Archive for May, 2007
The Shadow of the Yogi
Wednesday, May 30th, 2007
Psychologist: “Oh shiny yogi!! Your own bliss prevents you from ever seeing your shadow! But the rest of us can see it quite easily.”
Yogi: “Why are you scientists and mytho/poetics hanging around in the muck when the light is so exciting, and feels so good?! It’s because you have no way of getting out of the muck!”
I got a degree in Counseling Psychology but wrote my thesis on yoga for this reason: it seemed psychotherapy worked quite well for relationships but I noticed a gap in effectiveness around actually helping individuals transform themselves. Indeed, the field of psychology seems to rely more and more heavily on pharmaceuticals to help in that regard, something that actually changes one’s chemistry, instead of just using the talking cure. People in trouble need strong stuff it would appear, and drugs are obviously as strong as you want them to be. But as I was practicing ashtanga, especially the backbends, I noticed that this was strong stuff, was altering my chemistry, blowing junk out, far superior to any drug I’ve ever taken. Of course, in the short-term, it doesn’t appear as easy as drugs…
But the undoubted challenge that Western Psychology has to offer yoga is that of the shadow, and shadow work. I’ve been belaboring the point lately that yoga in the West does not feel all that mature, that it’s often like a bunch of bees (save the bees!) chasing after some special buzz, it’s all tied in with the celebrity paradigm (high flying characters with raging shadows and egos, highly disinclined to look at either), or popularity contests, it becomes a haven for behavior that wouldn’t last a minute in Psychology circles (including verbal abusiveness). Not that Psychologists are perfect, far from it, but they’ve got a leg up on us in this regard: part of their game is a willingness to face the shadow.
Easy indicator of a New Age flake: as soon as the going gets challenging on the “self-improvement” quest, an easier or different path is sought, i.e.: one who is allergic to looking at his own shadow. “This hurts and is unpleasant, God must be wanting me to do something different.” Why? Because the shadow is not always such a nice thing to look at. And for yoga to exit the shallow realms of the novelty spiritual item and actually take root as an enduring part of this culture, it needs to go through a winnowing, and a trial of the shadow, and survive.
Much of this flighty approach to spirituality can be seen as a wholesale swallowing of the media culture’s promise of unending delights surrounded by beautiful people, a topic well covered by George Leonard in his book Mastery. There has also been a confusion of celebrity with Guru. Celebrities often get highly rewarded with massive attention for immature behavior; it is built into that system to never need to mature as a person. And contemporary Western culture is beyond gaa-gaa for famous people, notice how much importance people place on a simple celebrity sighting, as if they were Gods who could confer some massive blessing and seeing them is a mega-darshan.
Yoga Journal has propagated this in the yoga world, with their elite stable of special photo-op teachers who have at times dominated their pages to a ludicrous degree. The divergence between actual creative power and celebrity has always been quite wide and in yoga it amounts to the difference between those who have slowly cultivated a special kind of presence and those who have had the spotlight placed upon them with little connection to yogic capacity. The sad part is that Yoga Journal was a fairly interesting magazine, when for example Rick Fields (author of “Fuck You Cancer!”) was the editor, over ten years ago. Rick’s dead now (of cancer), and the magazine has migrated towards Cosmopolitan with a green bent, which admittedly serves an important role out there in the mainstream media; it’s slickification is what got it onto the big stage. (Admittedly, when compared to other magazines with that much influence, Yoga Journal seems positive and spiritual).
A widely accepted critique of our current society is that of Flatland, (a subject in which I’ve found Ken Wilber to be helpful.) This is entirely apart from celebrity-addicted shallow culture, but rather a lamenting of the lack of value that is allowed in materialistic discourse, which in this setting translates to: there can be nobody who has a higher state of consciousness than you, and the idea of spiritual depth is a dangerous elitist illusion. So, one who has steeped herself in alchemical yogic processes over the period of a long life has nothing to offer of value in that regard. And in turn, without depth we get narcissism and nihilism: there is no depth or such a thing as spiritual development, so the only thing left is to find the instrumental means to storm the gates of popularity, celebrity, power materialistic knowledge and wealth, to ease my pain and gratify my own ego.
