Archive for the ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ Category
What I’ve been waiting for: Hatha Yoga and the Wilber-Combs Matrix
Sunday, August 5th, 2012
(So, in this era of daily tweets and hyper-communication, I’ve written a lengthy thing which may require moments of slower reading- not something most internet surfers want to do- and it took me four years to cough it up. But I hope you will find it worthwhile. These posts are more like parts of a book than a blog, and all the different entries through the years should offer a different angle into the themes. May they shed some light on your yoga practice. Happy reading, Steve)
I haven’t written a post in four years. In the meantime, I’ve done a lot of yoga- lots of easy yoga, lots of hard yoga, everything in between; blissful yoga, not blissful yoga; I’ve dragged the trusting long suffering yogis and (mostly) yoginis who pay me and show up in class through no less than three location changes; been alternately delighted or stumped in the role of yogi-householder-version-2012-California with twin boys; taught lots of full classes, taught a few not-so-damn-full classes…and… I finally found the psycho-cosmic map that I’ve been waiting for: the Wilber-Combs Matrix. We hear that the criteria for a good jazz tune can be determined by the inspiration it provides for the soloists who play it. Well, the W-C Lattice, as they call it, has given rise to all kinds of insights for me, hopefully some of which shared here will get across.
This quest of mine started in 2005. Michele gave me the book Sex Ecology and Spirituality by Ken Wilber for father’s day, a big long book, I took it to Mysore, India for Guruji’s 90th birthday in July that year and sat there in my Gokulam flat, at a beat up plastic table for six weeks taking notes in the hot nights after the rest of the family had retired under the mosquito net.
I kept at it because it was the first spiritual book I’d ever read where I was keenly sensing that some grand revelation was going to come from getting to the end of this. (I’d sniffed out a variant on the phenomenon three times before: Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis: knocked me over in my early twenties as Jung’s mature world came in, but I never got back up and finished it, not sure if that book needs to be finished- but if you read those first 20 pages with a clear receptive mind, something weird and wonderful will happen to you sometime shortly thereafter, it’s about alchemy; Shankaracharya’s Brahma Sutra Bhashya: after an initial conversion experience, Vedanta in all its profundity, it wound up putting me into a coma every time I touched it; the book is longer than you can imagine, leaves no 8th century didactic stone unturned, and would’ve morphed me into Rip Van Wrinkle entirely if I hadn’t done the right thing by putting it back on the shelf, thereby returning to normal waking consciousness. You can read it in its entirety right here, give yourself at least a year, sweet dreams; and Aurobindo’s Life Divine: the biggest brick of all- I found out how God comes down to earth, such a large number of angles into this theme that I finally skipped to the part where human rises up to God.) (None of these three books have I finished.) But Wilber’s brick was clearer and it was exciting, so I slapped at mosquitos and finished, wiser for the experience and… the grand revelation fizzled.
There is a happy ending though: two years later I was teaching in Manhattan and realized that Wilber’s Integral Spirituality had recently been published, and there it was, St. Mark’s Bookstore, East Village, page 90, the thing I was hoping for but couldn’t figure out myself: the icing on the cake of Sex Ecology Spirituality. It has taken several years, right up to the present day, for me to recognize the helpfulness of this tool- I feel thankful for Wilber and cohorts for getting it out there.
Sex Ecology Spirituality is organized roughly the opposite of Life Divine, the first part draws on cutting edge thinking, in addition to everything else under the sun, to explain how life evolves into greater complexity and inclusiveness. The second part takes the cosmological view of how Spirit descends to Earth and the way that it has played out over history. The WC Lattice has explanatory value for either direction. Here it is:
There are two axes to this box, vertical: stages, and horizontal: states. The vertical axis charts lines of human development through successive stages. We all develop differently as we go through life, and this includes different lines, for example: emotional line, kinesthetic line, morals line, cognitive line, (different than the states of consciousness on the horizontal axis), (the grid above doesn’t show the lines but you could fit them in there, climbing vertically), each line a slightly different region of the body and brain. Individual lines will climb up the vertical axis depending on the degree of evolutionary resource and endeavor the person might have and apply during her lifetime, and some lines in some individuals can eventually reach up to that blue stage or even above. Different people are inclined toward different groups of lines, so some will push the emotional line up there, others kinesthetic, etc. Each stage has increasing degrees of inclusivity, embracing more of the cosmos, as well as increasing the sophistication of the patterns of connection within that larger field- to reach a stage, one must satisfy certain criteria in this regard. These aren’t tests on which we can get an F so much as what Wilber calls cosmic habits or grooves, and they correspond to broad generalities that appear to reflect the way human organisms evolve over time; for those who are inherently or deliberately working at an evolutionary process, the claim of this grid is that it describes stations that such individuals will progress through. Much of the previous posts in this blog discuss different dynamics contributing to this growth through stages.
However- and this is a glimpse into the complicated kind of issues the lattice clarifies- other processes mentioned in the previous posts, often things about yoga, take us along the horizontal axis, growth through states. Regarding states, the W-C Lattice uses the classic divisions, first set down in the Upanishads, which correlate spiritual states, or yogic attainments, with the main states of sleep. The gross/purgation column corresponds to normal waking consciousness, the subtle/illumination column corresponds to dreaming sleep, the causal/dark night column corresponds to deep sleep, and the non-dual/unification column corresponds to the ability to hold all of these states stably and pass one into the other, ie: realizing the causal state (also called yoga nidra) while functioning in gross or subtle reality. Everybody- including our fabled unmotivated couch potato (see previous posts)- sleeps their way through these states on approximately a 24 hour basis; but the spiritual life, as it has been expressed through cultures and time by the adepts in different traditions, have described spiritual development as the realization of variations on these states of sleeping mind while still fully conscious.
Just a couple of illustrations here to get at the main area for hatha yoga, which is the subtle realm: many of us know of classic images of meditating yogis whose eyes are rolled back in their head behind their lids. This also happens to the eyes of people during sex and orgasm. I saw the Rolling Stones in India once, poured rain the moment they started and stopped the moment they got off stage. Darryl Jones, their bassist during that period- considered among the finest- had his eyes rolled up the entire time. These are examples of someone entering a zone similar to the dream state while still awake- in REM sleep the eyes roll all over the place behind the lids- seeing things inside, or using the visual capacity to add dimension to internally felt energy contours.
So, let’s look at hatha yoga development in this light: a person walks into his first of many ashtanga classes. He brings with him a life history of somato-motor experiences which have given rise to a series of developments in the somato-motor systems in his bodymind. We’ll call this his kinesthetic line on the vertical axis of the lattice. This history starts with wiggling around as a baby, reaching for things and trying to eat them, figuring out crawling, walking, running. For most of us it develops from there. He has been using his somato-motor capacities non-stop since birth, and all this practice has entered data into his memory, and the brain has been crunching it up and putting things in the right places with much of this occurring beneath his awareness, unconsciously. The nerves have been making connections in an auto-poietic fashion, organizing themselves, following their own subterranean will. And, most interestingly, periodically through time, there have been incidents of global reorganization, where suddenly a threshold is passed in the individual, many things shift at once, and the somato-motor movements, awareness of them, capacity to do them in the moment and to put different pieces of them into coherent wholes suddenly increases. He has moved up a level on the vertical axis.
Where can this go? I spent the first eleven years of my life in Boston and my Dad and I are still Celtic fans, occasionally I still watch, they advanced to the conference finals a few weeks from the time of this writing, and lost a great series. Their chief foe: Lebron James of the Miami Heat, age 27. He has put in thousands of hours of intensely focused basketball practice- he had probably attained the much lauded 10,000 hours by the time he was twenty- much of it in heightened prana environments during games, often with millions watching- thousands actually in his physical space, the rest on TV. He was putting together spontaneously improvised moves of enormous complexity, every fraction of a second presenting the possibility for large numbers of new adjustments, each one coming both from his internal toolbag, partly conscious, partly unconscious, and modified on the fly. All NBA players do this. But he was a vertical level up on everyone else, at least in game 7: greater complexity, greater options for new arrangements, greater calculation speed through more efficient signal routing, or as they say in neurology, “richer high-level representations” (Lynch & Granger): that which less advanced players would see as a chaotic situation, he sees as a whole; where others see a mess, he sees patterns.
And there was another force operating on that floor too, one with implications for yoga and longevity: Paul Pierce, age 34, more time logged on the court than Lebron, has even more in his toolbox and also very high-level, but having to add another twist into the neurological data-crunching: all that time in all that physical intensity has left him with a few broken parts; he’s smarter than ever but his musculo-skeletal body can’t do what it used to do. He can still evolve along the vertical axis of somato-motor development, which is largely chemical and neurological, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s better at winning basketball games than a young guy who isn’t broken yet. In this particular series, the beat-up-smart-old-guys held their own until the structurally sounder young guys finally passed them right at the end.
Basketball, like ballet, is a young person’s game. 34 and you’re nearly over the hill. But yoga is a different story- hopefully. One of the points I want to get to a little later is that conscious residence in the subtle state is a huge contributor to creativity, such as our bass player above: that’s the zone where his creativity flows. But in Hatha Yoga, as opposed to basketball, gaining traction along the horizontal path of the lattice, along the states corresponding to sleep, is one of the basic intentions of the practice, at least as it has developed in Indian history. NBA basketball (and much of the material world) is about winning and money and vertical stages rule the roost. Yoga is about enlightenment and happiness and these need some horizontal progress, something that is known to mature with age if valued and given a chance, with the potential of getting progressively more developed even as the physical body wears down, ie: into old age.
Back to the basketball players: a typical non-mystical player will put in hard practice time during gross waking hours and then sleep at night. What happens within him as he sleeps? On the simply physical level, sleep is the time of maximum anabolic activity: growth and repair activity. It is where healing happens at the micro-tears in the muscles that are the result of normal exercise, and the muscles respond to this micro-tearing both by increasing their mass and by upgrading their enzyme systems. This is also when more severe strains and injury heal the fastest. In my post from March 2007 I introduced the idea that yogis can maximize their residence in this anabolic state by, essentially, consciously moving themselves along the horizontal axis of our lattice: getting the benefits of sleep while still awake.
In addition, very interesting things are happening neurologically to our player while he sleeps. The theory that seems to be getting the upper hand in current brain circles is that memories stored during the day are “interleaved” in a progressive process into the cortex from the hippocampus. Essentially, impressions received during the day are organized auto-poietically into coherent, intelligent patterns, allowing the mind to be guided by the same kind of wisdom that guides the cells in their profoundly complex operations. (An almond has around 21 amino acids, when we eat one, we do not need to worry about where to put them or what to do with them, the body does it for us and does it with a nearly incomprehensible genius; likewise, I’m drawing a parallel to what the brain does during sleep with the daily intake of data.) If he has actually done a lot of basketball that day, these impressions will arrange themselves. If he sits around watching old reruns on TV all day, those impressions will arrange themselves, poor guy. If he does lots of basketball, day after day, he will, without conscious effort on his part, begin neurologically developing higher order representations and longer lines of association, brain items which indicate degrees of mastery. He puts in the focused basketball time, his self-organizing bodymind does the rest.
This physical and neurological progress also happens during waking hours, but, if sleep doesn’t happen- if he never moves horizontally along the lattice- he will eventually catabolize: break-down, the opposite of anabolize. And it doesn’t take long; the feeling we get at the end of a long hard day is that of our subtle and gross systems wearing down. They call out to us to get horizontal, both in bed and along the W-C Lattice. Once rest and sleep begin, then everything suddenly switches to the positive, and the strong impressions received from the tough day become the evolutionary fuel for greater development, for both vertical and horizontal attainment- and those who advance furthest in this life, along either axis, have a hunger for strong impressions. Our basketball player is going to need to get himself way up that vertical axis if he wants any chance to make it in the NBA, couch-potato lifestyle will never work. And his nightly sleep can be seen as the matrix which regularly, reliably- miraculously- brings him into the force that can get him there. Vertical development in the gross waking state cannot happen without regular passes through the deeper horizontal stages. Put differently, regular passes along the horizontal axis are required to get anything going vertically. Yoga is the art of getting into these horizontal stages while still fully awake.
So, returning then to the “grand revelation” I mentioned earlier, the one I thought I was onto as I read Sex Ecology Spirituality (SES as they call it). For a long time, I had a burning question: how can hatha yoga bring us to the highest goals of the yoga traditions? By that time, I had settled on my understanding of the tantric ideal as the best way to live a yogi’s life, an approach to the time given to us in this life which is fully aware of the material world and alive to its dynamic forces, but also able to tap into the deeper realms of consciousness. The great paradox at the heart of tantra- of which hatha yoga is a branch- emerges when we take even a perfunctory tour through the corpus of yogic and buddhist literature, and the fact of the drashtu or seer or brahman or witness or causal matrix- there are many more names for it- jumps out at us. It can’t be ignored and is clearly set out ad nauseum as the goal of spiritual life and the realization of enlightenment, either integrated with the grosser realms or not. This causal matrix is not a thing per se but is the absence of things, it is not the result of our yogic efforts but rather the presence that was there the whole time and has only, with the moment of realization, been uncovered. OK. No problem.
But the burning question and the conundrum: how does all this work with active life and practice, such as hatha yoga, where we aren’t doing nothing but rather, are developing something. Like most meditations, hatha yoga is a deployment of attention, and that very attention develops the contents upon which it focuses. Also, it is a practice that develops hierarchically and as Wilber puts it, holarchically.
