A simpler view of the ‘transgressive’ practice of Tantric Yoga

If you’re like me, the words “Tantra” or “Tantric” conjure up a lot of mystery — and not a little of it sexual.

For better or worse — well, for worse — that’s the “rap” Tantra has in the West. Can we blame the hippies? Sure, why not! They seem to get the blame for everything else!

Tantric art from Santa Monica Museum of Art

But two recent books I’ve read have helped me shed my preconceptions of what Tantra means and understand it better in the oeuvre that is yoga, yoga philosophy and yoga practice.

One is Richard Freeman’s latest, “The Mirror of Yoga.” The other is one we’ve mentioned before, “The Hindus.” I highly recommend them both as they put into Tantric practice into context. I have a better understanding, even appreciation, for Tantra’s reaction to “mainstream” Hinduism of different times as well as what its esoteric or “transgressive” nature intends. It operates in the realm of symbols and symbolic acts and focuses on pushing beyond boundaries. It is simply another path toward understanding the relationships among our perceived world, the unperceived world, our bodies and our inner selves. (Not to put too fine a point on it. And I’m definitely not claiming that as a definitive explanation.)

My education took another five or six steps forward this past weekend when we viewed an exhibit currently showing at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. “Tantra Song: Contemporary Tantric Paintings from Rajastan” runs through Dec. 10. I’ve mentioned the show, in brief, before. Here’s a link to the musuem’s page for it.

Here’s the key description of the show:

Tantra Song: Contemporary Tantric Paintings from Rajasthan is a collection of thirty-nine anonymous works from India, made from 1985 to 2009. The process of painting these works is part of a spiritual practice, and the paintings themselves have specific qualities to guide private meditation. Made in tempera, gouache, and watercolor on salvaged paper, they are pinned up and anointed for use as spiritual objects, then discarded once aged and faded.

This rare lineage of Tantric art evolved from seventeenth-century, hand-written and illustrated religious treatises, which were copied over many generations. The contemporary result is a distinct visual lexicon used to awaken heightened states of consciousness. The paintings include a range of familiar geometric forms, each imbued with spiritual meaning: spirals and arrows for energy; inverted triangles for the goddess Shakti; and ovals for the god Shiva. Though deeply symbolic, the formal compositions of these works share a great affinity with twentieth-century abstract art. East and West, spiritual and aesthetic, ancient and modern all converge in this exhibition.

All of the art is notebook paper-sized, and entirely abstract. (There’s almost a Rothko or Pollack quality to some, interestingly enough.) The simplicity of it, I found, allowed the viewer — in this case, me — to fill the piece with whatever you wanted. It was just an oval, or it was Shiva, or it was Shiva and you — the limit of the pieces entirely was in the viewer.

At times, it feels more like the art is looking at you than the other way around. And I could understand completely how it would compress the distance between individual and Divine.

In other words: yoga.

Posted by Steve

Mercury day poetry: ‘Song of Myself’

For some reason, this poem — which I’m sure we all suffered through in high school, if not again in college — strikes me as having a veritable resonance for yoga practitioners.

No, I won’t reproduce it all here. But I’ll give you a taste of Walt Whitman’s epic “Song of Myself” and encourage you to read more right here.

Song of Myself


I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Posted by Steve

Off to practice & this will be playing in my head

But only because I’m headed to a Led / Intro class, so my usual quiet, unshakable inner resolve will be on hold.

(Note: There is no quiet, unshakable inner resolve. I believe my mind is well described by this photo:

My mind, mid-practice and all other times

My mind may be dirtier than that, however.)

Nonetheless, here’s what I’ll be bringing to the mat, along with the above monkey:

Posted by Steve

The illusion of advancement in Ashtanga

Bear with me here. This post may appear to wander, but be patient and I promise to connect the dots.

Flashback to January of this year. I was at my new shala, with my new teacher, Jörgen Christiansson. The shining day came, after three years of being “stuck” (as I perceived it), that I had an excellent kapotasana. And my supta vajrasana was righteous.  Jörgen approached me after class, and said, “Very good. Next time I’ll teach you the next few poses in second. You do second now.” This was the day I blew out my knee.

Major setback.

The setback has given me time to think. I’ve come to the unpleasant conclusion that second was a big ego party for me. And by “ego party,” I mean in my head, while I was practicing, there was a little ten-year-old girl going, “Nana nana, I’m doing second!” like, the whole time.

As I mentioned, blowing out my knee has given me a lot of time to think about this.

