to use their lack of a sense of a separate self to make their compassion boundless. Buddhas have learned the art of the sublime, and have merged themselves into some sort of sublime super-organism, no longer experiencing a separate self. They don’t disappear into a space that is separate, but apparently become and wake up to what they were always a part of. And from great efforts for many lifetimes of practice loosen the idea of beauty within a frame and extend their compassion and mind to the sublime. While this state is not nirvana itself, and, of course, should not bring on any airs of pride, the loss of a separate self can bring about a sublime Samadhi-like state, which seems to be a necessary step on the path. There was a Chinese Zen master Hanshan who in his 30th year while walking though the mountains was caught in a moment in which he said everything was like a mirror. (http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/han_shan.htm) Suddenly, he noticed he was stirring a simmering cauldron of rice and porridge. He then realized that the fire had gone out, and that there was nothing left in the pot. A few days of thick dust had settled upon it. He had experienced a gap in time, and was caught in a sublime Samadhi state. My teacher has indicated that he has experienced gaps in time in his practice, and I too have lost track of a few seconds (It by no means brought on this state of a loss of separate self,). And while some blissful gap in time brought about with mirror-like insight is possible it is unlikely one can go further in knowing if there are cracks in the foundation of ethics (yamas and niyamas). Yoga, the art of transformation, keeps one in a state of ‘maybe’. First, it’s maybe I’ll catch my toes then after years of this ‘maybe’ and refining more and more subtle aspects of the practice one entertains the idea of thinking ‘maybe even Samadhi is possible’. From the foundation of ethics the Ashtanga yoga contains a method for moving towards the sublime from a boundless state of compassion. Most days, I am still usually at rule #1 (ahinsa). But it is my hope with time and continued effort I may wrap this ‘one small’ self around others and maybe go to thus as well.
I am from the south. My father is a Lutheran minister (you know, the Luther who posted grievances on the door of The Church, including about why we shouldn’t chant in other languages). I was a skateboarder for 20 years, and so have a sense of rebellion against the establishment. I also teach yoga at the University of Virginia which was founded on the idea of separation of church and state. With all this in mind, I thought it high time to write something on the topic of Why We Chant the Opening Mantra in Ashtanga:
1. It takes roughly one minute.
2. It creates Unity, especially in such a culturally diverse studio as ours.
3. It offers a break from the rigor of Mysore and moment to collect our synchronicity in led class.
4. It gives an opportunity for announcements.
5. This intentional set up and calling the mind to purify (sankalpa and Satkara) could be the point of the practice.
6. It is a pranayama, which brings awareness to the breath.
7. Our teachers do it. They didn’t make an exception when they came to the west 40 years ago, and they still do it today. They did it when they came to UVa. They have "compulsory" chanting in India, and so it seems to be part of the yoga process.
8. Depending on what you believe or how you see it, the chant acknowledges and expresses gratitude to all the people who have passed yoga on for thousands of years so we can practice it today. The chant starts and ends with a line expressing gratitude to our teachers and surrendering to the practice.
9. Just chanting something in another language you don’t fully understand cultivates surrender. It asks us to let go and open ourselves to the possibility of transformation.
10. It represents a simple form of devotion to teachers (gurunam pl.) greater than your self (science, the universe, god...etc) and specifically salutes Patanjali. If you have a problem with surrender like I do then you may want to consider chanting when the time is right for you, but it should never feel forced. If you don't have a problem with surrender, then you probably don't need to as you have everything under control.
11. Sanskrit meter and tones have their own sound vibration alignment.
12. It isn’t a gym class, or another type of yoga class, etc. If you want exercise classes that apparently only work on the body they have those in many, many other places.
13. It says nice things in a cool, poetic way (i.e. lotus feet, 1,000-headed, etc.). I won't break down all the sanskrit nuances (but here are a few included below).
14. It gives you the opportunity to say a few Sanskrit words and learn something 15. Because in my choices of things to think about for that minute this chanting this could be one of the better choices for things to put in my mind (it beats being in my normally twisted, vritti state) . ...etc
re. #8 "The prayer is to remember the lineage of yogis that came before and particularly ones own teacher and to receive the current, the Shakti, to inspire your practice. Its a moment of remembrance, a coming to a place of gratitude and surrender just before beginning your practice.
