A very short and different Gita

For you fans of what’s happening in the skies, a quick check-in on Tim Miller’s blog this week:

[Y]ou may have noticed that Mars and Jupiter are now very close together—for the next week they will be within one degree of each other, with an exact conjunction Saturday October 17that 3:40pmPDT. This is a high-powered transit combining the physical energy and confidence of Mars with the optimism and expansiveness of Jupiter to generate fortunate action. During this transit we tend to feel strong and fit, and more willing to take chances than usual. The conjunction of Mars and Jupiter takes place in Purvaphalguni (the first fruit of the gunas) nakshatra in the sign of Leo.

What’s that mean? Well, it could be something like this:

Under the current influence of Mars/Jupiter conjunct in Purvaphalguni this conversation might have gone differently, perhaps something like this: … “Not to worry, Krishna,” says Arjuna, “I am the greatest warrior the world has ever known—the Kauravas are toast.”

As Tim notes, that would make for an uninspiring Gita. So it’s a good week to pause for just a second before leaping.

Posted by Steve

WWKD? WWVD? WWSD? A quick look at Hinduism

Interesting and worthwhile Q&A is up at the New York Times — I’m guessing only online, although that matters less and less all the time.

Two reasons to highlight it: Good content for us as well as wanting to see what mainstream people (at least those checking the NYT’s religion forum) are reading about Hinduism. The series is run by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. This time he interviews Jonardon Ganeri, a visiting professor of philosophy at New York University Abu Dhabi. He also is the author of “The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450–1700.”A few highlights:

G.G.: What do you mean by “non-theistic” concepts of the divine?

J.G.: One such concept sees the text of the Veda as itself divine. Its language, on this view, has a structure that is prior to and isomorphic with the structure of the world and its grammar is complete (although parts may have been lost over the centuries). The divinity of the text inverts the order of priority between text and author: Now, at best, assignment of authorship is a cataloging device not the identification of origin. Recitation of the text is itself a religious act.

Another Hindu conception of the divine is that it is the essential reality in comparison to which all else is only concealing appearance. This is the concept of one finds in the Upanishads. Philosophically the most important claim the Upanishads make is that the essence of each person is also the essence of all things’; the human self and brahman (the essential reality) are the same.

This identity claim leads to a third conception of the divine: that inwardness or interiority or subjectivity is itself a kind of divinity. On this view, religious practice is contemplative, taking time to turn one’s gaze inwards to find one’s real self; but — and this point is often missed — there is something strongly anti-individualistic in this practice of inwardness, since the deep self one discovers is the same self for all.


G.G.: What sort of ethical guidance does Hinduism provide?

J.G.: One of the most important texts in the religious life of many Hindus is the Bhagavadgita, the Song of the Lord. The Gita is deeply philosophical, addressing in poetic, inspirational language a fundamental conundrum of human existence: What to do when one is pulled in different directions by different sorts of obligation, how to make hard choices. The hard choice faced by the protagonist Arjuna is whether to go to war against members of his own family, in violation of a universal duty not to kill; or to abstain, letting a wrong go unrighted and breaking a duty that is uniquely his. Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna with the philosophical advice that the moral motivation for action should never consist in expected outcomes, that one should act but not base one’s path of action on one’s wants or needs.

G.G.: This sounds rather like the Kantian view that morality means doing what’s right regardless of the consequences.

J.G.: There are ongoing debates about what sort of moral philosophy Krishna is proposing — Amartya Sen has claimed that he’s a quasi-Kantian but others disagree. More important than this scholarly debate, though, is what the text tells us about how to live: that living is hard, and doing the right thing is difficult; that leading a moral life is at best an enigmatic and ambiguous project. No escape route from moral conflict by imitating the actions of a morally perfect individual is on offer here. Krishna, unlike Christ, the Buddha or Mohammed is not portrayed as morally perfect, and indeed the philosopher Bimal Matilal very aptly describes him as the “devious divinity.” We can but try our best in treacherous circumstances.

There is plenty more. Big hat tip to Robert Moses for sending the link along to me. It is good timing as we try to synthesis all our experiences from our Yatra — challenging and easy alike. There is another in the series on Buddhism, and you can find them all under a search for Gutting’s name (or just click here).

Ashtanga Yoga news from Bali

Maybe you get the newsletter from the Ashtanga Yoga Bali Research Institute, headed by Prem and Radha Carlisi.

If not, heck, if so, there are a couple of news items this month worth noting. First though, here’s a link to the full newsletter.

