Archive for August, 2006

Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois: The Mind in the Heart
Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

Pattabhi Jois speaks of “the mind in the heart”. When he says it, he puts his hand on his heart (which is also what he often does when people bow to him in respect). What can be said about this?

One amazing fact: Krishnamacharya- the modern father of the lineage, whom I consider the primary inspiration behind perhaps 75 per cent of the asana practice on the planet- could stop his heart at will and suppress it for two minutes. He had incredible control of his own physiology, a control that went deep into his autonomic nervous system, generally considered beneath the level of will. (Check the book Sri Krishnamacharya the Purnacharya, available through the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, www.kym.org, the school established by his son Desikachar, for testimony by Western scientists who were seeking valid verification of supposed yogic tall-tales.)

We can use the term “liminal line” for the transition zone between that which is conscious and that which isn’t. Above the liminal line is everything of which we are aware. Even if we don’t understand it, we can still have some grasp of its existence and can to some degree manipulate it with our will, for example, raising your arm. Beneath the liminal line…this is where it gets interesting. Looking at the body itself, biologists have explained countless physiologic processes operating with astounding complexity, which almost always work perfectly, in our own bodies, over which we have next to no conscious awareness or control. The forward thinking biologists Maturana and Varela have refined this understanding in an inspirational way under the concept of autopoiesis which means: organization or self-renewal which happens by itself, exchanging elements but maintaining the same basic underlying order. Incredible.

The basic access tool for experiencing these underlying physiologic processes is felt internal sensation, including but not limited to kinesthetic sensation: the muscle sense and proprioception: the stretch and bodily positioning sense. Both of these are processed in the somatic cortex of the brain. Basically, this is the act of feeling that which is going on inside our skin, which is related to but different from touch of the skin with outward objects. This internal sensing can be summed up under the Sanskrit term: vedana.

I previously belabored the process indicated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras about quieting the chatter mind, the thinking mind. (Check July 2006). When this is successful, vedana is revealed. When the thinking mind gets quiet, a field of internal feeling presents itself to conscious awareness. It was there all along, underlying the thoughts; when the thoughts are quieted, it remains. In turn, anything in this somatic field may become the object upon which the yogi can choose to focus. If she chooses to focus on the sensations of the heart, as it beats, as it responds to life events such as romance or fear, she will begin to get a little smarter about the heart. If she keeps this focus up, “over a long period of time without interruption, earnestly” (that’s yoga sutra 1:14) what can happen?

My answer to that is that the liminal line will begin to drop, and she will slowly get a degree of control over the actions of the heart. Actually stopping the heart is intimidatingly deep yoga, but it operates at the same level as simple asana practice: the first time you tried handstand, what happened? Chaos theory. But, if you apply yourself over time, order begins to emerge from within the chaos, as strength is built and nerve circuits created. The potential was there all along, you just couldn’t contain the needed parts yet, your physiology just wasn’t ready, just like a child’s physiology is not yet ready to walk.

Controlling the mind is harder than handstand. And it doesn’t just happen because we want it to, we have to apply ourselves just as we do in handstand. Over time, psychic strength is built, nerve circuits created, we can gradually quiet thoughts when we want to. And one of yoga’s great tools to achieve this is to focus on vedana, the sensations in the body, as a place to redirect conscious attention away from the chatter in the mind and toward a perception of the profound intelligence of autopoiesis happening in our own bodies at all times. Asanas are an excellent means for this because they make physical sensation obvious in an orderly, progressive manner, presenting blatant stable sensation fields. Focus on the body and the mind will discharge its uncontrolled load and get out of its own way.

So, the mind in the heart: if and when we fall in love, (to use one of the great dopamine drenched passages of life as an example) we find that the heart responds vividly to that which passes through our minds, and often responds to things of which the mind in our head knows nothing. But, to put it philosophically, there is a referent to that heart experience, there is something real out there to which it is responding: the heart knows things the intellectual mind does not: the heart is often that which introduces these things to the intellect.

As the story circulates in Mysore, Pattabhi Jois was learning to stop his heart and Krishnamacharya eventually instructed his pupil to forgo that quest and have a family, which has been known to do a thing or two to the hearts of the parents. The teaching here seems to be: use yogic techniques to gain access to that which others may not have access, this yogic attention will begin to alter and mature and gain control over the internal phenomena which it pays attention to. And these yogic techniques  include that of living a “normal” life and observing what this does to the heart. And through the heart, sharing life with others.

Namaste, Steve


Global Heart
Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

Last month I wrote and spoke about the difficult practice of clearing the mind of thoughts to allow a bit of the stuff represented by Soma into the stream of consciousness. Allow me to offer a short autobiographical account:

In 1995 I completed my Master’s Degree in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. If you haven’t heard of it, take a look at www.pacifica.edu, one of the great centers on the planet for depth psychology and mytho-poetic thought. Joseph Campbell sensed this early on and left them his library, significantly furthering their cause. They draw strong influence from C.G. Jung, and in turn James Hillman and Marija Gimbutas, as well as most of the other luminaries in that field.