I actually call to mind the teacher and remember in that moment how to learn from him, how he taught me to practice, the feeling of him, being in class with him, practicing with him, and I endeavor to recreate that power and intensity." - David Garrigues "The feet represent practice solutions to our suffering (remember the last line mentions the pitiful state of suffering we are in - Samsara Halahala Moha - deluded by the poison of mundane existence!) So we are taking the Gurus teaching, we are about to practice what he has taught us - for the sake of obtaining Shanti (Shantyai - for the purpose of peace). "Another truly insightful subtlety is the way the Shankara conjugated the verb to bow (Vande). Jayashree taught that this is Atmanepada (for our own benefit), vs. pranamami which is Parasmaipada (for another's benefit). "Vande" is like visiting the doctor when we are sick - we are polite and give respect to the doctor, but we have come because we need something from him - relief from our sickness! (Even bowing to our own inner Guru is often done for peace from the discord experienced externally.) "Pranamami" is like going to visit your beloved teacher purely because your respect him and want to show your appreciation. This is what we are offering to Patanjali - gratitude!" - David Miliotis "I love that the first spoken intention is "I bow". So that rather than the practise being about the glorification of our own egos we (at least!) start off with the (humble) intention of being part of a greater whole in which we are participating. Participating in the already given. What a blessing!" - Luke Jordan "It is the sankalpa - the intention -and the satkara - purifying and directing mind and action to Yoga." - Kiki Flynn
'I don’t know’ is the place most of us don’t like to go but it is where the yoga is often found. In the in between of possibility and the thirst to know. My teacher Sharath told this story; There was one student that wanted to learn yoga. He walked with Swami ji. He washed his toes, cooked for and tended after Swami ji. After being with Swami Ji for 5 years and being noticeably upset, the student one day says, ‘I have not learned yet what is yoga, I have spent 5 years cleaning and taking care of you”. The next morning Swami ji left quietly and at 5 am goes to take a bath. His student wakes late and comes to bring Swami ji a towel to dry. When the student nears instead of taking the towel Swami ji takes the students neck and puts his head inside the water and holds it there. He is struggling, struggling to come up while Swami Ji holds him under. Then finally, Swami ji let him go. The student gasps! This is how one should feel to know what yoga is. The thirst should be there. It is like that one life breath we are gasping for. Your body struggles to get that one breath. Yoga doesn’t come by thinking , ‘o, one day I am going to this yoga center’ or ‘o, I know how to do that posture already' or ‘o, I finished this series’. Where before a teacher even tells a student something the student says ‘o, I know, I know’ if you know everything then why should you go to a teacher? You go to a teacher to learn what you don’t know. If the thirst is there then you want to take this practice to survive. With “I don’t know” learning is possible. That is how you go further. ‘I know’ is the end. I am about to attend a workshop with a well-known American Ashtanga teacher and was thinking of how we relate to many teachers at various stages of our practice. As we ‘advance’ we think we need to narrow our pool. To shut off all the lights in the night sky so all we see is Venus. Perhaps this isn’t the only way. Perhaps our main teacher is the pole star and they help us navigate the beautiful night sky. (Y.S. 3.28) When it comes to schools or spiritual paths we often think we have to consume the entire fruit tree. When it comes to teachers especially the traveling ones, I think often we mistake the peel for the fruit itself. I know some have done that for my teacher and I have done it for theirs. It often takes at least 5 years to get to the comfort zone where a teacher could even consider dunking our stubborn head in the water to thirst for yoga the way we need it . In these times it seems we rarely we give them 5 minutes. I look back at my practice at times when I thought I knew. I reflect with embarrassment how I responded to things Sharath-ji would say or have me do. At first it seemed I only had this problem in the beginning. If I am honest though, part of me still thinks I know a few things and this is my failure. My ego is a terrorist and so, i hope. I hope His yoke is easy and his burden is light. (Matthew 11:30) or if you prefer....'the enemy is within, don't confuse me with him, the truth is otherwise.....o what a surprise, stupidity tries' - elliott smith.