And two main highlights:

They’ve scheduled the 2015 Ashtanga Yoga Bali Conference for April 5-10. The “presenting” teachers are Manju Jois, David Swenson, Danny Paradise, Nancy Gilgoff, Eileen Hall and Prem and Radha.

I checked, and as far as I can tell, the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence hasn’t announced a schedule yet; the first two years, if my memory serves, were around that time in April. This year it was a month later, in May, so there may be a nice spread of time between. Given that three of the teachers above have been at the Confluence, I’m assuming there will be some planning related to this. So you may be able to guess that the Confluence again will be in May. That’s total conjecture, though.

I could as easily conjecture it will be on the East Coast this time, or land in the middle around, say, Boulder, Colo.

Our coverage of the last Bali conference is at this link.

The second piece of news is for you video junkies. For a donation of $95 to their Shanti Carlisi Educational Fund, you can get access to 17 hours of video from the Bali Conference from last fall. You can do that here. A quick description of the fund:

The Shanti Carlisi Educational Fund supports deserving young women from countries such as Tibet, Bali, Sri Lanka and India, by providing funding for their study of the Ancient Vedic Arts of Living: Ashtanga Yoga, Ayurveda, and Meditation. These recipients will have the opportunity of studying with the best teachers around the globe, allowing them to become the next generation of dedicated practitioners and teachers in their countries. This experience will change their lives as well as the lives of many others.

For more, click here. You can find a preview video at the newsletter or among our coverage, at the link above.

And on an entirely separate note, click here (it’s click day, I guess) to get Tim Miller’s version of the rise of Krishna and the fall of Indra. He runs down the story of their conflict around Mt. Govardhana in his latest Tuesdays with Timji post.

Posted by Steve

A little more detail on the next Namarupa Yatra

We already provided some details about the next Namarupa Yatra: Yatra Divine. We’ve now got our hands, virtually anyway, on an early map-based itinerary — you know, just to prove what we said before: This is a can’t miss trip.

I know there was some concern about the heat during the late June to mid-July time frame for this trip (reminder: June 14 to July 16, 2014). But a good chunk of it will be in the north and in the Himalayas. Yes, Kolkotta might be a bit close.

(Click to enlarge.)

Yatra Divine 2014

A bit close shouldn’t stop you, right?

Posted by Steve

Great old David Swenson stories and a birthday message

We posted this on Friday on Facebook, and it has gotten a lot of great reaction. Then I thought: Some folks are smart enough not to be on Facebook (no offense to everyone who isn’t, including me!).

And so let’s get this on the record here. I suppose if you aren’t on Facebook, you might not be able get to the link. Hmm. Well, we plow ahead anyway.

This appears to be from a trip David Swenson took to Russia two years ago. And as part, he answered a few questions. Some of the stories ought to be familiar (the one about Guruji, police and Mexico came up at the Confluence). David also recounts my favorite of his stories, which I’ll excerpt here. I’m tempted to just copy everything, but that seems … just not the ways things are done, right?

Here’s David on re-meeting Guruji:

I have left to Hawaii, to Maui Island and found a job in picture gallery. I began to visit classes again. Again those were classes of Nancy Gilgoff. Then there was a miracle. In 1989 Pattabhi Jois came to Hawaii. Twelve years have passed since I sent him the letter, and I did not see him for these twelve years. Nancy has invited Pattabhi Jois for a seminar. On the first day she brought me to Guruji and said: “Guruji, here David has come”. He said: “So many students, I do not remember all of them”. I have thought that for twelve years I have changed strongly, then I had long hair, and I dressed in another way, well it is not terrible that he does not remember. On the second day I was waiting when Guruji will come and will help me with bends. He approaches me, puts his foot between mine, and grasps me for hips. I start to bend back but as soon as he touched me, he shouts: “Ооо! David Swenson!” I made bends five times. And each time I was rising up I was very close to a face of the teacher. He had a huge smile, pink cheeks, his eyes were shining. He looked into my eyes and started to sing: “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama…” I still do not know whether he has received that letter from me or not. But it did not matter anymore. I made a huge circle and returned to the place where I have started.

It is like in a book by Paulo Coelho “Alchemist”. He makes a huge way and comes back to a place where he has found a treasure. Then I have clearly realized that everything that I was looking for was in front of me. I have understood that my parents were my teachers, those were they who taught me an unconditional love. My brother has opened yoga to me. David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff have taught me Ashtanga yoga and acquainted with Pattabhi Jois. And Pattabhi Jois has told: “Practice and all is coming!” I understood that what I was looking for actually lays in practice. All I have to do is to use practice as a tool that will help me to understand myself.

There is lots, lots, lots more.

