Tag Archives: yoga

Asana

Dear Reader,

Please accept my manifold apologies for being absent from blogging for well over a year. 2011 has been a wild ride: I got married (in Vermont, if you catch my drift), bought a house, and just in general rode the waves of many, many emotions. It’s been hard to get back into the habit of blogging because I feel so embarrassed about being away for so long. But what does shame or embarrassment get me? Well, it certainly doesn’t get me any more blog posts!

So, I appreciate your patience and I want you to know that my intention is to blog more regularly and to continue exploring the 8 limbs of yoga as well as exploring writing, teaching, and the general state of affairs in the world today.

When I last blogged, I was finishing up the last of niyamas or observances. The first two limbs of yoga are the yamas (restraints) and the niyamas (observances). There are 5 of each of these; in other words, those 10 topics took me a while to write about. Today it is time to address the third limb of Ashtanga yoga: Asana.

If you’ve ever practiced yoga, you’re probably familiar with this term because it forms the backbone of the Sanskrit names of the poses. Trikonasana, Virbhadrasana, Utkutasana, Janushirasana, Savasana, etc. Asana, asana, asana. (Although you may notice that some yoga teachers don’t pronounce the last “a” in those words, saying instead something like, “Virbh-ad-dra-san.” In fact, all over India there are signs inviting people to “Yog Asan” classes. My teachers used to say, “When the yogis brought the yoga to the West, they brought a couple of extra A’s with them on the airplane.” In other words, the last “a” in asana is a bit of an addition.)

Because of the word’s place in the name of every pose, we can infer that “asana” means “posture” or “pose.” Yet the word has the sense that this pose or posture is comfortably held. We often hear yoga teachers remind us that “asana” actually means “comfortable seat.” According to Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutura’s, “asana” means all of these things. In Sutra II.46, he writes, “Posture (asana) is to be seated in a position which is firm but relaxed.” In the commentary by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda, they continue, “asana means two things: the place on which the yogi sits, and the manner in which he sits there.”

Both the commentators and Patanjali himself continue to explore this term in more detail, and while I’d like to discuss their thoughts, I’d also like to share some “real-life” moments that I have helped me gain a deeper awareness of this limb. It’s one thing to practice asana in yoga class; it’s another thing to find your comfortable seat anywhere and everywhere in life. While practicing yoga in the community of a studio class is extraordinarily beneficial and life-affirming, the real test of our practice comes when we roll up our mat and walk out of class. How can we practice finding our comfortable seat, our “asana,” out in the real world? There’s nothing comfortable about that chaotic mess and most of us don’t even have time to sit down!

This summer, my sweet old dog Prufrock needed to have surgery. He had a lump on his tail. He had had surgery once before to remove a lump that was nothing more than a “fatty old man cyst,” according to my vet. But this time, the vet told me it was unusual for these benign lumps to grow on the tail. For this reason, I was nervous about Pruf’s upcoming surgery; I was worried what the doctor might discover. I was worried that my days with my dear old friend might be numbered. So I sat with him.

It was late June and the sun was wide and bright and beat down on the backyard. I sat in a clump of hostas, weeding. Pruf came up to me and lay down, stretching out in the dirt right where I was weeding. I took this opportunity to talk with him about his upcoming surgery. Yes, I know that he couldn’t really “understand” me, but by the gentle look in his eyes, I knew that he understood that I was discussing a serious matter with him. And there we sat in the dirt, communing with each other about his upcoming surgery. Something about this moment reminds me of the practice of asana: sitting comfortably with it in the world, knowing what you know and weathering all the rest.

(Incidentally, Pruf is fine. Turns out, the lump in his tail was a fatty old man cyst after all.)

Another “real life” moment that reminds me of the practice of asana is a “real life” moment that I have yet to actually experience: child birth. Ok, calm down. This isn’t happening to me yet or anytime soon. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about and researching about. My thinking here has been greatly influenced by the likes of Ina May Gaskin and Robbie Davis-Floyd (and two documentaries, which I recommend: “Pregnant in America” and “The Business of Being Born”). Bearing a child is an asana like no other, yet, unfortunately, our medicalized, industrialized, anesthetized culture has turned a natural, intuitive (and, yes, very challenging) process into a quasi-medical emergency, requiring the “expert” help of a [male] doctor, the injection of narcotics and synthetic hormones, and the complete harnessing and otherwise prostration of the woman’s body.