Krishnamacharya is the elder behind most of the yoga in the West, and, although his life a hint of celebrity in it, he hobnobbed in he corridors of power at times in his life, we’re talking about something different than our present Western culture. He is the essence of long slow patient intense labor, of great material sacrifice in order to follow a deep sense of his calling in alignment with a profound art and to properly develop it. Of perseverence in the face of unpopularity and material insecurity (he raised five children as perhaps the first professional yogi once his royal patronage dissolved). Of a person who still developed in his fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, hundreds. He mingling with the “illuminatti” of his time and society was based on recognition of value in his achievement. His students BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois also embody beautiful fruits of long patient labor, and have also become famous in a different way, as a recognition of the value of mastery: not as celebrities, but rather as accomplished teachers who have received media attention.
In short, celebrity is often based on charisma and guru is based on mastery. The two can converge, but often don’t. Charisma, beauty and popularity can be wonderful, but mastery is a different beast. It is also something very real, and there are individuals walking in the world now who embody it (i.e.: Mata Amritananadamayi: Ammachi the hugging mother). Personally, I try to support yoga at whatever level it is operating, but at the same time, depth is real, and I want to be a voice for the possibility of mature spiritual development in a shallow materialistic culture.
So, what happens if we persevere with this, continue practicing and living yogically, spiritually? Does it bring us straight to the light? Well, yes, but I would say it needs to go through the shadow to get there. What is the shadow? The stuff inside us that we don’t see, don’t know about, don’t acknowledge, but which directs our actions anyway. Steady yoga practice will get us into the bliss zone one day, but the psyche responds to bliss by initiating a release of a deeper layer of stuff, as if it senses that everything is ready. And the stuff: some of it ain’t fun, won’t look good on the cover of Yoga Journal, advertisers aren’t flocking to it. (Actually, there is a shadow side to media-frenzy culture: the love of the scandal, and the sheer delight of malicious gossip.) Anyway, here’s an excerpt from a response to a comment I left to the March 2007 entry :
Depth sounds nice but the reality is a bit different than “nice”: there’s chaos down there: worms, bugs, grim dark dangerous warriors on strange murky quests; the little blessings that we’ve relied upon may get snuffed out, our good luck may turn bad, our antanae get confused and receive strange unwanted songs, etc.
Why go deep at all?
Because we have to. Anyway: resolution of chaos ultimately allows the mind successive degrees of quietude. My claim is this: the great sages didn’t know everything, ie: they can’t sit down and speak Icelandic, but, they had resolved their internal history into a state of beautitude, saw the beauty behind the chaos, could hold that energy with a quiet mind, which is closer to the anabolic state, the healing state. The sages dropped deep into the heavies and resolved it for themselves, and for humanity. They weren’t air-heads: they had mastered heavy fields so that they could be seen easily.
The shadow canbe dark scary stuff which, if subjected to practice over time,will transmute into something we understand, into something we can accept and love, where it becomes the fuel for brilliance. We pull old stuff out of the ocean and lift it up to the heavens. In alchemy this is the “long slow opus”. Basically, as systems theory tells us: we can be comfortable in a limited setting for a while, but eventually there is an urge to break through to a deeper level. This urge can either be the result of a stretch of inspiration or a need that arises in the wake of a crisis. The title of Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy, The Laundry expresses the former: after the inspiration wears off, we find ourselves in this bigger realm, and, correct me if I’m wrong, but it would appear that you can’t go back. Evolution seems to be hardwired into the human nerves. Once we become aware of a reality, we either hold it as something we know, or we repress it, and repression is a big part of the Psychology story. Why do we repress is? Because knowing it is too scary, threatens our sense of self-organization. The shadow we carry is full of stuff that we already know but don’t really want to look at.