On Friday, David also posted the following message on his own Facebook page and then later at his website. So, again, if you aren’t on the Facebook, we’ll pass it on. It fits nicely with the above:

A Message on my Birthday:

Today I turn 56. I find birthdays to be a day of reflection and appreciation. So with that in mind I would like to take a moment and offer my love, gratitude and respect to the people that have touched my soul, shaped my life and influenced my growth. Of course my parents were my first and foremost influences. Both have departed this physical world but remain real in mine. My brother Doug, I thank you for introducing me to the positive path of yoga and health. My sister Diana I thank for her enthusiastic approach to life. My Loving Wife Shelley who is the greatest Gift in my life and to our feline child Yogi and all of our Koi Fish Kids too I thank for how they make me smile!

I send out LOVE and RESPECT to my Yogic Family as well from David Williams, and Nancy Gilgoff for introducing me to Ashtanga Yoga and to Pattabhi Jois and all of his family members including, Manju, Saraswati, Sharath and Sharmila.

Lastly I want to send out a BIG THANK YOU from my heart to all of my friends, acquaintances and the folks that have held out a loving hand when things were tough or soothing words in times of challenge, to those of you that have been supportive in ways that you know and also many that may not know how much you have touched my soul. Thank you for all of the wonderful ways you all have shaped the way that I think, live and even breathe!

With Respect, Love and Gratitude!


Posted by Steve

Can you be devoted to yoga without loving it?

The headline here is taken from a comment on my earlier post about not trusting people who “love” yoga. The commenter wrote: “how can you be devoted to something without love for it…”

Both that comment, and another, propelled my thinking on this subject. As someone on Twitter noted, I may be being a bit facetious, but I’m not — entirely.

"Thou Art That" -- neat huh? Via uci.edu

Ashtanga is simply so painful and challenging, that I can’t identify with people who talk about “loving” their practice. I have a complete cognizant disconnect. What are they doing that allows them to “love” this? Are they doing it “wrong?” Are they not pushing themselves past the point of happy and positive feedback?

I don’t know. And since I don’t know, I can’t help feeling a little bit of distrust.

It was always the same for me when I was interviewing potential hires when I was a newspaper editor. If the person said “I love to write” as a reason for getting into journalism, that raised my red flags. Writing, like yoga, is hard, messy business. It’s a painful extraction of ideas from your brain.

I’m a professional writer; I’m a lifelong writer. I’m part of two disparate blogs. But I don’t love writing. It’s just something that feels necessary.

Like the Ashtanga.

But back to the comments on the earlier post and “love.” (More comments have been added even as I write this.) Both affirmed a love for yoga, and one even suggested that without love “it ain’t yoga.”

And this is where a lot clicked for me. My aversion to yoga festivals and most other styles of yoga asana practice; certainly my retreat from the stereotypical “flow” class that ends with a passage from Rumi. My general aversion to a lot of Bhakti Yoga as practiced and the trappings that come with it. Even my good-natured joking about all the hugging that goes on in a yoga studio (of which, while joking, I’m more than happy to take part).

All this is yoga as a path to love.

But that’s not my understanding of yoga.

My understanding is that a yoga practice is intended to bring you somewhere between or maybe to a combination of non-attachment and unification with “everything.” (As a spiraling side note, that “everything” may just be my own constitutive universe. I don’t think that changes the fundamentals here, though.) Or, as Guruji said, and I’m paraphrasing: Everywhere you look, you see God.

Love, to me, is the exact opposite: It’s the ultimate attachment and the ultimate separation from “everything.” It’s “I love,” “I love,” “I love.” The other — to fall into the jargony rabbit hole  — is ever present in love, much as it is in hate.

And where the other is present, so is the self, or the ego, or the defined and thus limited “I.”

Rather than finding love, the goal is Tat Tvam Asi: “Thou art that.” But that’s not “love,” right? The non-attachment part of the yoga, as I see it, draws us away from that. If you are that, there’s no you to do the loving.

I see four main arguments to my point, which I want to try to address: Bhatki Yoga. Hanuman. The Yamas. The Gita.

Bhakti Yoga

A comment on the earlier post noted that Richard Freeman says all yoga is Bhakti Yoga. I have in my notes from the Confluence Richard’s talking about Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender to “God.” From my notes, I see his talking about this in terms of realizing a oneness that “allows you to let go of it” or as an “offering” — “Let me give, give, give.”

Both I think emphasize Bhakti as more “devotion” than “love.” You are devoted, you give yourself away (entirely, into the “all”) and as you enter what Richard called the “unified field” you dissolve and there is nothing left to feel attachment. (Richard’s Buddhism also plays into things here, and from a Buddhist perspective I’d say that “love” does enter things.)