You probably don’t need a PhD in Physics to understand that pushing up, against gravity, isn’t really the best way to get an enormous object out of your body. It seems to me that a woman’s body always already understands the asana of childbirth–the innate desire to move and squat, the flood of natural hormones, the full-bellied, fully-presentness of each often agonizing moment, the rhythmic dance of the baby’s body within the mother, and the trusting. This “seat,” these sequence of poses, are eternal and ancestral. This asana transcends us, as any attentive yoga practice does.

The naysayers, of course, will lacerate me for not knowing what I’m talking about. So be it. Perhaps what’s instructive here is the metaphor: when we take our seat–our firm but relaxed seat–and bear the pain and confusion and complication of each individual moment, we bear fruit and are transformed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog

Ishvara-Pranidhana

After a summer hiatus, I have returned to blogging. The subject of this (long overdue) post is the final niyama or observance in the eight limb system: Ishvara-Pranidhana.

As with most of these concepts, there’s more than one way to view or interpret Ishvara-Pranidhana, but most interpretations have something to do with “god” and “devotion.” Let me explain. Sometimes, we hear the word “god” and we jump to whatever we’ve been conditioned to think about this term–be it, “oh, goody! Yoga looks like my religion because it talks about GOD and how important GOD is” or “uh-oh….god? I’m outta here” and undoubtedly some sort of reaction in between. In a very yogic way, neither of these extreme responses really reflects I-P and yet they both reflect it perfectly.

In essence, Ishvara-Pranidhana boils down to living a life of devotion and seeking manifestations of the divine (“GOD” or “Ishvara”) in all that you do. In this way, I-P is similar to brahmacharya. While the standard definition of brahmacharya certainly suggests celibacy or abstinence, brahmacharya also encompasses sanctifying the seemingly mundane. Ishvara-Pranidhana is an extension of that: live your life as a devotion to something higher (“GOD”) and in so doing seek out and celebrate the divine all around you. When we move beyond ourselves, we enter the state of yoga.

To me, this all seems like straightforward spiritual stuff. Right? Devotion, divinity–you’ve heard it all before, no matter what path you’ve chosen. What I’d really like to talk about is insecurities. Our own personal insecurities. Because I believe it’s here where we can truly practice Ishvara-Pranidhana.

We can transcend who we are when we come face-to-face with who we are, and sometimes it seems like nothing illuminates us to ourselves more than our foibles and limitations. Recently, I was feeling insecure about some friends. You know the drill: I was scared that they no longer liked me–in fact, I was sure that they had probably never liked me. I channeled my hurt, confusion, and insecurity into a snarky comment, which did nothing to relieve my insecurity.

Instead, by practicing Ishvara-Pranidhana, I could have stayed calm in the face of my raging insecurities. Focusing on compassion–what connects us to each other–means that I have compassion for my friends and trust our connection and that I have compassion for myself and the ways that I may have fallen short of the mark as a friend. A life of devotion isn’t a life of punishment and reward or naughty/nice; instead, it’s a life full of grace and compassion for the bumps along the road. It’s a life much bigger than us and our wounded pride.

To seek out divinity in all the crevices in our life isn’t simple the Baptismal vow of many Christians or the guiding principle in other major religions: it’s a way to calm the mind. It’s a way to go beyond the mind–and that, is yoga.

1 Comment

Filed under Blog

Svadhyaya

We are in the home stretch of the niyamas or observances in yoga. The fourth niyama, svadhyaya, is my favorite because it combines self awareness with intellectual study (well, this is my interpretation of svadhyaya), and these two pursuits seem to occupy a great deal of my time. Unlike shaucha, I can get excited about practicing svadhyaya.

One of the many things I like about yoga is that those sages who created the system thousands of years ago thought of just about everything. The spiritual practice of yoga has something for everyone: the intellectual, the wanna-be monk, the bodily kinesthetic type, musical folks, and those who live to serve. You don’t have to subscribe to one supreme belief and you don’t have to ardently practice one thing. They are manifold ways to grow on the yogic path (of course, you’re strongly encouraged to undertake every practice even if it’s not your forte).