So, the chaos part: the bigger realm contains entities that don’t harmonize with the smaller world we used to live in. They show us contradictions that we didn’t notice before, which suddenly become unnacceptable. The new system is not worked out yet, but we are living in it anyway: chaos. That’s the alive anxious side of it. The other side is the drudge part: massive immovable objects that we now can no longer ignore, and act like black holes in the psyche. The alchemical lead or base metal, a long ways from gold, but which will transform in that direction with, for example, focused sustained learning yogic attention. So, as the theory goes, chaos or sludge slowly gets organized in the auto-poietic system, reaches a state of some degree of competency, and then the evolutionary urge thrusts the system into the next level of inclusiveness, the next unknown realm, process begins again. This goes until the individual runs out of evolutionary fuel.
The personal experience of this: the chaos phase has moments of great excitement and highs, and rather intense bummers, the latter of which can be seen as a grappling with something about which we have no clue. So, to return to that yogi-psychologist dialogue at the top of this piece: yoga is fabulous technology for getting things well organized, and it also reveals deep shadows to put into that work. But Psychology, in my view, has come up with interpersonal dialogical methods which point out shadow with greater effectiveness. The two together is a good combination.
Finally, yoga will get us high, but the bliss of the yogi doesn’t care if it’s high or low. True bliss is OK, period. Living fully means moving beyond what we know, the willingness to encounter what we don’t know, is not addicted to being high, even the most natural pure healthy high. And what Jung calls a moral response beyond the ordinary is the willingness to engage the darkness, and not just flit back to the light we know. And I would add: if you go into the shadow, you better bring your yoga with you, because you want a chance to get back out.
Thomas Merton, Kanchenjunga, Mysore
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007
Why do you do Ashtanga? What brought you to the practice? This post will be my story, but I would love to hear from any of you. Tales of bodily and mental transformation, maniacal obsession, intimidation overcome (or not), gentle delight, whatever. I welcome any replies to this: a story, impressions, what drew you in and what it was like at first, what it became over time, anything. Just leave a reply at the bottom of this post.
My story: I was raised in Santa Barbara and went to college in LA. It usually felt like a gigantic morass of very weird madness down there, and I engaged my share. But in my studies at Occidental College, I gravitated toward Comparative Religions, seeking meaning and solace. The on-campus evangelical Christians actively attempted to draw me in, and I learned quite a bit from them but didn’t buy the party line. One Christian thinker who compelled me however was Thomas Merton and my Bachelor’s thesis drew heavily from his writings. The one that really hit me was his Asian Journal, which captures his thoughts and acts leading up to his death.
He was an unusal combination of monk and popular writer. His writings were subject to the Catholic censors and much of them feel stifled by an authoritarian tone, although his profound spiritual realization is unmistakable. But the Asian Journal and his posthumously published journals reveal a different voice, at times in clear conflict with the Church, very human, funny, delighted. Nonetheless, the substantial royalties he earned through his writing all went to his monastery in the woods of Kentucky, and he remained a monk in poverty, praying for the rest of the world.
He deeply understood and appreciated yoga from Asia in its various forms. Year after year of arduous practice in the Catholic monastic tradition transformed him into an awesome yogi indeed, and high Tibetan roshis recognized him as such. He used mountains as a metaphor for stages of spiritual development, and his final mountain was Kanchenjunga, the Himalayan peak on the border between Nepal and India. He photographed it obsessively on the journey on which he would die in 1968.
It would become my first mountain. I was 22, it was 1989, and yoga was just beginning its transition from curiosity to actual cultural force in the West. I met a great man in his late fifties, Virgil Day, therapist, buddhist, mountaineer, the father of my girlfriend at the time, who was planning an extensive trek through the wilds all around…Kanchenjunga. I came up with the $2000, quit my job, vacated my apartment, and joined him.