Here’s an example: kharandavasana is an ungodly difficult asana two thirds of the way through second series in Ashtanga. It puts together several pieces of things which require development time on their own. To begin, one must be able to do lotus, and for some, this is a huge hip-opening undertaking unto itself, requiring full attention; for many people, putting the parts of lotus together is as much as they can do at their present level of practice. Eventually, with practice, all the separate openings and movements required for lotus become unified in a coherent whole, the many have become one. The same goes for the next part of kharandavasana, which is forearm balance: the strength and balance may take a while to develop before any kind of cohesion sets in. We then put these two together, lotus and arm-balance- and there’s even more to the asana than that. I don’t need to go any further with this description to convey the main point, which is a different angle of my take on LeBron James from above: to achieve kharandavasana, one must put together multiple wholes, which themselves are comprised of multiple wholes, each of which needed learning and development time before it could even be realized as a whole. Before that we were just struggling through the parts, which themselves can be broken into parts, which themselves…you get the idea. Development within active life and practices- the vertical axis on the lattice- proceeds through the transformation of parts into wholes, which then become parts of larger wholes, on and on as far as we have the guts to keep going. This is progress up the vertical axis of the lattice. And the thing that was bugging me: when and how does this process eventually help us to get over to the causal matrix which is…gasp…nothing, nothing at all.
In SES and a few later things, and in all of his previous books, Wilber made no clear developmental differentiation between states and stages and simply placed the highest yogic states at the very top of the vertical axis, on top of the very highest levels of cognitive, emotional, kinesthetic and other types of achievement, as he later and wiser put it, “Bam bam bam bam…East and West integrated!” After reading the book, I sat there scratching my head for a while. It occurred to me that a scientist or a basketball player or a hatha yogi could integrate himself way up an active developmental line, doing all his work in the gross waking state, and never get anywhere near the causal state other than in his sleep. It seemed to me that yogic/spiritual states were a different kind of line, a certain kind of intelligence that developed in a learning way just like the other lines, but one that had an essential and unique relationship to the development of other lines and managed different kinds of phenomena. It wasn’t until I finally found the lattice and its horizontal line that I was satisfied on this.
Here was how I viewed the problem: we can keep doing asanas for years and, while we will get physically fit and better at performing the asanas, what exactly about it is spiritual? What does spiritual mean anyway, and does it just sort of show up one day? Why do we even want it? One clue to understanding this issue has to do with that which happens to us as we focus our minds. Most yoga teachers at least make some reference to quieting the mind and staying in the present moment. Many also emphasize focusing on the breath, and in Ashtanga these guidances are overt. Making attempts to focus the mind on an actual sensate field in the present moment- which is different than giving energy to memories and plans for the future- and adding breath control to this, transforms hatha yoga from “just exercise” as Pattabhi Jois used to say, to something greater. Two things begin happening at once. One: time spent doing the asanas will have their developmental effects on the yogi’s body, upgrading it, developing it, neurologically stimulating the generation of higher order representations, etc.: movement up the vertical axis of the lattice, particularly in a somato-motor line. But then, two: what does the focus and breath do? My answer: it can simultaneously moves us into the inner sheaths of our existence, and these offer qualities different than those of the gross waking state: horizontal movement on the lattice.
Seated meditation is a way to get horizontal as it were without the distraction of bodily movement. One aspect of seated meditation is that it is the absence of doing anything, we’ve pared it all down to inner focus, minimizing distractions. Of course, what is really happening is just a more simple and subtle version of hatha yoga, because the back and neck muscles are still working and the hips are being stretched, and anyone who has sat for a while knows that these areas begin to express their opinion about the forces to which they are being subjected. Regardless, at some point along this act of focusing and noticing- or as it has been in the west, praying and contemplating- the bodymind begins to move into a realm where different kinds of phenomena present themselves, and they take a form akin to the dreaming bodymind- less logical, more visionary and flowing, more connected to larger spheres of energy, heartfelt. Psycho-spiritual technology, East and West, has developed as a way of getting us there. The path is robust and has been repeated countless times all over the world; there appears to be an innate human curiosity to follow the roads opened within us every night as we sleep, but to follow them while awake, and to plumb their depths with our witnessing consciousness fully aware.
In the yogic literature, this path is said to reveal and eventually release our samskaras, a word which can be translated as unconscious psychic material. These are referred to as “vrttis” or subtle fluctuations of consciousness and the goal of the yogi is to get them quieted down. Notice right away the parallel to the dreaming mind of normal sleep, seen in many of the mature psychological arts and sciences as the revelation to the psyche of previously hidden unconscious material, a “gift of the unconscious” which night by night slowly reveals us to ourselves, and hopefully allows us to get some purchase on the task of mastering our inner demons. When we go in this direction, subtle vibrations reveal hidden psychic material. This stuff must be integrated before we can stably go further. (Look at the previous post, “Yogamind” , May 2008, and most of the other posts in this blog, for a look at my take on the ways of “getting horizontal”, the practices that get us going in that direction, and what happens to us once the path is undertaken.)
And another mystery of sleep: at some point as we lie down at night, we get “taken” by the dreaming mind. If we have any will in the switch from waking to dreaming it is in our will to relax. Those who are good sleepers have the gift or acquired skill of getting themselves into the place where the dreams can take them. And likewise the move to deep sleep: it follows on its own once we’ve hit the layers of the dreaming state, it claims us.
And so it is with the spiritual life, and those who have attained to the mysterious and elusive causal or yoga nidra state: having brought themselves by their skill at the yogic/meditative/contemplative arts to the place where psychic and subtle phenomena present themselves, at some point of penetration into this subtle state- and this expression of it seems to be universal- they get surprised, grabbed, engulfed, claimed, taken, submerged- as an act of grace- by a profound stillness and quietude which presents itself as more real than normal waking reality, indeed, which appears to be the matrix from which normal waking reality comes. In fact, a reticence and reluctance to return to daily life can be a by-product of this realization. Spiritual people become less material because they have found something… better. (How many of us enjoy being awakened from deep sleep?)
Adept yogis can get themselves to these higher states at will and sometimes quite rapidly, once the state territory, the horizontal axis, has been objectified and traversed several/many times. The history of renunciated East and West includes many individuals who have decided that as long as they have this ability, then typical waking human life has little draw for them.
On this issue, Shri Aurobindo, a deliberately transformational figure within Indian spirituality, had a bone to pick with many of the rishis who preceded him: ”through many centuries a great army of shining witnesses, saints and teachers, names sacred to Indian memory and dominant in Indian imagination, have borne always the same witness and swelled always the same lofty and distant appeal- renunciation the sole path of knowledge, acceptation of physical life the act of the ignorant, cessation from birth the right use of human birth, the call of the Spirit, the recoil from matter.”
And herein lies a vindication of hatha yoga and the beauty of the W-C lattice. For my three cents, Hatha yoga is the path par excellence for integrating gross and subtle states, which allows the subtle planes of existence to enter the gross realm. This has been likened by Pattabhi Jois to that of a woman walking along with a bucket full of water on her head, a common sight in the Indian countryside, and one which is dauntingly difficult at first but eventually appears effortless: bringing God down to Earth, living the spiritual life in the material world. And is it ironic that many of the women doing this are quite beautiful to look at? Is it ironic that the human form doing hatha yoga is often among the most beautiful and incarnate sights to be found? Hatha yoga is India’s great gift and it is the realization of how to bring the great rishis’ profound dedication to the horizontal axis back down to the very muscles and skin of the waking state, and bringing the bodymind therein to the higher reaches of evolutionary development. It is the horizontal progress itself that allows extraordinary vertical progress to happen. The W-C lattice has room for both heaven and earth.
I’ll say it again: although many seekers who have achieved the further horizontal states can show an indifference to the vertical realm of material life- in no small part because they have finally defused some or all of the drama of embodied existence- the great gift of higher spiritual states is the beautiful elegant organization they present to the material realms, should the yogi choose to return to them. In the yoga tradition this was expressed through the siddhis : flying around, ability to read minds and disappear, to shrink, to grow, to be two places at once, walk on water, that kind of thing y’know, abilities beyond the ken of typical people, said to be acquired by higher yogis.
…and the causal, the next step beyond the subtle? Well, the pre-eminent techniques for that seem to require relative stillness of body and mind, such as seated or lying down meditations. But the time spent mastering and continuing to master hatha yoga can get the yogi to a robustly supported place in the subtle realms where, inviting the causal in, and everything ready, divine rapture hovering, she gets taken.
Tuesday, May 20th, 2008
Take your non-dominant hand and try to press the index finger and middle finger together and separate them from the ring finger and pinky which are pressed together, a V shape with two fingers on each line of the V. Spock used to do this. Make it flat. Not too hard? Now press the ring finger and middle finger together and separate the pinky off by itself and the index finger off by itself. Make it flat. Can you do it?
Apply yourself for a moment and you’ll get these. They require a bit of concentration as we tease muscle groups apart which usually work together. This act of leaning into our nerves so we can come up with something novel, by teasing apart something that usually works as a composite piece, is an act of tapas and I will call the region upon which it works a tapas-field. Tapas is a Sanskrit word which means “glowing fire” or “heat” and is used by yoga to convey a transformative act of concentration. The fire that will burn you clean, will burn you both toward higher development and deeper spiritual realization. The tapas field here is: that moment where you can’t quite get the fingers apart, the fingers don’t just jump to it because they don’t yet know how; an act of learning something we can’t do yet.
The Ashtanga system seems designed to always have us up against this field. Learned through teacher assisted self-practice setting (Mysore style), the student basically gets the green light to progress through the asanas until she encounters something that she can’t do. At this point, progress through the series stops and she stays there until she learns at least basic competency with the difficult thing; she learns to do something that she can’t do yet. An act of evolution. As the progressive series unfold in Ashtanga, the degree of asana difficulty becomes an insurmountable curve, and even the most willing and gifted yogi eventually peaks out and gradually slides back down. Tapas is built into the system.
After succeeding at the Spockfinger thing, we can move onto greater tease-apart challenges. A good one is Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Up Dog. Try to tease apart firm squeezing of the thighs with total relaxation of the buttocks. (For people with tender lower backs, this is a good skill.) Mula Bandha goes further. If Ashwini mudra is the anal complex of muscles, and Vajroli mudra the uro-genital complex, Mula Bandha is recognized as the cervix for women and muscles further back at the base of the penis for men. Try teasing those apart: 1. genitals from anus, and 2. for women:the cervix from the muscles that hold back urine, for men: isolations between the front and the back of the root of the genitals. You get the idea. (Check Mula Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati for more than you ever thought you wanted to know about this).
We can move into the lungs, going from the gross physical level into the next layer of subtlety, pranayama. Hold your breath until you feel the urge to breathe, notice the nature and quality of this set of urges and the associations that can come with it. The prana that comes from breath is fairly important- hold your breath for a while and you’ll see what life is like without it: nasty, brutish, and with an emphasis on short. Tease apart: 1. a deliberate relaxed decision to resume breathing from 2. the unbearable need to react to the urges. In many ways, I see this as a very easy way to get right at the heart of yoga: a deliberate exercise of pushing ourselves right to the edge of life, in a highly safe and contained manner, to open a laboratory of reactions in which we can train ourselves. Every little reaction-urge not acted upon is growth of yoga. Hold your breath long enough and the grim reaper himself shows up: what better teacher?! And how great that you can get him after only a few minutes. All yogas of any depth don’t just address death but actually flirt with it slightly. And the irony of course is that such death-considering practices release and cultivate fear-trapped life force rather than destroying that life force.
And then moving to the biggie: teasing apart what I will call yogamind from discursive mind. This too requires that sense of bearing into, a quality which will be a joy and a rapture at times when we are up to it, and a burden requiring discipline when we are less inspired. It is the sense of taking on work, work undertaken with the intuition that we are following an evolutionary path, which in turn provides the motivation to pursue it. Why do this? I will argue that yogamind, although an aspect of the experience of all of us throughout life, is a way of being in time that comes only after a degree of competence is gained in discursive mind; yogamind is a next step after discursive mind, and a necessary step for those who want to gain true bodymind integration. If cultivated, it can unleash potent psychosomatic energies which can have immense positive effects on physical and mental health. And it allows a stable carrying capacity in the bodymind of the individual toward sustaining the states of higher realization promised to us by the yogis and sages throughout history.
True yogamind is born from the state of a mature discursive mind that has learned to value the benefits of yogamind but, paradoxically, has a terrible time getting out of the way; too much of a klutz. It periodically even engages in heated debates with the ego, attempting to talk it out of practicing yogamind; jilted former favorite son. The practitioner has to fight through all this just to get yogamind established.
But first, let me characterize my understanding of these two minds, discursive mind and yogamind. Within discursive mind itself, there are different types of thought paths, from the highly structured mechanizations of logic, to poetic/associative flights of fancy. Mathematics is pure logical structure at its root, but higher math gets into more poetic states of mind without losing the foundations of its structure, and the same with physics; Einstein mastered large amounts of precision calculation capacities before he got wild with them. And in those fields, if the calculations ultimately don’t work, the wildness is considered pointless frittering; Einstein got wild not entirely because he was following his soul over to the right side of his brain but because the disconcerting data demanded it. Great poets often never get good at math, and make a career out of such frittering, but may have a large command of the palette of multiple languages with all their left-brain grammatical structuring, or even language sum-total, the ur-language itself (Joyce), as a means of expressing the vast vision they perceive, or the vast sound they hear, touch, taste, smell. So, both the scientist and the poet here begin from a mental disposition which tends “left brain” or “right brain” but (hopefully) eventually think and experience their way toward integration of the opposite pole.
