Sunday, May 31, 2009

Soucha: Cleanliness

One of the principles outlined in the Yoga Sutras is Soucha or cleanliness. To be clean in body, heart, and thought is one of the steps to achieve the realization of our true majesty. I think this is a valuable principle as we come to understand and appreciate our own majesty, our True Nature. Recently a friend told me a story which happens to perfectly illustrate this point.

My friend was traveling in India one summer. He was riding in a van when the chaotic traffic became a complete stand-still in the oppressive afternoon heat. Stuck, my friend began looking around. He happened to notice a boy, 13 or 14 years old, standing inconspicuously at the side of the road. The boy’s only clothing was a pair of bright purple shorts. He held a blue, plastic pail and a white bar of soap, probably his only possessions. While my friend was stopped in traffic, 20 minutes or more, he was mesmerized by the scene of this boy, who with careful-precision began washing himself with the water in his pail and the soap. The boy washed each body part slowly and methodically, ennobling himself in his private ritual of personal care, too poor for privacy and therefore in plain-view to any of the thousands of people in this crowded place. The rest of the world didn’t seem to matter or even exist as he honored himself by washing. After several minutes he carefully dumped out his water, placed the soap in his pail and walked away. As he walked away, he held his head high-proud. Proud because even though he owned next to nothing, he knew who he was behind the dirt, and that day this noble person would be clean.

How do we honor ourselves and our space by practicing cleanliness?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ishvarapranidhana: Let Go

Once we’ve been refined through the heat of work, the craft necessary for genius transformation, Tapas, once we’ve come to know our True Self to some degree in the process of Swadyaya, there lies one final task, ultimate and necessary to complete the process: LET GO!

The ultimate act of will is the act of releasing your will in the conversation with the Universe, Creation, God, or simply things that be. This final culmination of will and knowledge is known in yoga as Ishvara pranidhana. If yoga is anything, it is that conversation with what is real and practical in our lives and that which is ethereal. It is working up the courage to and knowing yourself enough to then finally step off the edge of the cliff and only when you begin to fall to you find your wings.

Ishvara pranidhana means to reach out your hand into the darkness and ask to know it. It is asking to be known deeper by what is in the darkness, the unknown. It is stepping out onto surfaces that you are not sure will hold your weight as you keep your fierce gaze at that which you love.

In this wonderful place, we allow our internal achiever to take a break and open up to simply being. And in the cosmic chess game of existence, we pause for a moment and allow for that which is larger than ourselves to make a move. And with this act of letting go, what we thought we knew about ourselves, what we planned on for our existence, doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. The divine opens us up and we’ve discovered something new and magical about ourselves and the world, something exponentially greater than our previous conception.

David Whyte points to this perfectly in his Poem The Truelove

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

Years ago in the Hebrides
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of the baying seals,

who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,

and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them,

and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly,
so Biblically,
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love,

so that when we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t

because finally
after all the struggle
and all the years,
you don’t want to any more,
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness,
however fluid and however
dangerous, to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

Come to class this week and let’s practice ways to let go of tension, stress, worry, illness, old ways of being, etc. Open up to the Divine by practicing Ishvarapranidhana.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Swadyaya: Self-knowledge

Last week I talked about Tapas, the heat necessary for transformation. Once we've been refined by Tapas, the next step is Swadyaya, or self-knowledge. If one is aware, it is difficult to experience the transforming heat of Tapas and not come to a more intimate knowledge of Self, the True Self--you know, the Self that is liberated by Tapas, the self that was tucked away beneath our stress, tension, pride, hurt, misunderstanding, and layers and layers of back fat (smile).

Like the poet Rainer Maria Rilke states in his poem, The Man Watching, "Winning does not tempt that man./ This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,/by constantly greater beings." By our struggles, our Tapas, we grow stronger, even in our defeat. We understand ourselves more because of the struggle. It's understanding that though you were pummeled by your challenges, there remains a deep part of you that is still very tough. It's knowing the part of you that is larger than the fight. This is Swadyaya.

Swadyaya is also learning from all those things that didn't work. With this knowledge we become free from our bonds of misunderstanding (avidya) because now we can see what was holding us back from knowing our True Self.

There is help. Ganesh is the elephant-headed deity in the Hindu tradition who, among other things, helps us gain Swadyaya. He frees us from obstacles because with his great memory and knowledge of us he knows our purpose, our path, and our problems--our dharma. Ganesh represents the part of us that remembers who we really are. Like my wife says, "he helps you see your own inner AWESOMENESS."

This understanding of self relates to a story told to me by one of my teachers, Dr. Richard Miller. A famous yogi, Ram Das, came back to America from years living in India to visit his brother who was living in a mental health institution because his brother thought he was Jesus. When Ram Das arrived, he was wearing a long white robe, flowers around his neck, long, white hair and beard and sandals. His brother asked Ram Das, "Why is it that you walk around looking like that and they lock me up?" to which Ram Das replied, " The difference between you and me is you think that you're God and I know that I'm God." Through years and years of refinement (read Tapas), Ram Das had an intimate knowledge of his True Self. Ram Das had experienced and practiced Swadyaya.