We spent 34 days out on the Nepali trails in the most stunning country I have ever seen, bar none. Rivers, mountains, leeches, all larger than life. Kanchenjunga was mysterious. On the first few days, from a distance, she showed her hulking face through the clouds. We then dropped into the deep valleys and worked our way through them for two weeks, walking closer and closer. She stayed hidden, though I could feel her radiant presence. Her proud consort, Kumbhakarna, a massiff like the Matterhorn but on a much larger scale, made a dramatic appearance, out of the clouds suddenly, straight above us and way up there, Virgil on a distant terrace shouting and waving his arms wildly, the wind blowing, a moment which stained my mind forever.
We finally made it to a sheepherding region called Pangpema, the main vantage point to see Kanchenjunga’s incredible north face. But she was hidden. Our Sherpa, Ram, was scratching his head as we walked along: where was the great mountain? A huge rock face eventually showed from behind a shoulder and he announced, “There is Kanchenjunga.” It was big for sure, but we remained quiet, trying not to be disappointed. He muttered, “It doesn’t seem right”. We continued, and a bigger massiff appeared. Still we walked. Another massiff, an impressive one indeed, much the biggest of the three, but this time Ram said nothing and kept going.
His genetics were part mountain goat, and he was quite ahead of us at this point, I had spots in front of my eyes from the alititude. We turned a bend to see him sitting with a serious look, and there she was, immeasurably larger than the prevous three, a radiant wall of gold and blue, an experience akin to Krishna’s presentation to Arjuna of the true face of God, completely overwhelming. We’d been hiking for two weeks, courting her, and only in the last four minutes of that part of the trek did she finally reveal herself. Her naked beauty was beyond…
I was dunked into the Nepal/Tibet/India matrix and romance, and to this day I have not recovered. The next two months were spent wandering India, including encounters with sadhus, the poor of Calcutta, the beaches of Kerala. I came home from that trip looking like a sadhu, and fairly skinny from several micro-organisms. My family was a bit shocked.
We had a copy of Iyengar’s Light on Yoga on the shelf and, inspired, I went to work. Four years later, March 1994, I found myself again in India, amazed. This time it was the city of Mysore and I was preparing to meet Pattabhi Jois. I had only been doing Ashtanga for two months, and had some major thresholds to cross in the pelvis and hamstrings, was a little concerned that he’d give me a bodyslam in these regions. I was part way through the first year of getting a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and was planning on pursuing the career, and here I was in India again, recognizing with trepidation a rapidly approaching huge dark cloud of a major internal crisis.
It went like this: my long time partner had already been there for two months, and as I lay down next to her that first night I dimly sensed that there was another man in the picture. What the heck was this? As we talked, I recognized this presence was Guruji himself, and that her time here alone had awoken all kinds of life in her, I was a classic lumbering threatened boyfriend. I intellectualized it: this is an evolutionary engagement she has with a helper (albeit a fairly potent one), and I support this. So that left it in my court: why am I so threatened by this? Could it be all the monsterously bendy yogis everywhere, when I was stiff and initimidated? No, that wasn’t really it. I lay there awake all night from the timezone shift and considered this.
Next morning I went to the Nilayam to watch, planning on paying that afternoon. This was during the slow period of growth in the community that preceded what was to become an explosion. The old Shala used to have eight students at a time, eventually that grew to 12, which filled the little room. Guruji would periodically settle onto his creaky stool in the corner, and then get up and adjust students. His grandson, Sharath, would sit at his feet by the wall, also getting up to help.
We walked in and he burst through the door of a prana-packed room like a demon with a fiery sword from some mandala, confronted me, demanded to know where I was from. He then turned and went back at it. I noticed that he was totally stoked, in and among his intensely focused yogis. He was manly, radically receptive, very deliberate, commanding, I couldn’t believe he was completely lying on top of people. Not your typical 80 year old. He would bark an order at someone and then turn to us with a sly smile, deconstructing himself with hilarious twinkly eyes. He would go on for hours. He was chanting something under his breath which I later discovered to be the Isa Upanishad. Somebody was cooking something delicious in the room next door.
