Eddie Stern on the goal of spiritual practice

I joked once to Tim Miller that my most flexible muscle is my brain. I’m sure it must have come after he directed another shake of the head toward me and followed it with a “still stiff” in the Indian accent he puts on when he’s about to hurt your feelings, but wants to do so gently.

When you see me at the Confluence, you’ll know what I, and he, mean.

But my joke isn’t entirely facetious. I’m pretty sure my brain is my most flexible muscle; sadly, Ashtanga only is 1% theory, but it is a 1% I try to give at least 4% of my time to as part of my practice.

And it is why I’m as excited by the afternoon talks at the Confluence as I am the morning practice sessions.

Initially, I’ll admit to being most excited about hearing Richard Freeman. I read his latest book, “The Mirror of Yoga,” earlier this year, and I found much in it to absorb and contemplate. (Ala Bobbie’s review of “The Ramayana,” I’ll do something more complete on it at some point.) I have a suspicion I might really take to his perspective on the practice and on yoga in America.

Puja, via Ashtanga Yoga New York

But since the Confluence announcement, I’ve also being paying more attention to Eddie Stern, who may represent the great unknown for me when it comes to the five teachers.

What did I know about him? Well, the usual “rumors”: he’s super strict and super traditional, in that New York way. And before any New Yorkers/East Coasters jump on me, you know you think we’re all laid back and too free with things out here in California. I also know he’s embraced Hindu practices. But, really, that’s about it. (In the past few weeks, I’ve gotten more information from a local source, who I’ll keep anonymous. But it sounds like Eddie is a great teacher, which is no surprise.)

His blog at the Ashtanga Yoga New York site is great, and it is certainly making me more interested in hearing what he has to say about the 1% theory of Ashtanga. His latest, built around a puja for Guruji’s birthday, includes these wonderful words:

The goal of spiritual practice is to awaken inner happiness, happiness that is not caused by the fleeting, changing objects of the world, but is the uncaused happiness of the Self. Purnima refers to the full moon, when the moon is complete and reflects the full light of the sun. In the Hindu tradition the moon is the mind, and the sun is the heart – so when our mind completely reflects the inner happiness of the heart, it is said to be full. The yoga master Krishan Verma spoke this past Friday on this idea, remarking that the Guru is said to be the one to awaken this fullness, hence the special name Guru Purnima – what is fullness, he asked? Happiness. Where does this happiness come from? Devotion to the Guru. The Guru can be a person, but in essence is a principle, called Guru Tattva. The principle of the Guru is the light of knowledge – a light like the sun – which is shining in the heart of each and everyone of us. We can access that principle, and have our own experience of it. But while it is true that the Guru is within us, the need for an outer guide should never be discounted, one who can point us in the right direction – and especially in the cases where this principle shines forth brilliantly, and the vessel has become the embodiment of the principle.

Now, I’ll readily admit to being one of those not-so-rare Westerners who are reluctant to “surrender” to a Guru or, really, any authority figure. My embrace of Hanuman is mostly about tapping into his devotion to another.

And I’ll also admit to having hesitation to what I’ll broadly, and reductively, call “the new age spirituality” of yoga. I don’t mean to turn anyone off by that phrase, and don’t mean it pejoratively; it is more a reflection on me than yoga or Ashtanga or anyone practicing it. It places me in that grand continuum of American males, I think, who have some sort of ingrained skepticism or even hostility to anything “hippy dippy.” On one end is, I don’t know, Rick Santorum, maybe? On the other is probably Ram Dass.

As my practice has deepened, I’ve definitely moved toward Ram Dass. I’m trying to access what Tim Miller has referred to as my “gooey inside.” It’s not an easy task. But it is part of the practice, and it seems like it is an inescapable one after a certain point. There comes that moment when Ashtanga is either going to stay a really good workout or become something more.

That’s something we’ve all experienced, right? It is something I’m still trying to put into words. (One of the goals of this blog.)

I’m looking forward to the Confluence, in large part, to help push me further down that path toward “something more.” And I’m very interested to hear Eddie, and Richard, and find out if anything they say gives me a firm shove.

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Guru Purnima

Over the course of the past 24 hours, we’ve entered Guru Purnima, the full moon in June and July. (Some called it yesterday, some today. It is the very definition of the inconstant moon.)

I’ll defer to Eddie Stern on the weighty meaning of the day:

Sri K Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) was born on the full moon day (purnima) of the month of June-July (Ashadha) in 1915. In the Hindu tradition, this day is called Guru Purnima, named so because the sage Vyaas, the compiler of the Vedas and author of the Mahabharata was born on this day. Guru Purnima is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists alike, and is the traditional day for honoring one’s Guru. It also marks the beginning of chaturmas, the four months of the rainy season when sannyasis (wandering ascetics) would halt in one location to give teachings, blessings and advice to the public before commencing their wandering again. For householders, it is a time of engaging in renewal of spiritual practice, practicing austerities (such as increased repetition of mantra), giving charity, and listening to spiritual discourses.

It is very fitting that Pattabhi Jois, who was a staunch believer in adhering to traditional practices and following the teachings of ancient lineage, was born on this auspicious day. Please join us as we celebrate his birth with sacred pujas and chanting. It is not necessary to attend the entire four hours, any time that you can come is great.

At our local shala, Omkar108, Jörgen Christiansson led a Guru Puja for Guruji that was wonderful in its simplicity. The highlight, without doubt, was Jörgen’s playing a version of the invocation call and response by Guruji before the Led class.

I would definitely encourage people to pick that up as a yearly, at least, remembrance of Guruji and his gift of the practice.

The dreaded first post

Ekam.

That’s probably as good a way to start this blog as any. It works, after all, for Ashtanga.

I suppose you might be wondering what this blog’s all about, or supposed to be all about.

Well, it’s simple. We’re hoping to be a one-stop shop for all things related, however loosely, to the March 2012 Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, featuring five of the West’s senior students of Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. We’re excited about it, and so we want to be able to keep a running tab of things as the date grows closer.

What’s that mean?

Well, we’ll link to Tim Miller’s weekly blog, Tuesdays with Timji. (Warning: Tim’s our teacher from this handful.) Eddie Stern also blogs, and Richard Freeman’s shala has one, too. We’ll share updates on the Confluence as well as anything that strikes our interest, on the theory that if it interests us, it will interest you.

We’ll try to have some fun, maybe be serious occasionally and work to keep the enthusiasm high.

And all the while we’ll keep our practice going.

Dve.