Svadhyaya is often translated as something like “study of scared texts” and “self study.” But it’s not, as my teachers from India caution, “merely intellectual musing” instead, it’s “rigorous self analysis and development.” In academia, we glorify knowledge for its own sake, but in yoga, knowledge must have some practical application. Usually, this practical application has something to do with understanding and observing yourself (your thoughts, your body, your emotions, your triggers, your hang-ups, your pettiness, your darkest fears and wildest fantasies) so that you can work with your mind to achieve that cessation of fluxuation of the thought waves in the mind that is yoga.

Watching yourself on the mat as your body moves (or fights) its way through poses, reading the scared philosophical texts of yoga like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita, sitting in meditation and observing the mind’s chatter, witnessing your stress level rise while waiting in line at the post office, these are all ways to practice svadhyaya.

But here’s something else, a less obvious way to engage in svadhyaya: give up. Specifically, give up hope.

Flipping through Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart (Boston: Shambala, 2000) the other day, I stumbled upon this insight of hers: “To think that we can finally get it all together is unrealistic. To seek for some lasting security is futile…One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide” (39).

Is your head spinning like mine did when I read that? I have to give up hope to begin the path? (Easier said than done when it’s your name!) But hope is the thing that keeps us alive; it’s the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It’s….ME!

My selfish, egotistical clinging notwithstanding for a moment, giving up hope is entirely counter-cultural to those of us in the Christianized Western world. I know that I have gotten myself through difficult times–clinically difficult times–by holding on to the hope that tomorrow will be better. I have the white knuckles to prove it. But, now, here’s the Buddhist nun telling us that the true Easter morning, the joyous light of a new day, actually comes when we give up hope. And it comes right now, not tomorrow.

Chodron goes on to link our addiction to hope with a deep-seated fear of death. Without retracing her argument here, I simply want to say that she underscores the importance of the present moment no matter how unbearable that present moment might be. When we relax in the chaos and discomfort of what’s actually happening, then and only then can we begin to build lives of compassion and wisdom. She ends the chapter by admonishing “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself…” (45). Although she doesn’t explicitly say it, staying present and abandoning hope leads us to our inner teacher.

Like most facets of yoga, svadhyaya likewise emphasizes the inner teacher. We don’t engage in intellectual study to find some sort of “answer” “out there”; instead, we engage in study to navigate our inner landscape and unearth the inner teacher, innate to all of us, that our rational, Puritanical, head-strong, and hopeful culture buried alive hundreds of years ago.

Once we dig up the inner teacher, then what? How do we listen to what she says? How do we know it’s the inner teacher and not our own chattering, anxious minds? I’ll have to get back to you on this one.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog

Tapas

And I don’t mean small portions of supposedly inexpensive food that you can mix and match for a complete meal. Oh no. By “tapas,” I mean both “heat” and “austerity.” Tapas is the third niyama, or observance, in the yogic system. In all honesty, tapas ranks up there with shaucha in terms of how poorly I observe this observance. Austerity is not my friend.

My training manual from India suggests some ways to practice tapas: “taking time to meditate before every meal…and [delay] sense gratification,” “waking up early to do yoga…especially if you are not a morning person,” and, finally, “fast twice a month.” Why would you do these things? “Through this kind of uncompromising strictness, one’s yoga practice blossoms, and bears fruit.”

Those of you who know me know that I really enjoy eating and sleeping. The above list suggest curtailing both. Yes, tapas and I are not intimate. But perhaps this blog post will change that.

All kidding aside, my stumbling block with tapas is the precisely the notion of “uncompromising strictness.” I don’t like to be strict with myself for reasons that reach way back into my personal history (and as such, will not be explored here). Suffice it to say, I’m scared of breaking or falling apart. This is one of the stories I tell myself. And it probably needs to stop being told.

In contrast to my fear of pushing myself and thus breaking myself, practitioners of tapas attest that the practice “cultivates confidence and willpower.” This sounds nice, doesn’t it?

In the back of my mind, I thought about tapas this morning. I got up at 6am to go rowing on the Ohio river with a club that I’m a part of. The row was coached, and as the coach coasted next to my shell and repeated instructions and offered strategies and tips in the new daylight, I thought about tapas. I thought about how much more I could push myself. And I wondered about those fruits.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog

Santosha

I can’t believe it’s been more than 2 weeks since my last post. In that time, I’ve thought of other ways to practice shaucha or cleanliness: using a tongue scrapper and a neti pot.