I was thoroughly alarmed. Here was a legitimate Hatha Yoga master in full flight. He didn’t correspond or act according to the protocol of the Psychology Board. Some of his students seemed like masters themselves. I was also struck by Sharath’s calm simplicity, and his complete absence of any egoic caricature. I could tell that there were lots of rules lying around but that they were operating from pure intuition. There was a strict code and it was open to revision, something so much more than fundamentalism, yet so grounded in tradition.
We went back to our little flat and I spontaneously flung a bag of coins against the wall, which smashed into my partner Jessica’s shrine, blowing it apart. Needless to say, she was perturbed. What was going on?! A little later I was subdued and decided to work a bit on the practice which I hadn’t memorized yet. As soon as I began practicing, my head became dramatic theater for dialogue akin to a combat scene from one of the epics, and during a particularly heated exchange I dragged my toe jumping through and broke it good and proper with a big POP. It soon swelled to the shape and color of a plum. Thus culminated my first trip to Mysore.
I staggered home and got back to my life and plans. It was during this time that I felt Guruji offering a valid response to the anxious rumination that always seemed to accompany my triumphs and travails in the Western world. Something like “Do this and you will grow steady, strong and true, like a great Holy Tree.” Was it a psychic emanation? Was it just the mature flowering of the strong impressions left by my journey to Mysore? My answer now: it was both, I’d received a tumultuous darshan from someone who was up to the task, and it was working in me now. Regardless, my confusion in India was an early radioactive expression of a deep calling to undertake Yoga as a vocation, which was not in my plans at the time. Deeply laid plans leave blood on the psychic floor as they get ripped apart. But the exhilaration…I chose to go with that instead of the dread. (For more ideas on this, go here, scroll down to Global Heart.)
Back in California I began teaching yoga at gyms, the little crumbs at the perimeters of the schedule doled out to new teachers at The Yoga Center, anywhere. I taught so many classes that first year, took anything and everything. One weekend I took a workshop with Chuck Miller, one of the founders of Yoga Works, an ashtangi who went on quite a wild ride during that Santa Monica institution’s incomparable heyday (the first half of the nineties). Shiva Rae was assisting. It was at the White Lotus, in the mountains of Santa Barbara. One night, we watched the video of Iyengar doing Ashtanga with Krishnamacharya on Chamundi Hill. I was struck by Krishnamacharya’s demeanor and the radical bandhas and kriyas he was engaging. That night he came to me in a dream, covered with a thin layer of fur, holding an ancient staff, beckoning. I woke up with chills. Before long, I left for Mysore and stayed nearly a year. I existed in and around Guruji’s psychic space, lived across the street from him. One day near the end, Michele came walking in, and the rest is, as they say…
I would take two more treks with Virgil: First was 24 days out in the Dolpo region of northern Nepal, a close recreation of Peter Matthiessen’s journey told in one of my all-time favorite books The Snow Leopard, an incredible tour to the Crystal Mountain and the monastery there, Shey Gompa. One of the highlights of our trek was a fist fight between our cook and one of our guides.
Next was a tour of Holy Mount Kailash and the surrounding region, in Tibet. Michele went on that one and jumped naked into sacred Lake Manasorover, madwoman! …and now forever blessed by the icy water. She also saved the life of a 60 year old psychologist who was on the trek with us, charging to his aid, screaming, just in time to prevent a truck from crushing his skull, he stumbled up from his nap, the truck roared off, he dramatically collapsed in her lap, she held him in that little field by a stream, weeping. He regarded her as the All-giving Great Mother for the remainder of the journey, which got a bit weird up there. The night before we began our circumambulation of Kailash, drunk Chinese soldiers broke into our little room, rifles pointed. Quite a way to wake up. We struggled to get the candle lit, yelled at them, inexplicably they left. Just a little demon trying to scare us off before we could take darshan from the Holy Mountain. Can’t let that stop you…
Thanks for your indulgence, namaste,