I can’t quite remember when I first saw the yoga pose Ashtravakrasana, but I do remember I watched Tim Miller do it in one of those old hardcore advanced series sessions from 88 with Pattabhi Jois (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wirsfnRdA_o about 4.5 minutes in) where he does it from handstand and I thought how is that possible? While it certainly was an amazing moment captured in time on film, I now know that the steps leading up to that one moment were incredibly trying. The Ashtanga yoga Krama (sequence) is beautifully unforgiving. For example, one would ‘get’ this pose, Astavakrasana A and B only after the full intermediate, a relatively brutal foot behind the head sequence, and a barrage of arm balances. By the time one reaches the top of the mole hill, one mostly wants is the pose after where you may sit and enjoy the view. Luckily a seated view comes in a twisted form (Purna matsyendrasana) which only moderately settles that fire created, Joy J. Many years back while still dabbling in yoga I was in a friend’s ‘vinyasa’ class I took my own short cut and tried Astravakrasana entered from the floor in which most of the class and I could safely approximate. The class included lots of breaks for the teacher to explain and while it was fun and approachable I now feel many people in the class may have missed the some of the beauty of the processing as we took the short path. These days 2-minute youtube clip world we often miss all the background work that went into it (And in the clip there may be 1.3 hrs edited out of it). In this practice I am constantly reminded (often brutally) the beauty lies not where most of the pictures are taken but from the steps on the path (Lam rim) and looking inward throughout. The fear and doubt that comes up during our more difficult steps and daily process is where the real yoga happens. Something about this reminds me of the steps up Chimundi hill but I will recollect that another time. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice masterfully attacks what we are bad at and rather than build our egos off what predisposed bodily or mental benefits we may already have (i.e. if you are born into a family of big legged folk you may take up cycling…etc) The practice attacks and devours our weaknesses improving the whole and without self looking and compassion might swallow us completely. It is because we don’t get to leave out the poses we are not good at and have to face them every day that we get to see our hidden beauty. One yoga practitioner may straight away flop into kapotassana their first try. However, their own personal beuna vista may come from the years that they spent trying to build strength day by day in an arm balance. Another practitioner may battle their way through backbending for years and years then one day finally stand up or catch whatever makes them see their own personal blockages, still another may have a big ego and someone like their students, teacher, or partner may help them with that…. Sooner or later we all get our own ‘blessing’ to work on and it is from these difficult parts in the path where the insight comes. It is often easy to forget as we roll out our mats and daily step (or ‘jumpings’) up and up that we want help so we may help others. We crave sneak peaks of the views that rarely escape from behind the trees and it seems sometimes rarely get them. However after a few years one begins to see the beauty lays not so much in what you see at the top but in all the struggles on the way.
‘We can’t say -oh, this guy’s atma is not good. Only my atma is good. Everyone’s atma is very good and pure, but we don’t have a proper knowledge to understand that. That’s called jnana. So to gain that jnana you go on the spiritual path’. – Sharath-ji After spending a great summer course in India it seems So many ashtanga teachers I know have gone through injuries. However, it seems at least from my side many of us feel some trepidation at showing it. As though it might bring doubt to our students or that they may work less cause they don’t want to end up like us. My ahankara (ego) ignorantly holds on to this idea that Yoga teachers are not supposed to get sick or injured. And I feel that many students get the sense that the teacher should not be injured or have life troubles…etc. Like they are not supposed to see a teacher suffer, or be human. When I get injured or life stuff happens I hardly want to tell people how to practice when I can’t manage it myself. Then I remember Sharath getting sick in Mysore last December and wearing a mask, or him hobbling to move a chair because he spent all day lifting bodies, or when I watch his face while he puts someone in supta kurmasan, or I remember Pattabhi Jois in his last year, or other great teachers I know and it is how they relate with the life stuff that makes them teach well. This week I have been nursing a shoulder injury. So primary series felt like the equivalent of an elderly person just trying to make their way to the bathroom. But my reaction with this injury was quite different to other injuries I have had. Today when I woke up I was actually excited to practice because I knew that every movement would be an investigation in awareness. While I was walking my jump troughs I thought what it must feel to be in some of the bodies in my class. I often think of my students in my practice, but as I practiced this morning I imagined my self moving as some do in my class carefully nursing injuries, or having so much trouble lifting up. Then I realized I need to communicate better so I may better understand what their struggles are. That I need to constantly look and explore what difficulties they may be facing so that I can be there and stand by their side to help. (maitrī karuṇā…see below) I moved slowly to make sure I was not going into the ‘injure more zone’ as I did the previous day. In ashtanga vinyasa yoga one often you finds themselves on the edge facing of what may be making it better and what may be causing more pain and without a teacher it can be rough. For me it is better to air on the side of caution. To practice compassion and to avoid trying to push through. This usually means adding more time to my practice, not obsessing about a series, and Led class is not a suitable scenario. Many people also hide their breath and this may be the starting place for injury (probably was for mine). It can be when the teacher comes around or in my case a student, or through the entire practice even at home when no one is watching (including themselves). Though subtler, hiding the breath can be similar to hiding an injury or other imperfections we have. Most of us don’t want to hear all the small inconsistencies in it. Like my High school choir teacher, Mrs. Adams said, ‘sing a bad note loudly ‘. This is the Ashtanga practice - To stare our shit square on, to tune in, and to hide it under a bushel, NO, but to let it shine so that we may find a way to remove it. YS I.33 maitrī karuṇā mudito-pekṣāṇāṁ-sukha-duḥkha puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaḥ citta-prasādanam ||33|| All that is mutable in human beings (chitta) is harmonized through the cultivation of love (maitri), helpfulness (karuna), conviviality (mudita) and imperturbability (upeksha) in situations that are happy, painful, successful or unfortunate. ||33|| If v. 33 doesn’t work so well then he we may focus on the breath (particularly paying attention to the exhale…pracchardana-vidhāraṇa-ābhyāṁ vā prāṇasya ||34|| Stability can be attained through breathing exercises involving focusing on the exhale. ||34||