Tongue scrapping is something I do with vigor every day. I bought a simple tongue scrapper in India for about 3 cents–it’s a piece of metal shaped in a U. I hold on to the two prongs and drag the “U” part over my tongue, back to front. It’s heaven. Oh, sure, the stuff that I scrape off looks disgusting (usually some kind of yellow-brown mucus-y liquid), but I’m really getting my mouth clean. My teachers in India used to tell us that by using a tongue scrapper, we’re cleaning off all the bacteria that’s accumulated in our mouths while we slept, and it really does feel this way. So, next time you’re at Whole Foods, buy a $20 tongue scrapper. Or, buy a much cheaper one in India–they’re called “zippy” or “chippy” in Hindi. Oh: tongue scrap and THEN brush.

Now…the neti pot. It seems like everyone in the Whole Foods/Wild Oats/Organic/Yoga/Bring-My-Own-Bag/Metal Water Bottle/Subaru crowd already knows about the neti pot, so I won’t dwell on it here. As my teachers in India said, “we eat through our mouth 3 times a day and we clean our mouth 2, maybe 3, times a day. We eat through our nose all day long. We never clean our nose.”

The neti pot is like, well, a douche for your nose and sinuses. Warm water, sea salt, and a little bit of eucalyptus oil afterward will work wonders for your sinuses and your spirits. Compared to tongue scrapping, though, using the neti pot is wicked labor intensive. It takes me about 20 minutes or so mainly because I must make sure to get all of the water out of my system. Vigorous, side-to-side, kapalabhati breathing (or forceful exhaling) is the best way I know of to expel all that water from your nasal cavity. Also…one final note and then I’ll move on to Santosha….avoid using the neti pot right before bed. According to Indian lore, if you don’t get all the water out of your head and then lie down on your pillow, you might get an ear infection.

So….stay clean! Use a tongue scrapper and a neti pot.

Ugh, I can’t believe it’s taken me almost 4oo words to get to my topic today: Santosha, the second niyama or observance in the yogic system. Santosha (which, I seem to remember is pronounced “santosh”–silent “a”) means contentment. In many ways, this observance or niyama is the cornerstone of any yoga practice. And, in my book, it is the hardest aspect of a yoga practice. Standing on my head is easier than cultivating and maintaining a sense of contentment.

As the adage goes, “this moment’s pleasure is the next moment’s pain.” Have that second pint of beer or that chocolate cupcake now and feel the ache later–the headache or bellyache. But in the moment, we feel convinced that that cupcake or beer will feel so good. And maybe it does–but I think that “good feeling” we think we’re experiencing with the cupcake or beer is really just a kind of numbness.

By “numbness,” I don’t mean non-feeling; I actually mean something more like forced feeling. American culture seems to glorify constant intense feeling: we spend our lives roller-coastering from intense feeling to intense feeling. Consumerism is predicated upon this type of behavior: you buy one thing and it makes you “happy” or kinda high for a while, then you get used to or accustomed to your purchase, so then you need to buy something else to bring you that rush again. Ditto for cupcakes and beer in our culture.

Santosha or contentment is life on level ground. We get off the roller coaster when we decide to be at peace with how things are. Instead of having what we want, we want what we have (in this way, santosha ties in nicely with aparigraha). Yes, this is tricky not only because it runs completely counter to the dominant culture, but because it’s just tricky. None of us want to be doormats and sometimes that’s how we (and I mean “I”) view this concept. If I’m “content,”….then I’ll stick with a dead-end job or a dead-end relationship? No, no, no!

We can be “content” and make changes in our life. Being content is NOT the same thing as being stuck. Being content IS the same thing as responding to life’s challenges with wisdom and compassion. Practicing santosha is very similar, I think, to practicing non-attachment. Maintaining a balanced state of mind in the face of so much stress and (mis)information is the practice of both being content and not attaching or grasping at thoughts and things.

I have a translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (Vedanta Press, 1953) that has a great quote in the commentary on Sutra 1.15: “non-attachment is the exercise of discrimination” (29). I like the concept of discrimination because it helps me unify santosha with my own Western desire to take the bull by the horns. I can be content and take action if I practice discrimination or discernment. If I make decisions from a place of wisdom and compassion (as opposed to making decisions out of greed or shame or woundedness or panic), then I can rest assured that my decisions will cause the least amount of harm to myself or others.

