Sunday, March 25, 2012

Understanding Coltrane

I love jazz. I love Jazz because it is a language. It speaks to a culture, a sophisticated musical discipline, and a style. For the longest time, I wanted to like jazz music but didn’t. Not much of it, anyway. I liked Kenny G. The first time I heard John Coltrane, all I heard was chaotic lines of complex notes hurled out the tail end of a tenor saxophone. But now, when I hear John Coltrane, I can’t keep up a conversation with anyone else because of the conversation I’m having with the music. So, what’s changed?

In part, I believe it was because I started to learn to play the sax. I’d always wanted to play the sax. When I was a kid, my dad asked his uncle Lester, a professional sax player, what it would take to help me appreciate playing the sax. Lester told him to start me on the piano, move to the clarinet, and then to the sax. That way I would have the rudiments of music woodwind instruments to spring me forward as I started to play the sax. I never really met Lester. There exists a sun-bleached photo of me and my entire family posing for the camera on his back porch but this was before dawn of my consciousness—I was about three and don’t remember it at all. Well, Lester died. And nobody remembers exactly how, nobody remembers doing it, but somehow his horns showed up on my doorstep with my name on them. I was 13. I’d been playing the clarinet for 2 years and I was itching to start the sax. Problem was, I didn’t have one. Not until that day when Lester’s horns, (yep, he gave me not one but TWO saxophones, an alto and a tenor AND a clarinet) showed up thanks to a mystery and the US postal service. I scarcely remember a more exciting or more reverent day of my life than when I received those horns. They are the saxes I still play today. That day, I remember feeling like something very important had just happened to my life.

That summer, I started to blow through the horns and figured out how to finger the notes and make a decent sound before any teacher got to me. Lester was right and the clarinet and piano had paid off. As I continued to learn to play the sax, I began to learn to play jazz. And with just a little bit of experience of trying to play jazz, I began to appreciate listening to jazz. Not long after that, I loved it. With a little experience of jazz, the music meant something to me; I could understand the sounds I heard as emotions and experiences. I can hear intervals between notes, feel chord changes come and go and understand and appreciate the inherent tension and release of jazz. More than that heady stuff though, I can sit back and feel the groove and swing of it, I can feel the flavor and texture of it. I can appreciate the personalities behind the music. For me, when you’re invited to see the bigger picture, I can savor the individual parts better

This is often what happens when we begin to understand and appreciate the underlying form of almost anything be it jazz or yoga. A yoga asana is beautiful on the outside but understanding the underlying form—the mechanics of muscles, bones and even subtleties like energy and intention—makes the posture understandable, enjoyable and enlightening. Yoga is about understanding oneself deeper. Any deeper look inward, even just at anatomy, fulfills the ends of yoga.
The underlying form expresses itself clearly in the outerlying form in our yoga postures: slumped shoulders might manifest for the depressed or burdened or shy, broad shoulders for the confident, open hearted, and gregarious. As a teacher, I can’t read your mind, can’t feel your soul, but I can see how your consciousness produces the product of a very engaged outer form. So in that sense, I often know whether your mind is present by how your poses look. The outerlying form reflects the under.

Of course the underlying and outer lying forms are inseparable. You can’t have the pose without the energy or thought or emotion behind it, you can’t have jazz without its history and culture, you can’t have the blues, without feeling blue. So really what this means is to learn to see the whole picture is attuning our senses to the specifics and intricacies of a sophistication of seeing all the parts. We engage on a deeper level. It makes the practice of jazz or yoga so rich. By understanding the underlying form, we might acquire a taste for more complex things like deeper poses, meditation, Coltrane or dark chocolate. And soon we might begin to understand a little about the underlying form of all things and learn to see that with increased flavor and appreciation.

So maybe, years later, because I’ve learned a little about the underlying form of jazz, for my buck I’d choose John Coltrane over Kenny G, though I still understand Kenny G’s technical proficiency and his beautifully clear and distinct sound. Come to practice this week and let’s focus on understanding ourselves by looking at underlying form both in practical, anatomical ways as well as conscious, meditative ways.

Until then, if you’re interested click here to hear John Coltrane play Blue Trane, in my opinion one of the best sax solos in all of jazz.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ganesh: Guardian of the Temple

Om Gam Ganapataye Namah

This is the chant to Ganesh, the mythical figure in Hindu iconography who represents the remover of obstacles, the gatekeeper between the earthly world and the spiritual world.
Here is one version of his story.

According the Hindu mythos, Siva and Shakti represent the primordial male and female entities of the universe, the creator and mother of the universe. They are represented by the familiar eastern symbol, the yin and yang. In this symbol, the dark side represents the female aspect of the universe (not necessarily gender), embodiment, cool, dark, and movement. The light side represents the male aspect, energy, spirit, warmth, and awareness.

Early in the history of this myth, Siva was often away from Shakti as he attended to the responsibilities of ruling the universe. As happens with all newlyweds, eventually the honeymoon period seemed to be over between the two of them. Often, Siva would return home from his responsibilities of creating the universe and without much sensitivity, he felt entitled to Shakti's bed chamber. Shiva only craved the physical and Shakti craved the spirit.

Once again when Siva left, Shakti mourned the lack of intimacy that they once shared. So, from her laughter, Shakti created a son and named him Ganesh. As the son of embodied movement, Ganesh was an amazing physical creature. In addition to giving Shakti companionship and love, Shakti gave Ganesh the charge of guarding the gates to her bedroom; under no circumstances was he to allow anyone to pass.