The singing of songs, of the names of God, is more part of the process of finding that moment of unity than an explicit expression of love.


You can’t have a yoga post on devotion without Hanuman, right?

And I guess the question comes down to: Did Hanuman love Rama and Sita?

It would seem crazy to answer that question in anyway other than “Yes.” But, well, I’ll say it: “No.”

Was he devoted to them, absolutely? Yes.

I think the Ramayana supports this understanding via Hanuman and Rama’s first meeting. In that moment, Hanuman — the embodiment of all that’s best in man and monkey — immediately sees Rama’s distress and offers to do everything he can to help.

Thus begins their relationship. But unless you want to argue that this is a case of “love at first sight”, I think it demonstrates that Hanuman was a devoted spirit, a spirit that — to circle back to Guruji’s words — saw God everywhere. And when suddenly faced with, literally, God, he had no doubts. It was his time and role to serve.

Another example of this is the famous story of Hanuman’s ripping open his chest and Rama and Sita being there on his heart. It’s easy to conflate that with love — love = the heart, after all — but I see it as meaning that even his heart belonged to or was part of God. Hanuman’s very being was always with God, inseparably.

The Yamas

Here is another point that may fall simply to how we define the first of Patanjali’s Yamas: Ahimsa. I think we have to look at the “A” in the word, which makes it a negative: non-violence, non-harming. I don’t see how that translates to “love,” except loosely. And I think it is more a reflection of the unity of yoga — harming something else means harming yourself.

The Gita

The Gita may present the toughest argument, if only because as a wonderful religious/philosophical/poetic text, it is open to such interpretation.

Can you find a translation of the Gita that doesn’t include the word “love” many, many times? I doubt it. Chapter 12 is full of Krishna’s talking about people loving him and being devoted to him and his loving them back “with very great love,” according to the Stephen Mitchell translation.

But this “love” is complicated. It also involves having “unwavering faith,” surrendering all actions and having a mind that has “entered [Krishna’s] being.” And often times, we find that word “devoted” right along side “love.”

Are devoted and love the same thing? Or are the meanings ever so slightly different?

Further, is this “loving” Krishna the “ultimate” point to the Gita? I won’t pretend to say, with certainty, but I will argue that for Arjuna, I think the Gita comes down to lines in Chapter 18. Krishna is speaking:

It is better to do your own duty

badly than to perfect do

another’s: when you do your duty,

you are naturally free from sin.

That Arjuna must do his duty as a Kshatriya and kill people he loves — all while not being attached to his actions, giving them instead to Krishna, to god — seems to me the core of the Gita. Follow your Dharma without attachment. Give yourself up to God.

In the same sense, I’m trying to give myself up to the practice. From there, perhaps, I can get to the point of being able to give myself up, detach myself from my wants and desires and fears and pains, find that unity of yoga, with God.

Trying to figure all this out is, of course, why I’m excited about the Sadhana Yantra.

Posted by Steve

On the poetry of Krishna’s names in the Gita

While we followed Eddie Stern’s lead and proclaimed Monday as Gita Jayanthi, others have it as today.

The Bhagavad Gita in beautiful Sanskrit

Given the way Moon Days seem to move about, I’m neither surprised nor worried by this. (I’m much more concerned that the next Moon Day supposedly falls this Saturday, meaning no day off this week. Although, truth be told, Thursday may end up a day off, anyway, as I land back in Los Angeles from a trip at about 11:15 p.m. Not sure I’ll be getting up six hours later for practice, but we’ll see.)

The extra day of Gita Jayanthi does provide a chance to offer a few more thoughts on Krishna, in part as a counter to the Maya-based coverage of the Bikram lawsuit. (Although I suppose if it is a lawyer’s dharma to be a lawyer…)

I direct you to this piece from Exotic India on Krishna’s names in the Gita:

In the Bhagavad Gita there are forty different names used by Arjuna to call upon Shri Krishna. Each of these names describes an attribute or quality of god, reverberating with the potentiality of an inner, philosophical echo, leading to a realization of the deeper meaning of the dialogue between the two.

The different epithets used by Arjuna to address Krishna are not just there for the sake of variety but meaningful to the context. This is one of the enriching features which make the study of Gita a relishable exercise rather than it being a mere pursuit of a dry philosophical treatise.