Well, contentment is a complicated subject in my book. I know there’s more–much more–I could say about it, but this post is already close to 1,000 words. So, I will close here with another quote from the Sutras: “There is no failure as long as we continue to make an effort” (Prabhavanada & Isherwood 65).

3 Comments

Filed under Blog

Niyama #1: Shaucha

Well, we finally made it past the Yamas, the very first limb of the yogic system. Now, on to limb #2: the niyamas. Like the yamas, there are 5 niyamas. Unlike the yamas, though, the niyamas aren’t about things NOT to do, but rather things TO DO. Whereas the yamas were “restraints,” the niyamas are “observances.”

The first niyama on our list is Shaucha, or purity/cleanliness of body and mind. As my teachers in India explain in our training manual, “physical purity [i.e., shaucha] is a symbol of our goal for our bodies and minds in yoga.” In other words, simply keeping the body clean can help us keep our mind clean and focused on the moment.

If you know me at all, you know that the practice of cleanliness does not coming easily to me. As a child, it took my whole family to corral me into the bathtub every evening. Brother, sister, and parents chased me up and down stairs and through the back yard just to pin me down and jam me into the tub. As an adult, I still tend to be very comfortable being dirty because it makes me feel honest, like I’ve worked hard at something and have the sweat and grease to prove it.

To practice shaucha, my teachers suggest wearing light-colored clothing, bathing in lukewarm water, and cleaning oneself after using the toilet. As corny as it may sound, I believe the clothing thing really works. Think about your winter wardrobe. It’s navy blue, gray, and black, isn’t it? Think of how good it feels to break out the spring wardrobe–green, yellow, lighter blues, perhaps pink and purple, maybe even white. The idea is that wearing these lighter colors helps to lift our mood, and I think there’s something to that.

As a terrible American who enjoys lengthy, hot showers (I know, I know), the bathing in lukewarm water thing is really tough for me. In India, I bathed at about 4:45 in the morning by scooping lukewarm water out of a bucket. And, yes, it really did wake me up to bathe this way, but I had no other way to bathe. In the comfort of the United States, I have many ways to clean myself, including a lush, warm shower. I know, I know.

As for the bathroom self-cleaning practice, again, this was something I did out of necessity in India and enjoyed it but did not successfully transport the practice back to the States with me. [If you’d like to read a possibly humorous story about my attempts to wash myself after using the toilet, click here.]

I’m not sure what else to add. I do believe that as goes the body so goes the mind. Keeping the body clean and healthy helps to maintain the cleanliness and health of the mind. To me, a clean mind is one void of petty resentments and perpetual reenactments. A clean mind lives in the moment and knows neither the affliction of the past nor the anxiety of the future. Given how dirty and stinky my body usually is (although, at least I don’t fill it up with a lot of sugar and animal flesh…I do have that working in my favor) and how jumpy my mind is, I figure I have a long way to go to be clean.

I have to add that today is my birthday and it seems fitting to say something about purifying or cleaning the self for another year of life. But I’m not sure what that cleaning would look like (and even though I’ve showered today, I’m pretty sure I’m wearing a dirty shirt). We have so few rituals in this culture to mark our time.

2 Comments

Filed under Blog

Brahmacharya

Again, my apologies. The end of the quarter has besieged me with grading. And so grading, not blogging, has taken precedence in my life. But, finally, today, we arrive at the last of the 5 yamas, or restraints, of the eight limbs of yoga: brahmacharya.

This particular restraint strikes fear in the heart of many Westerners, for it is often translated as “celibacy.” And for most us, being celibate is not how we want to live our lives. My teachers in India were very careful to remind us that brahmacharya has a broader meaning than simply “no sex.” It can be interpreted as “the conduct that leads to Brahman or as the control of the senses” (I’m getting this quote from my teaching training manual from India). Conduct that leads to Brahman means, in essence, conduct that will connect us with the divine Source of creative energy. In terms of controlling the sense, the practice of brahmacharya can help make sure we aren’t just leaking our energy all over the place (it’s my understanding that the prohibition against sex came from the notion that, for men, sex necessitates a–how should I put this–leaking of vital life energy that could be put to “better” use via meditation or yoga).

Let’s face it: we waste a lot of our energy. Okay, I waste a lot of my energy on worrying, indulging my fear and anger, and getting caught in the cycle of attachment and aversion (either I want or I don’t want). Brahmacharya, like aparigraha, can help us reign in this wastefulness and focus on what’s important: compassion, the breath, our interconnectedness with one another, etc.