As you may imagine, when Siva returned home, as per his habit, he marched straight toward Shakti's bed chamber and was met abruptly by this new creature, Ganesh. "None shall pass," said Ganesh (I'm thinking of Monty Python, here). Annoyed, Siva sent some of the members of his posse to go and take care of this little boy blocking the way. As the son of Shakti, Ganesh proved to be a powerful creature and probably looked like the young Vin Diesel of Hindu Gods as he cleaned house with Siva's brute force. As Ganesh was more than holding his own against his attackers, Siva started to get a little nervous. He thought, "This won't look good if this little kid takes care of my posse. Even worse if he then schools me," Siva thought. So while Ganesh wasn't looking Siva threw his trident and beheaded Ganesh.

Hearing all the commotion, Shakti came out of her room and saw her now dead son on the floor. She threw the stink-eye at Siva as if to say, "Fix this. NOW." Siva, seeing that he was in hot water, told his right hand man to go and find him a head. Any head. He returned with a head-an elephant head. Siva said, "This will have to do." And with that, brought Ganesh back to life. This story taught Siva that even he needs to earn entrance into the gates of the sacred chamber, into the temple.

The symbol of Ganesh helps to remind us of several aspects of our yoga practice as well as our practice of daily living. Many of the depictions of Ganesh show him sitting with one of his legs in the enlightened pose of lotus while his other foot rests comfortably on the ground. This teaches that while we are seeking spiritual progression, we must also keep our contact with the physical world. Even more than that, it shows that the path to spiritual expression is often through the magic and joy of the physical form. Our yoga practice is the perfect example: we move our bodies as a tool which points to the spirit. Every time I see someone roll down the road on their skateboard, I think of that soul experiencing a touch of enlightenment through the bliss of motion through time and space. Whether skating or performing asana, we allow ourselves the indulgence of the underlying form of mind and heart through the physical machinations of the body. Through the body, we give ourselves a tangible connection to spirit.

The gateway to the body is the connection between ground and body: the pelvis and hips. This week, let's entice the sentinel, Ganesh, as we break off the rust of the gates to the temple of heart and mind and open our hips, stretch the legs, external rotators (outside of the buttocks) and the hip flexors (groins). We'll not only learn the steps to enter the gates toward the sacred chamber of heart and mind through the body, but also make the practice sweet and allow the entire journey to be a joy. My intention is to learn a little about the ancient myths of yoga while giving freedom and joy in our hips. We'll float out of class.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Busyness

Are you busy? I’m busy. It seems like we’re all busy. And when your schedule is busy your mind is busy processing and planning and negotiating it all to make sure it gets done. And that is precisely the trapping of busyness: you get so harried, so scattered, that you can’t really focus on anything very well. Your nervous system gets shorted out, your energy reserves get depleted, and you never have enough time and you end up increasingly more and more tired.

I don’t think we’re alone. In fact, around 200 AD the yoga scholar Patanjali wrote an entire freegin’ yoga sutra on the topic. It’s the primary source for all the philosophy most of us yogis study. Right at the beginning of this ancient text he states very clearly that the entire purpose for doing yoga is to stop the mind from all its busyness. And that was 1800 years ago before kids’ soccer practice, the 9-5, and the 27 other things we have going on during any regular weekday night.

Easier said than done, right? It’s like when I get worked up about something, am really upset, and someone comes up to me and gratuitously offers that smidgen of infallible advice, “hey, chill out.” Rarely, has advice ever found purchase with me. I imagine myself stopping mid-freakout, relaxing all my tension, and just as that stupid smile of contented relief begins to spread across my face, I say, “Thanks! Why didn’t I think of that?” No! I need to work through it. The same goes with busyness. It doesn’t work to simply say, stop being so busy all the time. There needs to be a processing, an accounting for the busyness and then maybe we can find some practical and lasting method of stopping the madness.

After a while of running around with your head cut off, if you’re like me, you’ll take a moment from the craziness and ask if there is a better way of being. Ironically, part of the processes of reducing busyness is getting completely exhausted, completely fed up with busyness, to realize it’s not you and to begin the mindful process of escaping the madness. Maybe, if you’re like me, you could take a good honest look at why you make your schedule so busy. Maybe another question to ask is, “What are those things in life that mean the most to me?” and begin to organize your time and energy toward that stuff first.

I suppose this is what yoga does for us. Yoga gives us the opportunity for a pause, for reflection, and for focus. It is one of the most practical ways I know of learning to practice being in a place where everything is simplified down to that which makes the most sense, body and breath. Maybe with this simplified perspective, we can take a look at those things on our schedule that don’t really serve us and commit to spend some time, meditating, doing some yoga, or catching up on Anne of Green Gables. But what about all the stuff we gotta do for our kids, taking them to this practice, this playdate, this kids’ activities? With a little mindfulness and creativity, you’ll find a solution for that too. After all, what are we teaching them with all of our busyness?

If coming to yoga class is going to be one more thing that busies your schedule, I might suggest take the pressure off of yourself and stay home. Seriously. If you can arrange to come and not have it be “one more thing” to add to an already busy schedule, then I’d love t see you in class this week as we focus together and practice some radical simplification. Maybe we’ll gain some clarity on those things on our schedule that don’t serve us and could be replaced by something that does.
See you in class, OR NOT.