All of these are discursive mind. None of these are yogamind. Yogamind, as I see it, is the great OTHER to discursive mind, to language and logic mind, to both associative and mathematic mind. This post that you are reading is not yogamind, although it is attempting to point it out. As such, yogamind, specifically isolated and cultivated, is a great OTHER to almost all of that which has been generated by Western culture. Some cloistered monks, dancers, atheletes, musicians, manual laborers and alchemists have gotten close, but their expressions of it haven’t been as clear as those that have come from the East, although the final highest stages of realization may have been equally realized. (Complicating matters somewhat, from the sixties onward, the East grew from being a marginal influence toward becoming a significant part of the story of the West, and cultural productions have never been the same since, especially in therapeutic circles. Also, many pot smokers have gotten a strong taste of yogamind; Eastern yogic cultural items have had a funny way of popping up in stoner circles of the West, tracing from the advent of the hippies. Undoubtedly, this is because pot and other psychotropics can open the door to yogamind, briefly generating it. The problem is, their fundamental contribution is exceptionally unstable and temporary, once the drug is metabolized out, the wire to nirvana is gone, whereas true yogamind, the kind that comes with strong arduous practice, is as stable and enduring a bodymind state as one can have; wake up the next morning and those nerve connections are still there.) As a basic human capacity, yogamind isn’t something all that strange to Westerners so much as it never really had the discursive and outward sensate (ie: vision, hearing) aspect truly teased out of it so that its own intelligence could be seen in its purity.
So, although the spiritual life is often associated with right brain poetic/associative mind, the yogamind I’m getting at here is closer to non-discursive mind, which is less about right or left brain and more towards a mind learning to differentiate somatic information from the other data streams processed by the brain. A move away from thinking toward feeling, or a kind of thinking which uses somatic data as its primary material, not words, not images. The one tendency that is almost universal in spiritual literature of higher states is that we must feel our way into the higher state of being; thinking about it is not going to cut it. Any by feeling I’m not talking about “feelings”, ie: emotions, but rather data from somatic nerves, of which emotions could be considered a corollary.
At first, yogamind is a state of focused attention to the experience in the present moment, as close to the root of our perceptual capacities as we can get. For example: seeing the field in front of us as it is, just looking with a minimum degree of interpretation; this can also apply toward hearing or touching or tasting or smelling. But at a certain point, these outward senses are folded into an inner sensing which is based on internal sensation, based on the data that the nerves take in from inside. Crude forms of internal sensation are, for instance, the feeling that we feel in our belly when it is full of food, or the stretch sensation in our hamstring as we do forward fold, two examples of the most rudimentary forms of internal somatic sensing. Not outward touch, like running fingers along a textured surface, but inward feeling. This makes the somatosensory cortex the part of the brain that is the ground for yogamind.
Raw sensation such as full belly or stretching muscles, or simple nerve discomfort or delight, is the predominant form of cognition in infancy. Needless to say, this begins to gain in sophistication, as the individual grows and develops, eventually giving rise to an intellectual way of viewing the self and the world, which includes internal sensate data among other kinds of information in the calculations it makes. We could call this a mature adult cognitive capacity, an ability to turn attention to various fields and begin to work them out using different kinds of data and thinking. Some people do this heavily reliant on bodily sensate data, some less.
But the essence here is that the stuff of yogamind is somatic data, represented by the somatic cortex, data directly gathered from what we feel inside, without discursive interruption. Mature yogamind “thinks” by constructing complex sensation representations in response to perceived fields and “crunches” such data in processes of integration and resolution that can be felt. One implication here is that the mind is a sense organ, and the fields it can sense go way beyond the business of the basic mechanical functions of our own body, although it begins with that. What does yogamind sense? This I’ll reserve for another time, but my basic answer: psychic fields, received in ever increasing scope, strength and collectivity as yogamind matures. (Briefly: Those within our circle of acquaintance, relation and love have exchanged receivers and transmitters with us, whether we have ever physically met them or not. This appears to transcend time and space limitations. They receive what we transmit and vice-versa, like radios, the greater the love and intimacy the greater the exchange, of which dreams at night are one fairly apparent revelation thereof. This field of exchange can be accessed consistently through accomplishment in yogamind. The field uses as its medium what may be another force in addition to the basic four of electromagnetic, gravitational, strong and weak nuclear; we can call this the pranic force. Yogamind accesses and develops a sensory faculty within us which receives information through this force, just like eyes receive theirs through light. Before dismissing this out of hand, one must attain a degree of competency in yogamind, otherwise the relevant data won’t enact itself into your lab as it were. Large percentages of people in sports, business and politics take this as a given, usually calling it “prayer” and often centering it in a Christian matrix which unfortunately has provided us with limited tools for developing it .) That which is called the heart in various spiritual treatises, which appears to be an unavoidable stepping stone from which to access the highest states of Samadhi (which drop all cognitions, heart and mind), is part individual, part collective. This heart is a felt entity, with exceptionally subtle dimensions.
Yogamind relies on the emergence of the independent inner witness that was born with the maturity of discursive mind. This witness can put its attention capacity wherever it chooses, although total freedom as such is quite an accomplishment; most common is a witness that is free on surface levels, (ie: I can read this if I will it), but is often riding larger waves of primarily self-inflicted karma over which it has little control. If this less mature witness were to turn its attention away from discursive noticings about events and gross saisfaction of needs and urges, and actually hold in attention the deeper movements of the psyche which supports that witness itself, it may very well begin to get a bit shaky; this is material that discursive mind can take notes on, point out logical processes about, recognize images and themes, refer to what came before and predict what will come next, and so on. But these deeper aspects of the self have such a strong psychic charge that discursive mind is nearly helpless to take it and transform it. For this, the ego needs a mind which can contact felt reality itself, learn its valence in a wordless manner, and build the strength to begin the work of transforming it.
And here we come to the next step, and a radical move it is, and apparently not for everyone at this point in time. It involves the psychological concept of fusion which I was getting at earlier in this post: fusion is a condition that is necessary and unavoidable at each point in development and is only viewed as fusion when seen from a higher state of development. So, if you never tried to do Spock fingers, you would never wonder about your inability to do it. But the moment someone shows it to you, you become aware of a fusion of muscle groups as you take a moment to tease them apart. Only when you began reaching for the greater differentiation of hand muscles did anything like a fusion become apparent. Before that you were simply happily (or not so happily) fused. Let’s draw the concept into finer material: as a two year old, it was entirely appropriate to scream out “MOMMY!!”. As an adult, if you get off the phone with her and aspects of yourself are still screaming this at some level, you get curious about it, you recognize that some parts of your personality are still fused with Mom. A little fusion item is noticed, drawn into awareness as a result of the basic psychological urge to individuate from our parents, a process that many people never get very far with.
And here is my claim for the teasing apart of yogamind from discursive mind: having arrived at the state of mature adult mind which is mature discursive mind, we remain there for a while before we begin to get itchy for something more. The process that presents itself as a solution to this crisis is the act of existing simply in the present moment and letting go of the mind that needs to think its way through everything. This strikes us as somehow a higher way of being, partly because we begin to get a glimmer of how such a way of being allows a bit of traction on the deeper material in our psyche; and indeed, this is getting at the ways of being in time that the spiritual traditions of the East overtly advocate and those from the West obscurely so. Having spent some time just being, and recognizing the benefits, we suddenly begin to perceive intrusions of discursive or analytic mind as fusions, as something we would rather not have but can’t control…yet. And so the urge, when we are inspired, is to lean into the tapas field of mind control, and to seek tools and teachers who can help us with this. I see the Western movement toward yoga as a way of addressing this emergent developmental thrust.
What form does it take? Mature adult discursive mind, now seen as a state of fusion, gives way to the work of separating itself from yogamind. Yogamind here can be understood as the feeling substrate which gets marked up, affected, determined, by thoughts. (I’ve gone into this heavily in previous posts on this blog). Free it from discursive mind, then it soars. It engages felt objects directly and it transmutes them, the greater the focus, the faster and more complete the transmutation. Focus can be intensified with practice over time and the great yogis attest to how far this can go. Again, analysis and poetry can express all this, it can paint it or compose it in sound, but such representations aren’t actually doing it as yogamind can do it, just as this piece I’m writing can’t. Great art can inspire us to… engage reality directly.
What does yogamind engage? What kind of reality is that? Well, if we see an outward visual field, that tree over there, we can’t really do much to it, without picking up a real chainsaw and going mad with ancient antagonisms toward the great mother; or better, going over and hugging it, that might do something. But, following the fifth limb of the eight limbs of Ashtanga, Pratyahara, which tells us to take outward vision and turn it inward, then we can begin to work on the fields that present themselves. The Tibetans would have us establish inner mandala-like visions, and then begin manipulating them. Acute outward vision can help put this in place, but it is the inward theater where the work happens. So, yogamind is inner work. Likewise with sensation, which is closer to the Hatha Yoga way (I’ve called this radiant heartfelt somatic vibrational presence, and it is a state of higher and deeper feeling. It is not a negation of the Tibetan tantra which relies heavily on the visual cortex, or nad yogis who go with the auditory cortex; for those ways, look up one of those teachers): the capacity to feel a full belly matures into the capacity to feel subtle emotions, matures into the capacity to feel the feeling substrates to intellectual work, on up to highly subtle and powerful perceptions of cosmic processes, etc. These sensings begin to move beyond merely the somatic cortex and begin to manifest in the cerebral-spinal circuit, and into the life in the cells themselves, and project from there into the larger cosmic bodymind, the big collective mind outside of ourselves, of which we are a part. Each soul is a neuron in the larger collective brain.
Such collective yogic work typically manifests as concrete samskara fields of varying density and quality which can be transformed with yogic focus. Here is where the alchemical roots of Hatha yoga assert themselves: samskaras become seen as fusion items which begin to take elemental form, and like the complexities of chemistry, many forms begin to emerge along with a qualitative aspect, ie: this here samskara is definitely not gold, but a little bit more like shit, or static, or the crud in the drain of my kitchen sink. But, I clearly sense it, and I’m willing to bear attention into it, I’m willing to work with my body in the recognition that the body is the theater in which this transformation process must happen. (Thus asana, mula bandha, pranayama, energy of teacher, energy of a community of at least a few others doing the same, etc: various methods to get the energy level up so that we can do the work of yogamind). The samskara undergoes the alchemical process of purification, of teasing apart the strands that are mushed together, of feeling the greater energy that emerges from it as it becomes a finer substance, of feeling the energy that is released as that which was locked up in the crud is revealed and goes to work, of noticing how the other senses begin to merge with inner feeling begetting seeing-feeling, hearing-feeling, etc., of feeling the cosmos come in as another doorway of perception is opened, of feeling the heart quicken and come to life as it instinctively senses something exciting happening which opens its desire to love and feel.
This is the kind of thing happening inside the life of sages who are sitting there “doing nothing”. Such work can go on into evermore subtle sheaths infinitely, and it may altogether cease at times as the realm of Vedanta’s Brahman is entered (a state of apparent nothingness recognized by many traditions by many names as the creative matrix itself). Of course, those who come near such a sage (either materially or psychically) will feel something, because intense inner work like this registers in the energy fields of various material locations, frequently including the general vicinity of the sage’s own physical body.
A couple notes here: the yogamind I’m referring to here is not absence of cognition. It is rather yoga cognition, or alchemical cognition (alchemical implying precise inner experience of elemental interactions without utilizing outward measuring devices). Pure awareness divorced of cognition comes later. When Patanjali delineates yoga, we can see this at three levels at least: 1. freedom from distraction, 2. freedom from discursive analytic mind, 3. freedom from any manifestation at all: Brahman (if we follow the thread through to its Advaita conclusion).
Yogamind and discursive mind are not enemies, although, as we pick sides in a sports contest just to have fun in that realm of entertainment, so we can pick sides between the two minds as we go through the arduous winnowing of coming to higher awareness. The bodymind seeks to move fusion towards differentiation, and such a need will continue to assert itself until purified elements can stand on their own and both minds get a chance to do their work, which eventually will give way to a higher integration. Once yogamind has been established to a degree, has wrestled itself free from the matrix of discursive mind, the correspondences between the two minds remains intimate. Busy intellect makes yogamind’s work much more complicated- the play in which discursive mind may take delight can result in long hard labor for yogamind as it tries to sort out the vibrational chaos left by intellectual experimentation. Habitual emotional-mental patterns can be even rougher on yogamind; if the psyche is in the grip of an old negative piece of history, discursive mind may be playing archaic ridiculous tape loops while yogamind desperately digs down into the psychic dirt endeavoring to root up the mess once and for all. If yogamind succeeds in its adventure, typically by activating sleeping monsters down there, so they can be defeated and civilized, discursive mind will be free to engage more integrated forms; at a certain point in development, discursive mind needs yogamind.
Going the other way, a more sophisticated intellect will allow the potential for a more sophisticated yogmind, though it makes yogaminds’ work more daunting. And a deep masterful yogamind will make for truly compelling discursive expressions should the individual choose to make them.
And there is no need to get ahead of ourselves and worry about whether to integrate mindstyles or tease them apart because the direction will present itself as a compelling urge when the time is right. How do we know which urge is compelling and which is not? Discernment of this kind I see as a great labor, but it’s again essentially alchemic: learn to determine the quality of the combination of elements which make up the urge, or even look for the pure element itself, which is gold. Because there is such a thing. Hopefully it can come to life between us in the hatha yoga room
Monday, February 4th, 2008
The world does not need one single person more stuck at the fundamentalist level. The job of the yogi is to help people get beyond this state. This is urgent.
A disclaimer right at the outset of this: I’m directing the following challenge, ironically, toward those yoga teachers who are, for the most part, members of a hatha yoga lineage, such as Ashtanga or Iyengar, traditions which, as their basic premise, reach towards imparting a degree of spiritual development in their practitioners. Many yoga classes don’t go far beyond the sweaty mass experience of sexy fitness, although the teachers of such classes may very well have attained a higher state of consciousness and development than the fundamentalist, regardless of the target market and its values.