With greater Swadyaya we qualify for deeper work, more Tapas. and like Rilke says, be "defeated, decisively,/by constantly greater beings." This is how we grow.

Let's practice getting to know ourselves better this week. See you in Class!

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Tapas means heat, specifically, the heat necessary for transformation. I'm thinking of a kiln: what goes in the fire comes out unalterably changed.

Yoga teaches us that we are all in the process of refinement. We are always in the heat of change, of transformation. This lesson is most apparent in the practice of asanas, the physical poses. Through the heat of postures, we are literally experiencing the heat of our muscles changing as we purify ourselves starting with this outward layer of our body. Not to be misunderstood as a lesser form of learning, our body is our most tactile field of deep learning and awareness.

Tapas isn't only about asanas. Anything that causes us to grow, any friction along our path, be that physical, emotional, spiritual, is making us stronger and is a form of Tapas. Tapas is the necessary heat to shed the previous layer of our old self, like a snakes skin, the misidentification with a self that was less than our True Nature.

Unlike many of the burning challenges we face each day, fortunately we can choose the degree to which we burn in our asanas, the mirror of our daily challenges. In fact, the more skillfully we apply or do not apply the heat to our practice is a lesson itself. We may not be able to set the thermostat of the heat of every-day challenges. Often, our life's challenges rage through us like wildfire. And when it does, we can use the skills and hope (yes, hope) that we've found in yoga practice to focus this heat productively toward our refinement, or at very least understand it as such, instead of feeling like we're burning out of control like a lunatic with their hair on fire.

Unfortunately, we all burn. Fortunately, we are all in this sacred ceremony together, becoming the able vessels of a divine spirit.

Sarah Mclachlan expresses this beautifully in her song Witness.
Hear her song and watch a video. Here are the lyrics.

Make me a witness
take me out
out of darkness
out of doubt

I won't weigh you down
with good intention
won't make fire out of clay
or other inventions

Will we burn in heaven
like we do down here
will the change come
while we're waiting

Everyone is waiting

And when we're done
soul searching
as we carried the weight
and died for a cause
is misery
made beautiful
right before our eyes
will mercy be revealed
or blind us where we stand

Will we burn in heaven
like we do down here
will the change come while we're waiting
everyone is waiting


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jala Namaskar

Jala means water. Namskar is a deep honoring, a sequence of bows. In most yoga classes, we regularly perform Surya Namaskar, or sun salutations. You may recognize Namas as the first part of Namaste, the word we honor each other with at the end of practice which essentially means, “I honor the Divine in you.” So, Jala Namaskar is the act of celebrating the essential fluid nature of things that are. Its about riding the wave.

The energetic junctions in the body are called Chakras. These spots also relate to certain elements or qualities. The second Chakra, physically located in the lower abdomen, relates to our ability to creatively ride the wave of life. Its element, therefore, is water, Jala.

A month or so ago, I spent some time swimming in the ocean. As I was learning to body board, the ocean taught me something powerful. It told me quite matter-of-factly, “We can either be partners and dance, or I can kill you.” And it was true. I learned again that there was enough power in one wave to obliterate me from the planet, let alone the eternity of waves in cue behind it.

As I would swim on my body board searching for waves, close waves would begin to crash down and I had to dive under the wave and let it pass over me. I spent hours, frustrated and water-logged, trying to learn how to dance with the waves, learning how to move against them and learning how to let them carry me.

I also learned that to swim in the ocean is to learn the lovers’ dance of rise and fall, of motion and breath, each wave expressing an endless pulse.

In the distance I would see a wave begin to swell and even from afar I could feel its immensity. Its fluid force was both ominous and inviting as it rushed toward me, closer and closer. Like all events of existence, the yet unseen outcome of these moments had already been set in motion. And like the ocean itself, all events have always been in motion. I felt stagnate floating in the ocean, hovering in something that is in constant flux. I was stale immobility, vulnerable to the eternal motion of the sea, this force that is both savior and at the same time the destroying angel. Soon, the wave was almost upon me. Its pregnant crest had risen to such a zenith, its motion in such a climax, that as I lay on my board watching this wall of water approach me, I shivered with the tight anticipation of a wave that would inevitably crash its dense, rushing weight in a solid, blunt roar and quickly consume anything it found in weak opposition.

It was here. Its jaws gaped toward me and I swam like hell, pulling, kicking, fighting against the water to somehow contend with this fierce, beautiful woman, the ocean-water, Jala. And then it happened. I somehow slipped or pulled myself into its graces and it lifted me. I stopped struggling and it carried me in its breath as we flew together through space in the lovers dance. We were dancing together. Nothing else existed, not sun, not earth, not wind, just me and water as it cupped me in its curled palm moving together in space without time, in the fluid motion of things as they are.

Join me and my friend Aki Rich this Friday night (ccy 7:30) as we explore Jala Namaskar and learn to mirror each other in the dance of fluid balance.