Here’s another way I like to look at brahmacharya: sex, like meditation and yoga, can transcend the barriers of mediated existence, overcoming the boundaries of physical form and unite us–unite us to our Self, unite us to our Creator, and unite us to one another. If anything, the practice of brahmacharya reminds us of the potency of sexual intimacy and cautions us to cultivate this power in safe ways by honoring our commitment to our partner and recognizing the sanctity inherent in them.

Next up? The niyamas, or observances.

2 Comments

Filed under Blog

Asteya and Aparigraha

As a reminder, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Damn good, I might add. Gentle Reader, I offer my manifold apologies for being away from my blog for so long and for undoubtedly leaving you in an incurable state of suspense about the next yama on our list. Well, I’m kicking myself for undertaking this project of blogging about the 8 limbs of yoga because I’m finding that there are all these other things I’d also like to blog about (like how irate last week’s NY Times magazine cover story made me–if ONLY teaching was as simply as standing still when you give instructions, if only).

But a promise is a promise. What I might do is break things up a bit. Blog about a limb of yoga and then blog about something else.

Today I’m combining asteya and aparigraha, two yamas that are deeply intertwined (much like satya and ahimsa). Asteya is essentially non-stealing or restraint from taking what isn’t yours. My teachers in India reminded us that this applies to physical things as well as mental things. We don’t want to try to steal someone else’s happiness and we want to respect where others are coming from.

Similarly, aparigraha is restraint from wanting or lack of greed. Living a minimalist lifestyle can help cultivate aparigraha. Again, my teachers in India reminded us that we should be mindful of what is truly useful to us (literally and figuratively) and discard the rest. With possessions, this seems obvious. Why, no, now that I think of it, I don’t actually need both SUVs. With thoughts and emotions, this seems much less obvious. Our self-doubt doesn’t really serve us, so why do we let it linger? Our tacit judgment of those around us does little to deepen our spiritual practice, so why do we continue to judge? (I know for me judging others makes me feel “safe”–of course, it’s a false sense of safety, but there it is nevertheless. Same holds true of the self-doubt. It provides safety because I can trust that it will always be there.)

Again, bearing witness to what goes on in our head is the key here. When we see those thoughts or beliefs that hinder us on the path, we must let them go and unburden ourselves. How do we do this? I don’t really know. Sometimes, I talk to myself as if I’m talking myself out of a fitful tree. Writing helps, too. And, interestingly, sometimes reading saves me. If I read something of a spiritual or mental health bent, the words on the page will give me pause and I’ll remind myself, “Oh, yes, asteya and aparigraha–wanting what others have or wanting way beyond my needs isn’t going to serve me.” And somehow, deep inside me, I trust that.

3 Comments

Filed under Blog

Satya

Continuing our exploration of the yamas–the “restraints” of the 8 limbs of yoga–we come to satya, truth-telling or restraint from lying (here, I’d like to give a shout-out to my former soccer teammate of the same name). In the quest to quiet the volatile thought waves in the mind, we can ease some of that volatility by simply speaking the truth.

But sometimes the truth hurts and in practicing satya, we must also practice ahimsa. We need to tell the truth without causing harm. My teachers in India suggested that we can balance satya and ahimsa by telling “white lies.” For example, if someone you love is on their way to a job interview and they are wearing something that isn’t particularly flattering, instead of saying “you look ridiculous [or “fat” or “ugly” or “awful” or other harming word],” we could say, “you look really great in this other outfit. Perhaps you should wear it instead? It’s important to look your best.” You have still communicated to your loved one that their attire just isn’t working for them, but without issuing an insult.

Emily Dickinson, the Eccentric Recluse, conveys this sentiment much better than I do:

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–

Success in circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind–“

(c. 1868)

This poem is so rich–there’s much to say about it. I want to highlight two points. First, Dickinson underscores the idea of telling the truth gently, “with explanation kind” (think of our aforementioned loved one in the unflattering outfit). Second–and perhaps more interestingly–Dickinson suggests that the Truth lies in the process, in context (or, successfully telling the truth exists when we tell it “in circuit”). To me, this is could be read as an indictment of absolute truth and/or as a celebration of the role context plays in creating meaning (think Derrida).