How can we characterize fundamentalism in a yoga class? To me, the basic indicator is this: I, the teacher, state what I want you to do. You, the student, respond with a reason why you want to do it differently. And here’s the true test: at that point I, the teacher, either hear what you say and take a pause to consider it, or I don’t and rather simply insist that you do it my way. The difference between a dialogue and dictation. (See note 1 below).
Joel Kramer, an old-timer yoga teacher in Northern California, co-wrote the book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. From what I know of Joel, I have some reservations about his capacity to surrender to tradition and teacher, but much of that book is an illuminating application of post-modernist power critique to Gurus and Yoga. And, to put it mildly, the power plays in our field are typically far more crude, naive and easier to spot than much of what the humanities in academia began deconstructing in the sixties.
In an intelligent, sensitive and exacting dialogue, traditional Ashtanga Yoga will not wilt: there are many very very good reasons for doing it traditionally. Here’s a metaphor which has helped me: when I have traveled around parts of Tamil-Nadu, for the most part I have been allowed into the outer sanctums of a Shaivite temple, but denied access to the inner sanctum. I’m not a converted Hindu, or a wanna-be Hindu, but at first I was irked by this. I was thinking about Joseph Campbell, who wrote that this is the era where the secrets of the inner temples must be opened for humanity. I was thinking about the Dalai Lama, who in centuries past was complelety sequestered, his Buddhism only for the select; then the Chinese came in and smashed everything up, which forced our current Dalai Lama onto the world stage, where he is now one of the most readily recognized humans on the planet; he is now with his people, and he’s with us, and Tibetan Buddhism is for the world, and the world is better for it.
But inside the inner sanctum of a Shiva temple is a Lingam: a penis in a vagina, with milk poured over it. Draw the parallel to a woman’s vagina: she doesn’t just let anybody in, does she now? Why? There must be something to be protected, something dear and intimate and vulnerable, the matrix for the profound beauty of life itself, a field of subtle particles that can be disturbed, something to be treated with care by only those who know how to do so and have passed the series of tests and challenges.
When I first got into yoga, early nineties, Southern California was the land of Vinyasa flow (still is really), and most teachers had never been to India. I found this yoga culture very appealing, very helpful. But when I began to do traditional Ashtanga, first with Chuck Miller and then in Mysore, something much bigger happened, much more powerful, the depth was so compelling. Something quite amazing in terms of its transformational potential had been cultivated and allowed to mature over time, had been protected and preserved. Adherence to a tradition had made possible the proliferation of a subtle particle field. I was astounded and in awe to recognize these qualities. But here’s the paradox: the intelligent engagement with what is arising now, and an openness to its suggestions and influence, this is what keeps the subtle field alive. Frozen dogma, applied with the hand of subtle violence in a conscious or unconscious attempt to maintain control or power kills spiritual life, and simply attracts students who are engaging a doomed attempt at solace and security and need someone to tell them what to do. The subtle Ashtanga spirit lives in both the rooms of Tim Miller and Richard Freeman, two teachers who have gone deeper into deliberate variation than I have. Ashtanga needs to be more than just a reaction to shallow professional yoga, but rather the clear statement of the strength of a lineage preserved and enacted in the now.
Both September 11 and the Bush Cartel’s equally cynical, fundamentalist, far more violent, and only one step more civilized response, now stand pretty clearly in the light of their actual motivations: blatant attempts at power, and the willingness to kill thousands of people to get it. In such a climate as this, what do we make of individuals from generous Western homes arriving at a true-believer version of Yoga, taught without tolerance for variation, and offered in a mean-spirited militant manner, replete with abuse and humiliation tactics? After coming so far, the Western seeker of truth and evolution arrives at this?
Ashtangis themselves would do well to recognize the Krishnamacharya strain weaving itself around the perimeters of what happens in Mysore. If Krishnamacharya created and taught the (then) four series of Ashtanga during the Mysore palace days, he later would evolve it into the precursers of Viniyoga. Guruji’s book Yoga Mala offers several practice variations for people in different walks of life. Guruji himself has offered variations, such as Ardha Matsyendrasana for those who have knee trouble in Marichyasana D; and he showed me a work-up pose for Pashasana, not in class but later as several of us sat on his porch in Luxshmipuram: go against a wall and walk back slowly with your hands. A look at how the form of the practice has changed in Mysore over the years, from drishtis, to subtle vinyasa details, shows us that Guruji is actually not anal about some impossible ideal of the perfect form, but rather has been moving his way along, allowing things to evolve, wise and patient with both paradoxes and apparent unclarities.
This is called the dialogical process, the journey of coming to knowledge, the willingness to look at what you do, to receive and integrate energy and information from others, and to refine your approach. The disinclination to this, the desperate grab for dogma as an attempt to avoid the existential discomforts of life, is also a way to obliterate the uncertainty that comes from evolving past what you knew: the urge to not evolve. The USA was gripped by such a seizure following 9-11, and the results were really the ugliest batch of Americans ever. So what do we do with The Ugly Yogi?
I would advise students of Ashtanga and yoga this: you are the final word on what you do, any Guru’s job is finally to help you find your own inner Guru. If you feel something to be a truth, and your teacher negates it, the final word rests with you: to get to the stated purposes of yoga, we must go way beyond any petty insistence on form or the power dynamics of a teacher. Before a teacher is entrusted with any kind of transference, which I hold to be the higher possibilities of what a good teacher can offer, you need to decide whether you want to let this teacher into your inner sanctum.
Note 1: This doesn’t mean that the teacher agrees with what the student says, or views it as wise. It doesn’t mean that I give her the OK to do it that way in my class. It just means that I take the information in, and respond to it, as opposed to simply ignoring it or basically stating that this isn’t a place where we do dialogue. Also: implicit here is the recognition that each person passes through the phase we can associate with fundamentalist thinking as he or she developes; everybody starts at step one.
Threatening my Yoga: Jung and Shankaracharya
Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007
(Note: the funny thing about blogs…they go backwards, like experimental fiction. So, this month’s post is the leading edge of my thread, and it may seem esoteric. Go to earlier months to fill in some gaps if need be. Also, this isn’t really a typical blog, in that I’m not offering my diary to the world so much as using this medium as a way to put my writing out for others. I go back and edit to make sure things are consistent, so it should hold up as a whole.
Also, I was getting asphyxiated by spam, so comments were restricted for a few weeks as I flailed around trying to get the spam filter in place. Problem has been fixed, hopefully; please leave one if you are so inclined. Thanks, steve)
Carl Jung is the mosquito buzzing around the ears of the Western yogi. I find myself returning to him again and again and almost invariably I eventually put the book down with the conclusion that Jung is ridiculous and absurd. But then he creeps back up on me, and I pick him back up. He’s the pest that won’t go away. Why does he bug me so? Well, a big reason is that several of his ideas are somewhat threatening to Westerners who have taken up yoga. Here’s one of them:
If a Westerner does serious yoga, he will uncover deeper layers of himself. Those layers are Western, not Eastern; the more yoga the Westerner does, the further he will get from yoga. That’s my extension of Jung’s basic idea anyway. His response to this dilemma : the West will eventually build its own yoga, based on Christianity. This involves a few astute recognitions on his part, one being that, in yoga, India has developed a “system of hygiene” as he put it, which he saw as superior to anything comparable developed in the West. However, he saw an elemental incompatibility when an Eastern cultural item is used to unveil the depths of a Western character formed on Western cultural items; the Westerner will begin to diverge from the kinds of developmental traces that informed the Eastern teacher and teaching. For example, a person of Anglo-Saxon descent who does serious yoga will begin to reach deeper realms of character which will be Anglo-Saxon in quality: the themes given up by her imaginations and dreams, her deeper motivations, her worries and concerns, her style of approaching reality, that to which she is unconsciously drawn, all of these will begin to cluster around certain traits which can be traced to the specific culture and heritage of the individual, which Jung dredged many generations back. These various ways of being may not be well served by yogic techniques, in which case it’s better to pursue the things that Anglo-Saxons did, or Russian things (if I’m Russian), or Hopi things if I’m Hopi, etc.
The whole cross-cultural post-modern thing: Although there are a great many ways in which people are similar across cultures, we can’t underestimate the major differences in the particle /neurological arrangements of psychic selves from culture to culture. Some post-modern scholars claim that this difference is so profound that it is impossible for a Westerner to actually understand what is meant by, for example, the Yoga Sutras. I think this position goes way too far, but it has some essential truth in it.
So, although Jung and post-modernists rarely see eye to eye, they have a broad commonality on this issue. The next bothersome idea I wanted to introduce from Jung is that of enantiodromia, which basically says that whatever position or state that the consciousness of the individual achieves, this will eventually become subject to a counter-position developed by the unconscious. So: if we achieve a blissful state of serenity, this will likely be intruded upon by some kind of disturbance. This idea seems immensely unpalatable, but pose a question to yourself: hasn’t this happened to you everytime you have achieved inner peace, meaning: was that inner peace permanent? Jung would say that one of the upheavals of that peace will be a demonstration by the psyche that another aspect of existence also needs to be considered. The qualities that contributed to that feeling of peace will find themselves confronted by qualities that do not feel like peace.
So, again, supposedly, the more yoga a Westerner does, the further he will get from yoga. But I see the limit to this: Shankaracharya, considered an essential teacher in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga yoga tradition (which incidentally signals Pattabhi’s move from Patanjali’s dualism into an acceptance of the non-dual Advaita position; the Ashtanga path to the highest aims of yoga is through the Upanishads and Vedanta with some Bhagavad Gita thrown in) endlessly belabors different angles into the way in which he sees ultimate reality as being other than anything that has qualities. Until causal emptiness has been realized, this distinction must continue. After the casual realm has been experienced, it is said to clearly cast relative existence in such a way that the two are obviously distinct, and the yogi no longer confuses relative things with the causal matrix. At this point, the non-dual sage chooses to join the material fray, as it were, of his own desire, and thus it all becomes Lila, play, as opposed to grim drama, dreadful comedy of errors, etc., (where the relative drama is taken to be the ultimate drama.)
So, in simple terms: the highest goals of yoga are cross-cultural, period; they take us out of the relative, with all its variations and differences, and into the causal matrix from which the relative emanates, which is one and without distinctions. Our innermost self is the same regardless of individuality and culture. Only one problem with this however: the depths of culture and tradition will be plumbed and ultimately transcended by almost none of us. So, since almost all of us will while away our days in the grip of the relative, we need to recognize that this is the realm where cultural and individual differences must be recognized and honored.
All of the mature global paths toward enlightenment: Vedanta, Mahayana, Chan, Zen: they all culminate in a state called “non-dual”, which implies a sage who has recognized the nature of the dualistic material world and has embraced it as the only realm in which we can live in this lifetime. But she also knows of the causal matrix, the Brahman, the emptiness behind the relative: she does both. So, this part of us which is relative, even if we reach the highest states of yoga, this will always be subject to the cultural and interpersonal dynamics from which we have arisen.
So, the highest point of yoga is not really inner peace at all. It is full identity with the witness which sees existence. The yogi who sits in Samadhi may well be psychicly in tune with a pure emptiness without movement or any qualities. But his body which supports him while he does this will still be doing many of the things that it usually does, for example: fighting off harmful microorganisms, viz: warfare. Shankaracharya’s main point is that the body and psyche all live in the relative and that the witness state is something other than the relative. And the relative is a zone of tension/release, conflict/peace, hard/soft, easy/difficult, nice/not nice, etc. That’s just the way it is. That’s the way of the world. What most of us will experience as a sense of inner peace is really just a temporary moment where our bedeviling conflicts have been brought to a degree of resolve. But this state is still something material: perhaps a fabulous mix of elements of the highest degree of refinement, but still elements, still relative, still subject to a set of different elements which can confront it and question it as the final word. And Jung says, they will.
But Shankaracharya claims that there is a final word and that he knows what it is- following after Nagarjuna, Patanjali, Buddha and all the other sages through Indian history who fully recognized and grappled with this drama of opposites- he claims to have found the “positive entity” which transcends all this. And with intense practice and proper guidance, he claims we can get there in this lifetime.
Several years ago I attended a seminar by post-Jungian James Hillman, who at one point bellowed out “Don’t Go East!!” Well, why does he yell something like this? Because the Jungians/ Joseph Campbell people/ Archetypalists, hold that the Greek/Latin/Germanic tribes/Jewish tribes/Celtic tribes thing is to participate in myth and story and philosophical and alchemical analysis of various aspects of existence and to find those constellations of elements and plots which our soul is drawn towards, and to follow that draw, to bring the old stories to life in a new way. An Anglo-Saxon who reads Beowulf may feel something deep and murky stir down there. A Jewish person who has never read the Bible will read the book of Exodus and have vivid dreams that night. Good movies stir up deep old archetypal gunk. Certainly this is a compelling approach to life. (For more on this, go to the 2nd entry under August 2006)
One problem: I, Steve Dwelley, am one example among now millions of Westerners who are compelled in this same archetypal kind of way to practice yoga from India (or Tibet, China, Southeast Asia, Japan: these are the places on the planet where yoga has played itself out in the past; the story is now underway throughout the world). Lots of Westerners just do yoga to feel good or get sexy, but many of us are allured by a sense of purpose, a way of unraveling the mysteries of the mind, of gleaning some of the meaning of life. We are compelled by this Asian myth: the yogi fights through the “dragons” of the body and mind and attains degrees of ”the maiden”: enlightenment.
The world and its world-wide-web is so interconnected now that I believe the souls of those of us living now (and the next generations will go even further) have the entire cultural and lived offering of the history of life on Earth in all its parts open to us, and we may be drawn to any part of it, and in an unconscious manner, we will be. And the West and East are drawing toward one another irresistibly.