I remember being at one of David Swenson’s workshops when someone asked, “In dwi pada sirsasana, I can’t get both feet behind my head. How do I do that?” Swenson replied, “Will getting both feet behind your head make you happier?” Just this past summer, Tim Miller said the exact same thing to me when I asked about getting myself into supta kurmasana. Will getting both feet behind my head make me happier?

No. Yes. And No. Mostly no. See? This is what I’m worried about with the practice. I’m worried that I

Krishna stops time to teach Arjuna. I should be so lucky.

can’t shake off the deep desire to “advance.” I’m worried if I can only see a thing I’m trying to “do” with the practice, I will once again find my inner ten-year-old.

My good friend Suzy tells me avoiding second is not the answer. “Maybe your practice now is doing second without ego,” she wisely says.  I tell Jörgen I’m not sure I want to begin second again. He tells me, “You are not doing the practice. Guruji is,” and he points out, “Practice without attachment to results.” Jörgen is paraphrasing Krishna, I realize.

Which sets a new ego trap. I’m like Arjuna on the battlefield. Look at me bravely practicing second without attachment. Hooray for me! Ego, again. It’s inescapable. I wage a little war every time I step on the mat.

Here’s where I try to bring it all back home. I remember when I first started, years ago now, and I felt like I understood the relationship among breath, bandhas and dristi for the first time. I was doing my second suryanamaskara B. I reached up on an inhale, urdva drishti, and there was yoga.

It’s very hard to remember that nothing else matters but that–every asana, every breath, every day.

Posted by Bobbie

Moon Day reminder from Richard Freeman

At the website for Yoga Workshop, Richard Freeman has a reminder up that today is a Moon Day for Ashtangis.

No surprise there, right? It’s de rigueur for Ashtanga shalas to remind students about full and new moons.

But Freeman’s has a simple, wonderful beauty to it that I thought worth sharing:

In the formal Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition no asana (posture) practice is done on new and full moon days. Observing this restraint to practice can be helpful in not becoming too attached to practice and routine. It also provides time for the body to rest and recuperate.

That’s a good reminder.

I also should note I am planning on practicing later; I’m going to Bobbie’s Led/Intro class.

My excuse rationale is that I don’t have a six-day-a-week practice right now. Life is just intruding too much; so much, in fact, that I am probably closer to four days than five. (Insert loud sigh.) Our teacher, Jörgen Christiansson, has said that the observance of Moon Days really is for those with the full, every day practice.

It seemed like when he said it, he was noting that didn’t include me!

But I also know that I am too attached to the practice, although I don’t think I am so attached to the routine of getting up at 5 a.m. (Maybe I am.) But until I’m back to a six-day-a-week “routine,” I think I can afford to get on the mat when the moon is full or new. And I might even take today off if it weren’t for the fact that I have an early flight tomorrow and a full day that will keep me from being able to practice. If I didn’t go tonight, this week would be a three-dayer. And that’s not enough, right?

Posted by Steve

Quick update: Don’t plan on an October concert at Tim’s (but here’s an alternative)

A week ago, we noted that a concert was scheduled at Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Yoga Center.

It since has been cancelled. Repeat: No concert on Oct. 24 at Timji’s. I’d noticed it was off AYC’s web page, and, in an email today, it is made official.

So, bummed out? Well, I have an alternative, sort of. It isn’t on Oct. 24 and it isn’t down in San Diego.

It is this Sunday, here in Los Angeles. And it’s a good one: Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.

Here’s some information from the above link:

Living legend Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia takes the stage at the Skirball to perform an evening of spiritual music on the bansuri (North Indian bamboo flute) in an intimate concert setting.

Chaurasia’s consummate artistry and inimitable style have delighted audiences around the world for more than forty years and his concerts are renowned for their soulful, meditative, and mystical qualities. He will be accompanied by Jay Gandhi on second bansuri flute and Subhankar Banerjee, one of India’s foremost tabla players.

It should be a great evening. I believe a group from Omkar108 is going; I believe that because Bobbie and I are among them. Check it out, if you can.

Posted by Steve

A Guruji video without perfect practitioners!

You know all those videos of Guruji in which it’s all the luminaries of Ashtanga practicing and they all are nearly perfect?

This is not one of those videos.

It includes at least one luminary, Chuck Miller, along with Ray Rosenthal (I’m not familiar with him), but they don’t seem to have everything down pat.

That makes it kind of refreshing. And it starts off with a tough asana!

And… am I wrong, but is Guruji only counting three breaths some of the time? I demand a change to my Friday Led classes!

Posted by Steve