To survive the rigors of grad school, I discovered I wasn’t turning to the medicine I was learning to use, i.e.: psychology, but rather, found incredible help through yoga. I finished the degree, embarked upon my third trip to India, undertook my first serious surrender to Pattabhi Jois and the Ashtanga lineage, came back and began to teach yoga full-time. I was compelled by yoga, and enough of our society shared this feeling to allow me to make a living doing it.

I consider Jung’s and Pacifica’s world to be that part of our being which responds when we are deeply stirred by a movie, a novel, heroism, romance, visual art, a dream, conflict in relationship, crisis in ourselves. Jung traced this response down, seeking the roots of the psyche and unearthed and beautifully expressed essential interpersonal dynamics such as archetype, shadow and projection.

A common criticism of Jung however, as Aurobindo noted, is that he hung around in the mud of existence and didn’t know much about how high we can rise. Jung’s archetypes draw us down, (closer to amoebas) whereas he was wary of the other end of the spectrum, such as Shankaracharya’s archetypes which compel us up (toward higher evolutionary forms) and in (closer to Spirit, by whatever name). Getting down has great value, doubtless, but it is not the whole story by a long shot. (Maybe you agree with this, maybe you don’t, comments and challenges are welcome. Ken Wilber at www.integralinstitute.org is the great resource for this dialogue in my experience.) To that I would also add that Jung knew the unconscious mind but was less astute about the experienced body which involves cultivating somatic awareness.

Long story short, by the time I was 22 I was swimming in the mind and the archetypes from who knows which direction, and craved clarity and strength. I was in Darjeeling that year, in the mountains above Calcutta in India, marveling at the wonder which is Mount Kanchenjunga. We had recently completed a 34 day trek on foot, circumambulating about 2/3rds of this majestic peak, third tallest in the world. In Darjeeling, I would awaken in my hotel room and look at it out the window. Walking along an alley on the terraced steep hillside, musing, I peered in the open door of a small house to see a man practicing dhanurasana, a backbend. I hate to admit that my first response was envy, but that soon gave way to an urgent desire to undertake a serious Hatha Yoga practice, to use the body as a means of controlling the mind, to learn to articulate and mediate my reactions to the stuff emerging from below: my past, and that of the collective. And I had intuitions of various kinds of furniture coming in from above, those were interesting: a sense of what was coming.

So to finish here, I would like to offer the position that a focused yoga practice can bring the deep stuff of the psyche to a fuller and higher expression than Jung’s alchemy alone, and, by extension, western psychology alone. Granted, the “nonsense” and paradox of alchemy appears to generate a kind of psychic tension and clearing  similar to that which appears through  Asian yoga practice. Also, novels, music, movies, performance and ritual that deeply affect us are unequaled in the capacity to loosen stuff up in the first place; India has great epics but they have not pursued story and symbol like the West. Their music is equal to ours, as is their ritual and performance. However, I hold Asian yoga to go much further and to get much higher in terms of its clarity about the possibilities of higher consciousness and its ability to help us sustain such a state; in general, the methods for how to realize and maintain higher consciousness through practice which have come from the West are hapless compared to those from the East. (As a rebuttal, one may claim that Jung’s intent wasn’t so much to get us “high” as it was to be therapeutic and healing, partly by helping to provide meaning.) Regardless, Jung viewed Western alchemy as being about the closest the West has gotten to the yoga of the East and he felt that Westerners should build on that instead of pursuing yogas developed through Eastern cultural environments. As the world has become more global, that concern of his becomes more and more moot (see October 2007 for more).

So, it has emerged that the Eastern ways, of which Ashtanga is one, need to be combined now with the Western ways, of which Jung is one. In support of such a strong statement, it can be noted that every Guru from the East who has touched our Western lives is currently in an active engagement with the West. The ones who haven’t , we in the West don’t know about.  Indeed, a huge aspect of India’s history since the 1500’s is its engagement with the West. Krishnmacharya attempted to become pure East, a master linguist who purposely avoided learning English even though he was surrounded by it. His students, Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, however are not East so much as East/ West; the engagement with the West is a huge part of their story. The same can be said of the Dalai Lama.

The West says, “Think and you shall Be”, the East says, “Wake up from the dream which is the movie of your mind.” The complete picture is to do both. Depth psychology’s heartmind just never gets high enough. But quitting life to do full-time yoga in a cave with eyes rolled back may never allow large portions of our psyche to get into play at all. The thing which is bigger than mind and fuller than no-mind is global Heart. Let’s do that.

Namaste, Steve


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