So, to return to the above example of Anglo-Saxon particles: I hold that such revelations of our deeper self, and their peculiar nature, which may be other than want we thought we wanted for ourselves in life, these must be honored and integrated. As we get higher in consciousness, we simultaneously go deeper into who were were, into that which has formed us. We can transform who we really are only after we have found out something about it.
So, if a Westerner is using yoga, she must keep integrating new revelations of her old self with the yogic technique which is catalyzing the revelation process. Honoring this, we can certainly return to yoga, again and again, in each moment if so desired, but we negate this dialogical, cross-cultural process at our own peril. There are deep Western vibrations that don’t quickly fit with Eastern vibrations and the synthesis process needs some tending, it will take some psychic time in each individual for this synthesis to happen.
To make some blatant, broad generalizations about historical differences: the classic Western view of India is that they just stand around doing nothing, praying to God while their buildings collapse and their buses fly off bridges, while Indians (at least those in touch with their authentic Indian heritage- many of them lost touch with that in modern times) often get a belly laugh at how helplessly Westerners flail and thrash against the emptiness and despair in their lives. The other side: Westerners have made the manifest world their God, and such a view has provided them a profound intensity and motivation to the way they pursue material development, and they have created apparent miracles. Indians have understood causal psychic existence and their great sages have offered it to their people at large, providing mass realizations of acceptance, contentment and meaning among a populous who haven’t a fraction of the material advantage of Westerners. And what they have done with psychic energy has produced apparent miracles. Putting these two together seems so natural.
So, I’m not letting Jung have the final word on this. I’m sure he’d be delighted.
Mata Amritanandamayi: Up and Down
Tuesday, August 7th, 2007
I went with Michele and the boys to a hotel in Los Angeles where Mata Amritanandamayi (hugging Mama) was making a stop on her tour. When she sat down, she beckoned our children and others to come sit on her lap for a fifteen minute meditation. I noticed several things immediately- I hadn’t seen her in 9 years, and in the time between she had obviously gone through the divine wringer- Amma was fairly beat up, and yet beautiful and at peace. At that moment I confirmed what I had been sensing since I walked in the door of that hotel: in the presence of this woman, as she is right now, 2007, I could weep intensely, possibly forever.
In 1998, in India, she was a hoot, undoubtedly profound but with joy and evident delight: that darshan was not sexual but it was erotic to the core, in the sense of eros, cosmic love in full pleasure of the human form. The utter relish she takes in pulling us towards her is no secret. For that first hug she was hilarious and wild, a warrior determined to smack her love straight into the deepest part of my heart, the cosmic heart, no nibbling around, direct at the bulls-eye, and then lean back and go “Whoaaa!!!!” She stared straight into my eyes, conveying the most impossibly exciting journey one could envision, the mad ride she was on and had no intention of ever getting off. I’d never seen anybody so deep in Lila (the divine play), not high jazz guys, not my own Guru, nobody.
This time, 2007, a darker world stage, and if anything, she was far more deadly accurate, discarding most of the playful part, but willing to go to the grimmest, most horrifying pit, utterly regardless of the ravages on her own body, she’s sobbing and shaking in my ear. The sorrow she knows, the pain she carries, this is unreal. And then a beautific, young-girl-in-delight smile, chocolate kisses, we stagger off, she goes onto the next. A little research and I discover that she basically took that 2005 tsunami- which actually hit her ashram- straight in the face, an unspeakable amount of agony, right there with the people and their tears and tatters and microorganisms and psychic drag. And her charity network is gigantic, she is attracting political leaders, she’s on a very large stage and yet still taking, as Timothy Conway put it, “tidal waves of negative energy” into her own body, on a person to person level, and carrying it. I looked at ravaged beautiful Amma up there, holding my son while he sucked on his sleeve, and could weep forever. In the following two weeks, I was astonished by the way she still lived in me and the kinds of assistance she was providing, deep psychic restructuring, dream presence: I recognized the signs of a Shaktipat of the highest order. I could barely believe that there is someone out there with the strength and courage to do such a thing, let alone on such a grand stage. Who is this Ammachi?
Why is she so great? One way of expressing it would be: she is so high but so willing to get down. Up and Down: two cosmic directions. I’ll start with Up or ascension and with an example. Let’s say that you are involved in a relationship which, as it progressed, began to reveal various limitations within yourself which play out as dysfunctional relationship dynamics. In the beginning you were happy to engage the relationship, no doubt compelled by the urge to address these limitations. But as time goes by, you begin to get fairly clear about the limitations of your partner. At some point, you make the decision that you are going to force a change in this relationship, either confront it or discontinue it. You then proceed to go about doing just that.
This process can be seen in terms of ascension, up: a planet (the relationship) whose gravitational forces once held you in sway are now an orbit from which you can break free, and you want to break free because there is something amiss, or incomplete, or simply because the evolutionary urge becomes irresistible. Maybe it took four years, it took that much learning before you could transcend the gravitational pull of the system: finally you are able to ascend out of it into a larger system. The impressions left by the relationship no longer compel you to pursue them. (I’m not getting down on loyalty and faith, here I’m talking about situations such as dysfunctional relationship where one person refuses to respond, or is not up to, the attempts to address the dysfunction or lack of development by the other. Or it could apply to working at a job that begins to get extremely boring.) Of course, this is different than bailing out on a situation because it brings up too much of your own stuff. In such a case, you have not left the planet behind, but rather, you are still sucked in, have not learned the code which breaks the gravitational spell. In this case, discerning between that which is your own stuff and that which is your partner’s is a major accomplishment in itself.
Anyway, I’ve mentioned the cave yogi before, and he could be seen as a pure ascender: with ever increasing intensity of yogic focus, he breaks out of orbit after orbit, attempting to transcend his conditioning in its entirety. He lives in such a way that minimizes new impressions from outward experience, and also keeps inward discursive activity to a minimum. He breaks away from his immediate society, then gets into Mom, Dad, keeps going through archetypes, large regions of the collective, and eventually, his need to hang around the body itself.
What does a pure descender look like? One who goes from experience to experience, accumulating one after another, and never allowing reflection to occur, living to satisfy basic drives. In past posts, I’ve remarked that there is really no such thing as a pure descender because the human organism learns from experience despite worst intentions, is a profound theater of eros even in the most degraded individuals. But we could say that a descended person is one with little inclination to reflection or focus at all.
Now, traces from experience become the fuel for transformational acts. Let’s say you go to a yoga class and it makes a nice impression. The yogic act (after you leave the class) would then be to let the impression work through you until the subtle structure has been been created which is an expression of the process of mastering the impression. This is an ascension, and it transforms the impression-from-the-experience into something more mature than it was. We want to free ourselves from traces that have us in their grip, this is a basic human drive. If you stop reading this for a moment, close your eyes, and feel whatever it is that you feel right now, you will get in touch with the traces that are in play for you now. Yogic practices are designed to move those very traces, to move them toward…something less dense, something that feels like delight, or doesn’t feel like anything at all. (The delight is usually experienced as the trace is in the process of transmutation. This process often trips off the heart, opening it. Also, the nerves appear wired to say a gigantic YES to this transmutation, and send out messages from happiness to deep rapture. Once the transmutation is relatively complete, we are left with nothing at all, or typically, the next, deeper samskara/impression fund comes into play). As we get through inward traces, we begin instituting outward changes in our lives.
One of the primary resistances to evolutionary ascension is the fear of loneliness. This is because the orbits we inhabit are sources of love, some of which is nourishing. But, inevitably in love, two things happen. One: we get bugged more and more by the parts that we don’t want, we feel the need to resolve these to something higher within ourself. By this I don’t mean that long term relationships are impossible, but rather that we become compelled with the urge to transform our responses to things. For example, it appears now that your wife of twenty years may never change certain parts of herself, but they finally no longer fire off your stuff. In fact, your reaction has been slowly transformed into a deliberate response, and now you feel compassion for these aspects of herself, or you can now appreciate them as an integral part of who she is. Certainly the relationships worth pursing are the ones that remain compelling in the long run, with an understanding that conflict, and fallow or plateau periods, are a natural part of healthy relationships.
And two: we develop a taste for higher love, a higher frequency, a larger view. This draws us up. But it also takes us into a realm whose love may not come in as clearly, or as supportively, or as comfortably as before. And to that I would add, it’s not coming in like that yet. I have spent time around several high souls, and their great importance is that they demonstrate the fact that you can’t outgrow nourishing love. However high you get, it will come in. In fact, it appears to come in far stronger the higher one gets, far more real, although it may illuminate different regions of one’s being than the stuff one was into twenty years ago.
The souls recognized as the High Ones through spiritual history have struck a balance between ascension and descension. Take the Buddha as an example. A burning young man, well provided for, chooses to undergo years of asceticism, has the will to keep going for quite a while. Eventually, he reaches a crisis point, and vows that this time he will either resolve the overwhelming conundrum that compels his being or he will sit working at it until his bones scatter across the field in which he is sitting. As one version of the story goes, it takes him seven days of strong determination to attain the desired resolution, which becomes one of the great achievements of human spiritual endeavor. So far, Buddha is basically a pure ascender. He then begins the second part of his life where he works to share his realization with the world, a mission in which he succeeds. In this teaching phase he advocates the middle way, which does not promote severe asceticism, but rather a mixture of practice which takes us up and participations in life which take us down. It’s important to note here, however, that the reason Buddha is compelling to us is that he got so high with his ascension before he brought it back to the lower realms, and the same is true of Ammachi (she was never a normal child and in her late teens/early twenties self-administered a lifestyle of severe austerities). When the high chooses to engage the low, something beautiful and alluring happens.
What is Ammachi’s delight in hugging? The passion of a high soul bringing love to lower regions: the love of God for creation. The delight of the gods for Lila, cosmic play. And Ammachi has loved the lowest of the low, just as Buddha was humane to those who tried to kill him, just as Christ managed to love those who did kill him. I have noticed and admired Pattabhi Jois’ willingness to continually engage new relationships which, sure enough, involved the reception on his part of basic crude negative projections: when a student is caught up in his junk, he will project it anywhere, including onto the master who has taught for sixty years, forget about respect. Guruji takes it; a higher soul in contact with those who may not be so high will result in unconscious transference processes on the part of the student. (This gets into hierarchies and may rub you the wrong way. My response is: all are ultimately equal, but some have developed certain regions further than you have. Go stand in the batter’s box with Barry Bonds facing Major League pitching and see who is higher in that realm. Go get hugged by Amma and experience a heart like that. For more on hierarchies, I believe that Ken Wilber, ironically using systems theory, has put in the final word on the debate: hierarchies are unavoidable.) And I will add: there are characters out there who are higher than you are.
Anyway, from the perspective of some seated meditation practices, Hatha Yoga itself is a descended form because it goes so deep into the body. I won’t get too far into it here, but my response to this claim is that although Hatha Yoga may get the soul free a little slower, it gets it up in a very stable manner, and the tortoise may eventually pass the hare. For example, Mula Bhanda appears to be a practice which sublimates the most dense energy in our psychic system. Undertaking such an endeavor may bog one down at first, but eventually it provides a way for the deepest, lowliest, earliest stuff in us to get smart.
So, the typical way here is to work to free oneself through ascension practice such as yoga, to break through the various orbits which hold us in their sway. At various stages in this work, we are compelled to act creatively in the world, to descend, receive impressions, sublimate them. Get up, dip back down, get it back up, go back down. Of course, most of us need to work a job, are required to create regularly, with deadlines, etc., and we are somewhat smothered with impressions. In that case, yoga can help us rise above some of it, maybe all of it, so that we want to get back into the mess that is this world, so we can love it.
Go get as high as you can , and then go walking in the world and see what happens…
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,
From your Yogamat to God
Friday, April 6th, 2007
….well, you’re always with God, the yogi just tries to realize this consciously…
Ashtanga means eight limbs. Ashtau: eight, anga: limbs. I know, this is probably review, but:
limb1: yamas: things not to do , 2. niyamas: things to do, 3. asana: focusing on physical processes, 4. pranayama: focusing on breathing processes, 5. pratyahara: taking the outward senses and turning them inward, 6. dharana: focusing the inward senses and/or the mind, 7. dhyana: attaining lengthy periods of such focus, and progressively increasing its concentration, 8. samadhi: transforming the object upon which concentration rests into the subject which does the meditating, where it dissolves, and all that remains is the pure subject. In this post I’ll tease the gobbledegook in that last one apart.
We’ll start somewhere simple, on our yoga mat. We come to Ashtanga practice, in class, on our own, whatever. We find ourselves in triangle pose. We know that the final form of the pose, as taught, has us keep that front leg straight, holding onto the big toe with thumb and first two fingers, with shoulders over the leg, upper shoulder lined up right on top of the lower one. Iyengar could go further in that direction, but you get the picture.
Let’s take the front leg. Say I’m a tight guy and if I keep the leg straight, I can’t get to the toe yet. If I keep my shoulders over the leg, the furthest I can get is about half way down my shin. The question becomes: what is it between where I am now, and the finished form of the asana? My answer to that: stuff. What happens if I practice regularly and eventually get down to that toe? The stuff goes away, it dissolves as it were.
Physiologically what happens? Well, the fascia, muscles, and tendons in the leg, and probably a few ligaments in the foot, lengthen. A physical density has been cleared. Yogically we could say that a dark area has been put into the light, an unknown region has been presented to awareness. Mentally: we go down into the stretch until we can feel a field of resistance, and then we have something into which we can “deploy our attention”, a place where focus can rest. As Hatha Yogis, we bear our minds into the fields of physical sensation generated by the act of the asana. In Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga, the physical body is systematically cleared this way, each asana presenting a different set of regions of the body, a different set of fields to perceive. Incidentally, injury has little to do with this: we work the fields presented by the body we have today, injury is a fabulous somatic field upon which to meditate. Also, it’s not about getting to the finished form of the asana, so much as working the fields presented by the asana, which we might get all the way through in this lifetime, might not; it’s about working the region, not about perfecting the asana. Agree or disagree, at least we’re clear so far?