I think about satya and ahimsa when it comes to our emotions, especially anger. Our emotions feel true. When we’re sad or devastated, that grief feels truer than anything else at that moment. Same with anger or euphoria–nothing feels truer in those moments of intense emotion than the feelings themselves. But feelings are, on the one hand an extension of our mind and our ego, and, on the other hand, merely a pools of energy collecting in certain areas of our body.

I’m a big fan of my feelings, so this is hard for me. Wade past the feelings (without ignoring or repressing them) to get to the truth. Maybe the truth isn’t that you’re sad or you’re angry, maybe the truth is that something happened and you responded from a place of pain. I don’t think the truth blames or makes excuses. It just is.

As long as I’m quoting 19th century American writers, I’ll include a fitting quote from (my all-time favorite) Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“But speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits will help you with unexpected furtherance” (Divinity School Address).

I could end there. And really I should. But I just want to add that when we speak the truth in our lives–when we come from the heart of the matter–there’s always support. Perhaps the support doesn’t always appear in way we expect to, but it’s there. So speak up, speak out, and speak often.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blog

Ahimsa

Last time I posted, I discussed the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga and expressed an interest in blogging about each limb in more detail. The first limb is made up of the yamas, or 5 “restraints.” These practices are called restraints because they call upon us to “restrain” from certain behaviors or mindsets.

The first of these restraints, or yamas, is ahimsa. Ahimsa is usually translated as “non-harming” or “non-violence.” In other words, it’s the practice of restraining from creating or doing harm. Rightfully so, ahimsa conjures up images of Gandhi or MLK and their social movements of non-violence. And yet, ahimsa doesn’t need a national stage of institutional bigotry upon which to play out. There lots of “little ways” to restrain from harm, and these  little ways add up.

One way to practice ahimsa is by being a vegetarian. It’s my understanding that much of the justification for a vegetarian diet in yoga comes from this yama. Eating animals creates harm; whereas, (the theory goes) eating plant matter, fruit, nuts, and even animal products (like ghee, yogurt, milk, cheese, etc) creates significantly less harm than eating flesh. So, you don’t have to be a Dr. King to practice non-violence; you can be a vegetarian. If it hasn’t happened already, food will become one of the global “human” rights causes of our time (next to women’s rights).

Ahimsa, though, isn’t just about outward harm. We don’t just do violence externally to a group of people different than us or to a cow that we want to turn into a hamburger. We create and inflict violence internally, too. And by that I mean, we inflict violence on ourselves and on others without even raising our finger or opening our mouth. We can create and inflict harm with our very thoughts.

So, it’s fitting then that first step on the yogic path is ahimsa, the practice of restraining from harm, because yoga, at its core, is mastery of the mind. Yoga is the cessation of fluctuation of the thought-waves in the mind. It is learning how to use our breath, our body, our non-mind self (or “soul”), and, yes, even our mind, to quell the stormy sea of our rational monkey mind. Why not, then, begin this process by practicing restraint from harming thoughts? What better way to embark on the yogic path than to jump right in like this–jump right in to the place where most of our damage is created: in our own heads.

What does it mean to harm ourselves or others with our thoughts? We create violence every time we roll our eyes at our boss and think “what an airhead; I can’t believe I’m supposed to do what this guy says.” We create violence every time we tell ourselves that we were sorely wronged by that jerk who cut us off in traffic. We create violence every time we sit in silent judgment in our heads of something our lover or family member has said or done. If I’m remembering my New Testament correctly, I believe Jesus says as much when he tells his disciples that the man who thinks about murdering someone is no different from the man who actually does murder someone.

And we also create harm with the things we think about ourselves. I’ve been really sick the past several days (some kind of cold that took a turn for the worse and became an infection–long story), and, as a result of being run-down and riddled with infection, I’ve felt very disconnected from my body and not mentally sharp enough to do some of the things I love. In this state, it’s easy for me to turn against myself. My mind starts to say things about how lousy I am and I start to believe it. Violence in the first degree!

As we journey on the yogic path, we must learn to observe our thoughts before we can quiet them. If you think about it, it’s really not that hard to restrain from eating meat or to restrain from externally doing harm to people in obviously violent ways, but it’s profoundly challenging to restrain from harming thoughts. I do think the first step in truly practicing ahimsa is to catch our thoughts and notice their harming quality.

But what we do after that, I’m not quite sure.

1 Comment

Filed under Blog