Next: at some point in doing this, we begin to make the connection between proceedings in physical processes such as this and those in our psychic life. This is the jump from the fourth limb to the fifth, taking “low” operations and making them “high”. Physical yogic work begins to operate at the psychic level. Pattabhi Jois says: “When the body is strong, the mind becomes quiet.” Once we have some degree of peace of mind, we begin to notice the traces left by the thoughts that pass through us. (For my understanding of the basics of this, please see the October 2006 post “Sublimation of Impressions”.) Basically, our thoughts leave an impression, lay down a trace that can be somatically perceived, and the yogic act is to take attention away from the thought and turn it to perception of the trace itself. Basically, instead of thinking, feel the traces left by thought. This is a way to move into deeper states of consciousness.
And the great hatha yoga move: just as bearing force into our leg in Trikonasana will clear the leg, bearing attention into the traces left by thought will clear the trace, a process that eventually clears the heart/mind. Every trace cleared in the mind makes the heart a little bigger. Attention, if cultivated, gathers power over time, gains potency with practice. The stronger it gets, the heavier and deeper the stuff it can engage and transcend.
A cleared trace is essentially the realization of an integrated experience, where the conscious and unconscious mind has cracked the trace’s code and no longer needs to fight it off.
So, what next? We’ve covered the physical and the psychic. Vedanta has one more primary division of being: the causal. Here’s how I see it: as the bodymind begins to clear/transcend, we get to deeper layers. As those layers clear, deeper ones appear successively. Now, there is no end to the layers, because once we get through the personal we begin hitting the collective, in fact the collective and the personal get cleared together, infinitely. But, at some point here, spaces open out and offer themselves between the spheres of stuff, and reports from this journey claim that this space presents itself as something more real than the stuff which gives way to reveal it. This is experienced to be the clearing in and from which manifestation appears. Patanjali calls this place the seer, which implies the person who sees, minus the person part. Our own personality who experiences the world has been progressively winnowed away, but of our own choosing, because…we get this compelling sense that there is something really important and utterly fascinating in there behind our little self. We just can’t help but want to know what it is.
Now, Yoga offers essentially two views about what this is, this causal space. One is that it is nothing at all, merely the space from which things arise: nothingness, emptiness, the void, the abyss, Brahman. But terms like these can’t really capture this place, no word can really be used to describe it. Vedanta and much of Buddhism holds this view. (If you want a real headache, try Nagarjuna’s sure-to-dismay Buddhist dialectics, guaranteed to induce rapid true delta sleep- he gives us a sense of the causal realm from this perspective by showing everything that it isn’t).
The other view is that this is Godhead, and in this space we will find the personality of God, such as Krishna, an active living being from which humans are modeled, much like the God of the Bible. This is known as the impersonalist versus personalist debate, a long term food-fight in India. On one side the Shakaracharya monks, on the other the Bhaktis, flinging ghee at each other.
Those who conduct alter puja to Ganesh, Vishnu, whoever, can fall into either camp. Meaning, some would hold the view that the causal is absolute nothingness at all, and place Ganesh or any other diety clearly within the realm of manifestation, although truly deep, at archetypal levels, an energy manifestation to which one attempts to become harmonious through regular and often incredibly complex ritual.
Anyway, whether we’ve hit Krishna or the void, this is the place that Patanjali talks about when he says “Yoga is the cessation of conscious fluctuation, at which time the true seer arises standing within itself. At times we identify with the seer, at others times we identify with the fluctuations.” I hold that quote to be the essence of Ashtanga. But its a bit of a journey from our practice on the mat to these higher spheres, and yet I hold it to be a very clear and well walked path, a very real, robustly experienced and thoroughly confirmed possibility. This is not mumbo-jumbo or wishful thinking, this really is the way it goes: the physical body gets clear, the psychic body gets clear, and we begin to get glimpses of that which throughout history has been called God.
Big issues arise for those of us doing this, and I’ll get into those next time: basically, once we start getting high into the subtle realm, we hit a realm of both delights and perils. Hitting the perils, it is not uncommon for practitioners to give up on their path and try a different one, which really isn’t a solution, since all legitimate paths will lead to this place. This approach really just becomes avoidance of the subtle altogether. The perils include hitting big deep internal stuff that many people would never bother with in this lifetime, and with good reason: they’re nasty, and can just completely mess things up. People living the unexamined life just go along sort of bugged by stuff but never really addressing it. That doesn’t seem to be an option with intentional spritual life, which often leads us straight into our deepest complexes, ie: Mom, Dad etc. Another is the growth of sensitivity and the carrying of other’s pain, so that you really do begin to feel the explosions in Iraq, or the struggle of the person on the mat next to you in class, you may have a hard time differentiating between what is hers and what is yours. (The good side of this is the possibility of blissful communion with others, the greater the sensitivity, the greater the bliss.) Another is what I call the activator field: this is when you’ve undertaken the spiritual process and it begins to become very real, such that you simply come to class and all kinds of internal process becomes quite active, you have no choice, it doesn’t just shut off. If a yoga class is conducted well, with a community of people intentionally practicing, this is what should be happening, although it may seem like a long way from this nice little class where you thought you were coming just to stretch out a bit and walk out feeling happy. True psychosomatic fulfillment is a different animal than that altogether.
Healing the Hurts: Yoga and Injury
Monday, March 5th, 2007
Just about everybody runs into physical pain and injury at some point in their lives, especially those of us who exercise regularly. If you move your body actively, it will occasionally hurt. For some of us, it frequently hurts. We choose to get fit, tolerating aches and pains, because the alternative is…slow murky creep towards dark dreadful sluggish inertia and death- or something like that.
In all honesty, Ashtanga will initiate more aches and pains than gentler yoga. On the other hand, the potential for bodily transformation and psycho-somatic purification is far greater. Those who do the practice typically find the periodic aches and pains worth it in exchange for bodily vitality, improved postural disposition, a general feeling of well-being, healthy appropriate appetite and digestion, improved sleep, insight into relaxation and stress management, mental clarity, the capacity for delight in the present mundane moment due to happy body chemistry, surfing around in the higher spheres, occasional mystic glimpses into the bigger picture (or permanent ecstatic residence up there). See the comment below for more on this.
Occasionally, in Ashtanga, as in other forms of athleticism, actual injury happens. I will make the claim here that, if approached intelligently, Ashtanga is one of the safest ways to get highly fit. However, hurts happen sometimes. Most people who sustain practice over time, will eventually run into something. I’ve run into many snags, but I can attribute that to the fact that I went at this like a madman when I was in my twenties. Also, I’ve had a heavy teaching load for 10 years, and teaching Ashtanga, especially doing the backbends with people, is notoriously rough on the teacher. But I love it so much, what to do? Now, at the ripe age of 39, and with two dependents, I’m a bit more measured, as those of you who practice with me have probably noticed, the jackrabbit evolved into a tortoise. Anyway, there are many ways to address such an incident, many professions devoted to helping people heal. In this post, I would like to offer a way to approach injury from a yogic perspective.
Vedanta, the mature Hindu system of philosophy and practice, has placed great importance on the three major states of human consciousness. Existence was basically divided into three categories. The great sage Ramana Maharshi expressed these as:
1. The Open Courtyard: the physical body, the gross waking state, matter;
2. The Middle Chamber: the subtle body, the dreaming state, psychic stuff;
3. The Inner Chamber: the causal body, deep sleep, the void, nothing at all, but the matrix from which the others originate.
The accomplished yogic sages , certainly Maharshi himself, were able to realize the second and third states, dreaming and deep sleep, while fully awake. The completion of yoga is to pass through the third stage, the causal body, which leads to a recognition of the way in which the things of life, material, psychic, everything, arise from the void of the cosmic causal body. This is non-dual awakening, the capacity to simultaneously hold the emptiness of the casual body with the all the stuff in the other two bodies. It’s a mega-paradox, a monster polarity, for the few and the brave. Fear of wearing the wrong thing to that party, financial hardship, failure, pain, existential dread, old age, death…gotta get over all of that stuff. But in non-duality, we can participate in all of this- going to parties, whatever- with what could be called the ultimate perspective.
To get anywhere near this kind of realization, one must learn to bear that which was unbearable; that which is unbearable now, may become manageable with practice over time. If you are dealing with something difficult right now, it could be seen as preparation for much higher states of awareness. That’s no platitute; the only way to reach the higher states charted by the yogis is to get a handle on strong stuff which may be terrifying or deranging the first few times you touch it. The degree of difficulty of a challenge, that is exactly the degree of freedom one can gain from it, once the trace left by the challenge is accepted and metabolized. This is the case both for getting better at, for example, challenging asanas, as well gaining access to higher/deeper state of awareness.
Okay, so, the causal body: all of us hopefully pass through this every 24 hours or so, sleep research calls it Stage 3 or slow wave sleep. Adults fall into it rather quickly upon falling asleep, and usually stay there for less than an hour. There are few dreams during this state. This is the hardest state from which to wake somebody, and she may feel disoriented upon waking from it. The body needs it to survive. The consciousness of the most non-yogic person in the world, our archetypal couch potato, goes there every day.
The science of Physiology describes two important states: catabolic, the breakdown of cell structures, and anabolic, the synthesis/growth of cell structures. Anabolic steroids will help your muscles grow into the size of balloons, a very polluted way for the weight lifter to maximize his residence in the anabolic state. Catabolism: imagine you’ve had a long day, with not enough to eat, and your kids keep you up all night, (have twins like myself and you can stagger through a phenomenological thesis on this state.)
Sleep research indicates that stage 3 sleep appears to be the maximum anabolic state, the time when you heal the fastest, when the breakdown from your day becomes the stimulus for growth and development. Physical exercise and work stresses the gross body, which with rest, allows it to grow stronger. Typical family and job stress works the psychic body, which includes the higher part of the emotional body, and with rest it also gets stronger. Without rest…well, both bodies slowly or quickly get worn down. (Yoga also has a term for too much rest: tamas, which means dark sluggishness).
I’ll introduce a final element here: Patanjali’s main sutras, 1:2 and 3: “Yoga is the ability to cease fluctuations in the consciousness. At which time, the seer shines in its own true brilliance.” I’ll offer a physiologic reduction of this: “when the busy mind is quieted, the anabolic state can happen.” Busy mind, worry mind, becomes catabolic relatively quickly. Essentially, steady yoga practice will bring us closer to Patanjali’s yogic state, which is certainly a close match to Maharshi’s inner chamber, or the causal state. It will allow us the choice of quieting our minds when we so choose. If we do this over time, we will gain some understanding of the subtle and causal realms of existence, little glimpses here and there. Not everybody will be able to maintain the witness state while in the causal realm, but every inch towards this capacity, through the phases of the subtle body, is healing. The great spiritual traditions of the world tell us that the causal state is the creative matrix from which all form arises, including the forms of your own body and mind.
In last month’s post, I posed the question of why the yogis in the Ashtanga lineage have lived long lives, (Krishnamacharya 100, Indra Devi nearly 103, Pattabhi Jois still active and strong at 92, BKS Iyengar, still active and strong at 89) and my response today is that the ability to remain close to these higher states and to choose to invest such energy back into the body, this will make the body very happy. Yogis will gradually work their way closer to maintaining degrees of the anabolic state at all times, and to turn it on at will, and we could even pose the possibility of some individuals developing the ability to stoke it way up through long-term focus development. Which is to say: to heal injury and disease at will.
Practical application: (this is how I’ve healed from multiple, occasionally scary injuries incurred from being an Ashtanga teacher): when you retire in the evening, begin your rest lying flat on your back and quiet your mind by feeling your body. Stay with this night after night and you will begin to feel your way deeply into the inner psychosomatic sheaths of your being and the mind will begin to quiet. Next: feel the area that hurts or is hurt- if given attention, an injury should begin to reveal itself, it may throb or hurt, or it may just be something you can feel down there. “If you feel it you can heal it”. Notice the qualities of the sensation of the injury, keep noticing over time. Relax tensions in the area as they become apparent. Breathe steadily and direct the energy in your breath into the sensation. Practice Pratyahara, which takes outward vision and turns it inward: see your injury, which I hold to be the visual part of your brain redirected to give qualities and features to felt sensation. The same for hearing, tasting, smelling. This will set the stage for the anabolic state soon to follow: true delta sleep, the “medicine by which you need no medicine”.
My point here is that besides all the outward modalities of healing- acupuncture, physical therapy, all that good stuff- there is also the option of developing a way of being that promotes healing, entirely apart from diet and nutrition, ingestion of drugs or outward manipulation: the way of the yogis: life as a path into the inner chamber, direct knowledge of the place from which all life forms originate.
Thanks for reading,
Sorry about the Hi5 Scam
Monday, March 5th, 2007
There was a batch of emails sent out under our name that invite you to join hi5 Network.
First of all, we’re really sorry if you trusted us and chose to join this hi5 thing- Michele made the mistake of doing the same from someone we trust and this is what happened:
they actually tagged our entire address book and sent out invitations to everybody, almost like a worm. First of all, how the heck did they get all those addresses? Our address book is on Yahoo, what does Yahoo have to do with this? I do NOT suggest you join hi5, or anybody who conducts business like that- if you did sign up I strongly suggest you cancel, easy enough to do. It is NOT a virus, it’s a business using borderline virus techiniques, some precarious combination of virus and legitimate business. They seem like a normal enough networking service, but if you sign up they will take your entire address book and send out emails that give the appearance that you stand behind what they do. They do this unless you carefully tell them not to. Who knows what else they will do unless you carefully tell them not to. Amazingly, they actually have a shingle on the street:
455 Market Street suite 910
San Francisco, CA, 94105
I called them and demanded that they delete every address they took from me, I’ll do what I can to see that they do that. And I let them know I was not pleased. They didn’t get back to me. They’re a faux business, with no accountability, getting away with it for as long as they can. They trash my business in order to propogate their own.
If you haven’t opened it yet, it says “Hey Steve Dwelley ” ( or whatever your name is) and then has a link with either Michele’s name or the Ashtanga Yoga Shala. I suggest you press the delete button firmly. Again, we’re really sorry if this got you, cyberspace is fairly intense these days and we were caught sleeping at the joystick.
We didn’t collect all your emails to send out stuff like that, and it won’t happen again.
Our humble apologies,
Steve and Michele
Ashtanga Yoga Shala Santa Barbara
Heady Intellectualism: Pattabhi Jois and Deep Vibration
Thursday, February 1st, 2007
There can be a tension among Ashtanga practitioners between the body and the mind. Specifically, several prominent teachers in the lineage are explicit that heady intellectualism is not the way, including Pattabhi Jois himself. Here’s an example from his book Yoga Mala:
Great scholars and intellectuals who attract attention by using
pedantic Vedantic terms which mean that all things are transitory
and that only the supreme self is real, are only impressing themselves
and their listeners for the moment. But soon, the net of delusion is
sure to bind them. (p 31)
His cure for this, of course, is honest yoga practice. I’ve personally seen him accosted by eager students who pepper him with complex yoga concepts, and his response has been to walk away, leaving a trail of perplexed aspiring yogis. Indeed, the tension in this issue has bedeviled me for years.
I’ll attempt to describe my understanding of the deep yogic way as presented by the gurus in this lineage. We could call it radiant heartfelt somatic vibrational presence, a wonderful state to be in and not terribly common. And it gets most interesting when offered in receptive exchange with others. In keeping with the fundamental hatha yoga maxim that health is the real wealth, this state, or approximations of it, are highly conducive to radiant health and freedom from injury. How do we account for the long active lives of the yogis in Krishnmacharya’s lineage? Did they all have good genes, or did they live in a way that cleaned the roots of disease in their bodies? Also, the feeling of being in this state is incredible- joyous bodily existence, where the horrid dramas of life seem kind of overblown, and psychic disturbance resolves itself.
I would like to qualify that last phrase: I dislike trite yogic aphorisms such as “Come to the place where all is light and free forever”. Yeah, right. I absolutely believe in states of enlightenment, in the reality of successive levels of permanent attainment of the radiant state, but the truth is, life sends us endless lessons, there is always the next moment and the morning after, and the month after, and the next decade. By choosing life on Earth, we have all signed up for endless incoming experience, and new challenging experiences are a threat to the radiant state until the traces from those new challenges are integrated such that they are no longer THE OTHER but are now part of ME. (This definitely needs to happen within the bodyminds of even those who are well grounded with their identity in the witness. Serious challenges can drag even great sages down from the witness.) Creative active evolutionary life is an endless expansion of identity into everything that comes my way. Also, when we are inspired, we quickly push ourselves right to our growth edge- that is the place to be. But in so doing, we are asking life to come in- and it will. And the state of inspiration won’t last forever, so we are left with lots of new impact combined with a less than stellar outlook. Of course, this will eventually rise back up to the integrated zone again, but we don’t always know that at the time. But, what, shy away from inspiration? Unfortunately, I believe a large percentage of humanity has chosen just that, has chosen not to spiritually evolve, is not up to the adventure which requires deeply feeling that which has happened, and willing to be with that which comes up as a result. It appears that it requires the second half of life, where death begins knocking, to wake most people out of relative static cruise, or to shift their thinking away from the way it has always been, or beyond the merely gross waking state and towards the subtler realms.
So, first of all, how to we get to radiant heartfelt somatic vibrational presence? Pattabhi Jois says, basically, a heck of a lot of sincere practice, sustained over time. This changes our neurology into a system that is able to connect the open feeling heart with the traces left by experience, gets better and more sophisticated at doing just that. The traces from challenging experiences will close the heart at first, but may be the source of greater opening later. Neurologic change is a very real possibility, but it requires a certain attitude, the willingness to be with the evolutionary edge. Try writing with your non-dominant hand, feel that field of resistance which only slowly yields. That is the feeling of nerves growing new connections, and, as neurology recently concluded, new nerves growing. That is the place sincere yoga practice asks you to make your home, which may in the short term contract the heart but over time will build a great heart.
So, I”ve just flung a succession of thoughts your way. Are these thoughts themselves part of the problem, distractions from the deep vibrational place where thoughts become less important? Here’s my take on it:
a. The thoughts that are the greatest threat to yoga are negative thoughts, ie: “this is really bad, and basically I’m failing, and I’m not good enough, and that person is laughing inwardly at the way I look, and this can never succeed”. All of us have lots of these, and they reveal themselves in layers of a hidden psychic plate tectonics process as we go through life. Continuing with the yoga practice, even if the negativity has dragged us far from radiance, is the way to push these plates out from under water and hopefully allow them to transform into glorious mountains.
b. Pattabhi Jois himself is a life-long scholar, and his guru Krishnmamacharya had the equivalent of 6 Doctorates, so the position here is not anti-thought. Rather, I believe Pattabhi has a deep grounding in heartfelt vibrational experience and can clearly sense when this is completely absent in a conversation, and often has little interest in such exchange. And I would add that adding heart to mind gives the mind purpose and meaning.
c. Frequently in life, thoughts require attention right now, and the realities they propel us into may not be conducive in the least to deep vibrational presence. However, we set aside time to do regular yoga practice to learn how to connect the various life-states in which we find ourselves with the deep conscious vibrational place. Do this for years and the two begin to merge. Or, I’d say, life begins to migrate into the deep heartfelt presence. But the greatest challenge to this is the taming of a mind which may simply mope its way along, or flit around like a butterfly, or is disinclined to break through habitual vestigial unhelpful thinking.
The way in Ashtanga appears to be this: the heart is the cure for the lost mind. Noticing unhelpful mentation and feeling its trace as opposed to running with its thought is a way to eventually get higher heart into the picture. For more on traces or imprints, or in Sanskrit, vasanas, see my blog, July 1 and October 3, 2006 entries. Basically: stay with the trace from the experience, practice focus, work the body, and eventually the trace will integrate itself into the ways of the heart, making the world new in the process. A very smart way to go. And it feels good.
Monday, January 1st, 2007
There are many systems of yoga, and not all of them affirm the act of using the body as the object of yogic focus. Some yogis, such as Ramana Maharshi, went further and actually advised practitioners to turn focus away from the body, lest we be attached to it when we die. Despite this, asana is the most popular yoga practice on the planet. Many would say that much of this is not serious yoga, but rather, people simply enjoying asana’s benefits towards health and feeling good. Of course, there are lines of asana practice which would fit under the category of serious authentic yoga, and ashtanga is one of them. What do I mean by serious authentic yoga?
1. It has as it’s underlying purpose a clear expression of the possibility of self-transcendence in this lifetime, and
2. it is undertaken with a rigorousness that offers the chance of this self-overcoming actually happening.
Historically, India has offered several serious views of self-transcendence, two of which are especially relevant for ashtanga:
a. The old Brahmin themes which I’ll lump under ”neti-neti” which means, “No, not that, and no not that, and no not that either, etc”. Anything that expresses itself as an object which can be perceived by our awareness cannot be the goal to which we are striving, because God has no qualities. The God of our own innermost self is entirely free of any features at all. This often came with a dualist approach to life, which I view this as the inferior view, simply because it was fully included in the larger visions of both tantra and Advaita which followed. But the essential aspect that no yoga, or no system of self-development, can ignore is contained in this neti-neti view. I’ll try to explain my understanding of this as clearly as possible:
The self that views things “out there”, the person you are right now who sees and experiences your outer and inner world, has plenty of stuff tied in with it; you are not aware of much of this stuff, it is beneath your level of awareness. (If you are already enlightened and free, please forgive my condescendence). Your eyes are not the eyes of the pure witness (although you may achieve this at times) but rather, eyes which ride on the contours of your personality and see things in a way which includes these contours. These contours can be completely dominant, as in children, or quite subtle, as in certain mature wise people. But for the neti-neti yogi, none of those contours, no matter how subtle, are the goal, all of them are illusion. These lenses which alter the perception of the pure witness are still within the realm of things, and the witness is not a thing at all. The Brahmins were trying to get us straight into the witness, and damn anything that has any kind of manifestation.
Shankaracharya, in his little book Aporakshanubhuti, says “The yogi is indifferent to both the highest emanation from heaven and the shit of a crow.” But, being an Advaitan, he then tempers that with a view that values both the intensity of the quest to get to the causal realm but also affirms manifest creation; in his Brahma Sutra Bhasya, he says that higher things have more value than lower things, but that none of them are Brahman.
One value of this view is that it puts the practitioner on a truly steep and fast learning curve. One way we humans develop over time is like this: the eyes by which we saw in the previous moment become the stuff that we see in the next; the subject of this moment becomes the object of the next; when our person is revealed over time, its elements can become things we consider; aspects of who we were yesterday become things we can consider today. Before that, we had no choice, these elements were fused into our personality and not available to the light of our awareness. We acted from them but we could not see them; they unconsciously drove us. Now, with this in mind, notice that the neti-neti yogi immediately disidentifies with the elements of his own personhood as soon as he recognizes them. Any element that he can perceive is not God, and he knows that in his innermost self he is God, so he lets go of any identification with the phenomena he sees or hears or feels. This is the process of maturity that we all go through at some pace, but the old Brahmins explicitly stated a method which works quickly, and doesn’t dawdle. The upshot: fast track to freedom from the limitations of himself. The bummer: possible pathology, as he loses track of who he was and has only dim and devalued structure from which to operate in this world.
b. So, in response, around the eighth century, in good old India, emerges tantra, the path by which one can lose her ego but strengthen her nerves, where the personality dies to the larger universe but the body radiates happy health. (Advaita also came up with a response to dualism, but in a different way.) Freedom in this body, through this body. Ashtanga yoga is a tantra. Essentially, tantra introduced the view that self-development is not just a process of disidentification, but also that of building internal structure: the mature tantric has robust subtle-physiology. The psychologists Blanck and Blanck tell us that the self “metabolizes experience” to “build structure”, and I think this view well-describes what we do in Ashtanga, which I also believe speeds up the structure building . I’ll get into my understanding of these things next month.
Exercise, the Teacher, the Collective: What Ashtanga Does
Friday, December 1st, 2006
1. I did a podcast for yogapeeps. Interesting little website.
2. I’ve been sending out these posts, thoughts about yoga and such, and the question may arise, what do all these things have to do with the daily physical practice that I teach, that we do? I’ll make a stab at addressing that here.
The Ashtanga system is based on Tantric techniques of arousing successively subtle internal energy processes in the bodymind. This is achieved in three primary ways in the Ashtanga room, 1. through the process of exercise, basically comprised of stretching, strengthening, balance and coordination, all of it done with full active breath. 2. the guidance and physical touch of the teacher, 3. the energy of the collective, that which happens when people practice in a room together. I’ll take these one at a time.
1. Exercise: in Ashtanga, we all start with Primary Series. The first half of primary is a thorough excavation of the pelvis: multiple angles into the hips and a deep clearing of hamstring tension. This essentially addresses the first two chakras, the root and the genital, clears out space for them to exist energetically in ways other than their overt function, i.e.: elimination and sex. This seats the practitioner deep in her pelvis and builds an energetic foundation for what is to follow, basically getting her grounded. The second half of primary emphasizes pure strength and coordination, as well as inversion (upside-down), and there’s also more pelvic stuff. We finish with backbends and then lots of upside-down. This is a steady building and lifting of energy, culminating with the backbends. Second series and beyond is about nerve purification and progressively rigorous energy uplift.
Essentially, the tantrics who gave rise to Hatha yoga began to discover what can happen when we exercise, the kind of energy that can be awakened through the process of becoming physically fit. In short: seated yogic techniques, such as meditation, bring us into the subtle realms which ironically are not easier to hold but rather, the opposite. Subtle yogic realms are actually more real and less easy to manage than gross realms; the poor yogi who just sits there can get overwhelmed; strengthening the physical body can help him contain the beauty and volatility of the deeper dimensions of life.
2. Contact with the teacher: try this: sit at home for a while and get as centered and calm as possible, keeping the mind clear. Next, from this place, go get physically close to someone, your wife, friend, whomever. Go up to her, or pull him down to you, something like that. Notice what happens. If possible, notice this very precisely.
Physical contact with another person is strong stuff, again, primarily on the more subtle levels, and will awaken energy processes. Many of these processes may be shrouded, and will only register as confusion or some kind of variant on uncertainty. Others will be easy to discern, can go all the way to unbearably strong. Now I know what some of you are thinking, but it’s important to note that sexual arousal is just one of many kinds of phenomena available here. In my esteem, sex is good stuff, but can be volatile and unpredictable in its effects, even in committed sacred settings. That said, sacred sex is unparalleled in its capacity to free up and make available certain aspects of our developmental being, a fiery crucible that can be potentially used for good.
Contact with a teacher can be intimate but, hopefully, is of a different kind than sex. What are the avenues pursued with intimate, sensual but non-sexual touch? Essentially, it is the recognition of the special opportunity for energy movement when two dynamic systems merge for a moment. Of course, this can happen from across a room (some say from across the planet), but when bodies actually physically collide, a deeper kind of “hook-up” becomes possible. This is transcendent to gender difference.
A skilled toucher does some version of the following: he is centered and sensitive, so when the hands go on, he feels a field of activity which is the interaction of his energy with yours. In Ashtanga, we follow the overt needs of the pose: teacher puts the student into, or moves him towards, the proper position of the pose. This is simple mechanics and it is a huge set of skills in itself. Simultaneously, an energy exchange is happening, the basis for what in yogic circles is termed Shaktipat, which means “descent of power”. I prefer to see this as the power possible when two people touch, as opposed to the teacher subjecting the poor student to his power. (See the post for August 2007: Mata Amritanandamayi: Up and Down)
I have found Pattabhi Jois remarkably synergistic on this issue. He is famous for that last push, where he climbs on your back after backbends, gives you a squash. I was fortunate enough to have this experience six days a week for nearly an entire year, at the time I associate with his energetic peak, the last year before beloved Ammachi, his wife, died. This was 1997, he was 83. At that age, he wasn’t an elite asana practitioner anymore, but his internal energy mastery was incredible. He would give a push, and it would be a strong statement, but I could feel his receptivity- actually, it was the fact that I sensed this receptivity that awakened a willingness in me to participate fully in the exchange.
A person will allow herself to be dictated to for only so long before she needs to have a voice in the exchange. If her voice is denied, it becomes a domination thing, which some people like, to their detriment. This is fundamentalism: personal oblivion in the face of the utterly dominant “God”, an expression of the need to master others, and to be mastered by another. There have been many problem gurus on this issue, Pattabhi Jois isn’t one of them. (See February 2008: Yoga Fundamentalism)
3. The collective: as we do asana over time, and we follow the promptings of our own practice, we begin to transcend the grossly physical, we begin to register subtle energy events of whose existence we were previously ignorant. In asana class, the character of the group of people in class with us will become more prominent. It may even be a disturbing force while we are still gaining strength in this realm. Also, as we grow into the energetic realm, which again, is exactly where yoga practice is taking us, we will project more of ourselves “out there”, and this requires increasing degrees of responsibility. There is the story of a well-known contemporary guru who was going to come back as a rock in his next life because he had gained extreme levels of energy mastery and was messing around with it in uncouth ways.
For the highly evolved, much is expected. But what’s the alternative, go backwards?
Do Yoga, Get a Reward
Wednesday, November 1st, 2006
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, one among many, operating now in your brain. It has multiple functions- the reason I’m bringing it into this story is because it is often seen as the central biochemical involved in an organism’s reward system. If a process is accomplished which satisfies criteria developed over millenia in the human neurologic system, dopamine is released into the neurotransmitter cocktail of the moment and it’s effects are experienced, which can range from mildly pleasant to overwhelmingly euphoric. Food and sex are seen by evolutionary biologists as the two biggies for dopamine-reward release: they serve basic functions for survival of the organism and the species. Connoisseurs of food and sex have focused on the various delights of anticipation and pleasure involved in the build-up and consummation of these arts.
Another way to get at dopamine is through certain drugs, especially cocaine and heroin. These two have been described as hijacking the neurological reward system, and if used extensively, seriously deranging it. All you have to do is take the drug, it’s a way of cheating the reward system, and it obviously wreaks havoc on the user. A true perversion: trash yourself, get a reward.
So, yoga: various processes of meditative focus can also tap into the reward system, but in ways that get at the essence of health as opposed to destruction. In last month’s post, I wrote about the sublimation of impressions. In short: we receive impressions from outward and inward experience, they both leave a mark on the psyche/soma, joining the cumulative fund of impressions that began from the moment we were conceived. If we have spent some time practicing yoga and have learned to value and realize a mind relatively quiet of discursive thought when we so choose to quiet it, we find that when the discursive mind is quiet, a felt sense of impressions left from experience comes to the fore. This felt sense can then become the object that we focus upon, and that very act of focusing does something to the impression- if we can feel an impression, and focus on it, it will begin to transform into a higher version of itself, wherein it will also begin to integrate itself with the rest of our experience, becoming a more harmonious component of the whole which is our self.
The testimony of countless yogis reports that at a certain point in this sublimation-of-impression process, the heart begins to awaken- basically, a surge of energy begins to accompany the yogic act, and it registers prominently in the heart, ie: it begins to beat bigger or faster, or skip a few beats and then find a deper kind of synchronization with surrounding energy fields, maybe it feels incredible pleasure or excitement. One claim I am clearly making here: the heart is a sense organ and it senses energy fields, both our own and others.
Another claim: our nerves are wired to reward evolutionary activity, and if impressions are sublimated sufficiently, the nerves will send their reward. Why? Well, a sublimated impression is one that has been mastered to a degree, and no longer holds us in its thrall, ie: the social trauma you received in high school. Evolutionary science may say that the trauma no longer slows us down, and this has life-value because the slow will perish. Interestingly, dopamine can initiate the release of adrenaline which stimulates the heart. This isn’t hijacking the system, so much as it is tapping into a higher realization of legitimate reward, the bliss of successive yogic realization. And if a group of people do this together in a room, they have access to each other’s delight (or grim drama, but we all have to start somewhere)- this is a not a small matter and I’ll address it again later.
Last part: this legitimate reward cannot be faked, which means that we must be actively applying ourselves to real impressions, which is very different than wanting or praying for yogic bliss to happen. It is actually doing yoga, an arduous, at times chaotic inner learning curve, and we need to stay on it for actual reward. When I said “the essence of health” above, I’m getting at a concept of health which implies an honest, courageous facing of developmental urges more than lack of a dripping nose and a good tan.
Sublimation of Impressions
Tuesday, October 3rd, 2006
My basic premise here will be that thought, in whatever form, leaves an impression on our subtle physiology. What do I mean by subtle physiology? That could be answered both objectively and experientially. First, objectively, it refers roughly to the nervous system, and within that, the limbic system and outwards to the cortex of the brain, in particular the somatic region of the cortex. It also refers to the yogic concept of nadis, which are subtle energy channels throughout the body. Contrast this to gross physiology: bones, heart muscle, pancreas, pinky finger. Second, experientially: when you have a thought, whether intentional, or far more commonly, unintentional- the thought being something offered to you by your nerves whether you want it or not- when you have this thought, it has a feeling aspect, comparable to fingers touching skin, it makes a mark, like a stick in wet cement, which can be perceived at varying levels. For instance, a major thought, such as “the woman I love just left me and she’s never coming back”, will leave a powerful imprint, may even elicit temporarily debilitating responses like sobbing, shaking, etc. When Einstein connected his way to e=mc squared, we can assume that this thought, in its original revelation, had a host of feeling toned accompaniments for him. Now, most thoughts that most of us have most of the time are smaller, ie: “I’ll get lunch together for the kids”. Nonetheless, these leave an imprint too, just a milder and smaller one: all thoughts leave an imprint.
What is an imprint? The yogic traditions speak of external and internal experience as leaving a trace upon us. My point in the previous paragraph is that internal events, like thoughts, leave an impression on our being, just as outward experiences do. Thought processes are the nervous system in action, often rewiring itself as it thinks, the rewiring process a product of the thought. The imprint would be the change in our gross and subtle physiology after the thought (inwardly) or the frisbee that jammed our pinky (outwardly).
So, the jammed pinky slowly heals, and becomes a slightly beaten down version of our original pinky. And what happens to the imprint left by thoughts? My response: it changes over time too, in a manner similar to gross level pinky healing. So, for example, our poor sad fellow who lost his love has received a large impact on his subtle physiology, an impact he may be increasing with ongoing negative thinking. Well, as time passes, his psyche begins to mend, despite him, and one way to see this process is through the idea of sublimation: the low becomes high in the living organism. The eros of life will take the psychic wound and reorganize it, the unbearable will become comfortable with time, and the wound will actually become the Darwinian imprint from the environment which can initiate new capacities.
This eros process happens even in the lowliest smirking couch potato (sorry to all the low smirking couch potatoes out there, I don’t mean to marginalize you), he is a theater of eros occuring right now, until the day he dies. Viz: the neurologists used to think that our numbers of brain cells died off from age 3, and no new ones could be grown. All downhill from age 3. This has now been debunked and the elderly have been confirmed to grow new brain cells which make new connections in the areas of life in which they participate. Anyway, our couch potato’s psychosomatic being is taking the imprints from his outward and inward experience and gradually, inevitable bringing them to a higher level of organization. The thing is, he’s just mucking through this life, doesn’t care at all, and profound amounts of eros are happening anyway, it’s what keeps him there.
But the yogi: yoga tells us that if we deliberately put our attention on the imprints left by inner and outer experience, evolution will happen faster and much much better. This is why yoga places such value on a mind that can free itself of chatter when it so chooses: the eros, the organizing healing evolutionary force, can get stronger when it receives deliberate attention. How strong can it get? It would seem that God is the limit and God, by definition, has no limit. And when thoughts are mucking up the works, leaving constantly new impressions, an essential part of the process never gets a chance to really concentrate. It still happens, but in couch potato form, or like it does for the always-thinking intellectual, who knows so much but can never really realize it in terms of energetic liberation or happiness. And yoga is pointing us to that place in our being which is beneath discursive thought, telling us to put our attention there, to experience our subtle physiology directly.
So, what happens if a yogi focuses on a feeling and stays with it? My answer: the feeling begins to feel better (although initially it may have to dump out Pandora’s Box, which may very well include getting through the dreaded feelings that he didn’t want to have to feel). It feels better, and if he stays with it, it will reach sublimated form, which will trigger off an awakening of the heart, which I hope in my next post to connect with dopamine and the novelty edge, the rewiring of the brain for constant access to bliss. (Hint: you have to stay on the chaotic inner edge or bliss will never happen.)
Until next time, happy channel surfing.
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. 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. Systems and complexity theorists 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, with a limitless potential for new kinds of 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 it 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 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.
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 and Heart 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 my 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 clearing and tension 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.
Saturday, July 1st, 2006
My teacher in India, Pattabhi Jois, says “Ashtanga Yoga is Patanjali Yoga.” As I see it, the basic thing Patanjali is asking us to practice, at least at the outset, is the act of quieting the discursive mind, the thinking mind. I’m a lover of unbearable paradoxes and there is a good one here: Patanjali’s sutras are all thoughts, every last one of them. Here is a supposedly profound thought that tells us not to think. What’s left? Where did Patanjali get his thoughts from? Did they emerge in complete form from his pineal gland?
The emerging answer seems to have become: do both, think and don’t think. And I believe the crux of the matter, especially for Westerners, is that we can’t not think. We try to quiet our minds and it doesn’t happen. We spend our days working through all the issues within thought, such as: replace bad thought with good thoughts, try to replace kookoo mind with intelligent orderly practical mind, replace mind altogether by doing the American thing: drinking beer and watching TV.
We do the dishes and conclude that President George Bush has subjected his unresolved father complex on the entire world, at horrible cost, without a lick of self-reflection on his part. But the inner yogi asks: can you just do the dishes, just this once, without thinking about him? Or yourself? Or anybody or anything? Just being with hands, water, dishes, soap, bits of food, your own body, feeling your brain instead of living in it? Returning to these concrete realities when thoughts do come. Can you do that?
Why? One reason: there is a whole realm of bodily feeling, emotion, sensing, intuition, instinct, deep knowing, meaningful suffering, purposeful process, wounds waiting for attention, heart-centered delight, self-organizing vital energy, all of which I put under the heading of Soma, which is often partially or totally masked and obscured by the thought train. Worse, it is susceptible and radically manipulated by a mind mostly ignorant of the havoc it can wreak on its own vessel. If I could, just this once for starters, just for this hour and a half while I practice, live deeply in the soma, the heart mind, which opens the possibility of a psychosomatic process purified and sublimated by sustained yogic and meditative attention, which may eventually reach up to the level of Shakti and cosmic experience, not analyzed but directly and immediately known- and then enter that data into my thoughts…
Body meets Mind
Sunday, May 28th, 2006
1. Tomorrow is Memorial Day and we will only have one class: 8-10 am, so you can sleep “late” and observe the dead in the afternoon.
About the dead, to put things in perspective, I’ve been scolded by my fellow Ashtangis for getting up so late now that I have kids: 4:30 in the morning. The earliest regular wake-up time I ever had was 3:15 am. It was consciousness altering. Michele and I would go to concerts, lectures and dance performances and fall asleep.
2. Speaking of Michele, she will be wrapping up her Ashtanga Basics course this afternoon at 5 pm. Next week will be the beginning of a regular class, open to drop-ins, dropouts and everyone else, on Sundays from 5-6:30 pm, Ashtanga Yoga for Beginners. She’s describing it as a class for people just getting started, or those who want to take a slower approach to the practice. If Mysore-style threatens your sense of homeostasis, you might try this one.
3. I’ll be doing my led Primary class this coming Friday, June 2nd from 5-7 pm. Please bring your burning questions and uncomfortable dilemmas. I’ll be offering a few more comments on my understanding of the differences between Body and Mind and the arduous and glorious job of getting them to sit down and talk to each other. Eventually talking leads to flirting, which leads to…
Gary Snyder Quote
Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006
Great quote from Gary Snyder, poet:
I was working for a trail crew up in Yosemite Park. I found myself doing three months of long, hard physical labor, out on the trails week after week. At the beginning, I found myself straining against it, trying to exercise my mind in a serious intellectual kind of way, while doing my work. I was reading Milton and had some other reading. And it was frustrating, although I had done the same thing before on many jobs. Finally, I gave up trying to carry on an intellectual interior life separate from the work and I said the hell with it, I’ll just work. And instead of losing something, I got something much greater. By just working I found myself being completely there, having the whole mountain inside of me, and finally having a whole language inside of me that became one with the rocks and trees. And that was where I learned the possibility of being one with what you were doing, and not losing anything of the mind thereby. Excerpted from The Real Work , (1969, New Directions).