It goes on — for a while, until it reaches this conclusion:

The ‘nameless’ has a thousand names and it is through these names that the ‘nameless’ is to be realized. Just as the forms of the divine are unlimited, so are its attributes, excellencies, glories and the names that express them. All things, all persons, all phenomena, identifiable by their names, are in fact manifestations of the Supreme. Each name signifies an excellence. The purpose of meditating on the god’s forms, names and lilas is to get rid of our obsession with the name-and-form world. The world is too much with us. It prevents us from realizing the truth of the non-dual reality which is its basis. As one thinks of the divine forms, and utters the sacred names, one’s sense faculties get sublimated.

Between name and form, the former is even superior to and subtler than the latter. While ‘form’ stands for the physical features of the world of phenomena, ‘name’ signifies the psychical characteristics, a much more potent tool for creative meditation.

Part of me finds this a wonderfully simple, but evocative, way to understand and think about the Gita. Another part, however — the part that took too many critical theory classes as an English graduate student — is slipping on this primacy given to names — ultimately to words and language. If Krishna’s names are so important, what does it mean that I’m one, two, three steps perhaps removed from those names as they originally appear in Sanskrit? Even Krishna is an English translation of a word that can’t be written in our language.

The answer, I think, is that it is all Maya, and that you’ve got to have faith. Which raises a whole other series of questions, of course. And which perhaps are best left for rumination.

Posted by Steve

A little MC Yogi to get you moving

If you’re like me, this morning is rough. Well, I’m guessing, because I’m running a test on non-attachment and temptation by going to Las Vegas this weekend.

I’m assuming I will fail with flying margarita colors!

So, to help me get my butt on the mat, and maybe to help you, some MC Yogi. Remember, he’s playing Saturday night at the Confluence!

And it continues our “sponsor” theme: Krishna.

Posted by Steve

And now, a few words from our sponsor

Ah, Saturday. A day of rest. A day off from practice.

Krishna shows his Divine form to Arjuna, via gita-blog.blogspot

But not really, right? You may not have gotten on your mat today (although I know some of you did), but there’s still “practice” to be had. For instance, you can reflect on the reflection-less. Also known as, a few words from our sponsor:

“Be fearless and pure; never waver in your determination or your dedication to the spiritual life. Give freely. Be self-controlled, sincere, truthful, loving, and full of the desire to serve…Learn to be detached and to take joy in renunciation. Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle; show good will to all. Cultivate vigor, patience, will, purity; avoid malice and pride. Then, you will achieve your destiny.”

“It is better to perform one’s own duties imperfectly than to master the duties of another. By fulfilling the obligations he is born with, a person never comes to grief.”

“Reshape yourself through the power of your will… Those who have conquered themselves…live in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame…To such people a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same…Because they are impartial, they rise to great heights.”

Ashtanga isn’t alone enough, right?

Posted by Steve


One reason not to do Ashtanga

A couple of weeks ago, I recounted a conversation I had in Mt. Shasta that boiled down to: “Here’s a reason to try Ashtanga.”

The reason? Most simply put, the physical benefits. (Do those benefits pay off as well as Bikram? I don’t know.)

Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with first coming to yoga with an emphasis on the physical payoff. After all, the point of asana practice is to get our bodies healthy enough and capable to sit in meditation on our way to Samadhi. And is anyone really going to argue that a healthy body is a bad thing?

I doubt it. Where I’m sure there is argument — justifiably so, in my opinion — is when yoga, or Ashtanga, feeds an ego trip. I’m sure we all can think of someone we believe is getting more attached to their yoga body, rather than less, as they practice.

I’m also sure that if we all are honest, we’d have to admit to having our egos fed by the practice. I’m working hard, for instance, on my pull backs — I want to be able to do them without touching the ground until I’m in my Chaturanga.

But as David Swenson would say: “Will I be happier when I can do that?” (My ego-filled answer: Of course! But, upon more reflection: Right, exactly what kind of happiness am I seeking?)

This struggle with the ego is ongoing. But, as I say, when you start yoga or Ashtanga, I think it is totally understandable that the ego is strong, is in charge.

But here’s the catch, and here’s the reason not to do Ashtanga: That ego of yours is going to get broken down.

When I explained on the Shasta retreat all the physical benefits I’d discovered from Ashtanga, I didn’t mention the — how best to put it? — subtle body changes. You know what I’m talking about:

  • The desire to avoid eating meat.
  • The growing interest in the other seven limbs of Ashtanga, especially the yamas and niyamas.
  • Perhaps a toning down of the Type A personality you’ve been fighting all your life.
  • A curiosity about that Ram, Sita or Krishna person you keep hearing about.
  • A rising desire to visit India.

I’m sure there are others, and I won’t admit that I have any first-hand experience with any of the above.

But I will warn that there can be unforeseen consequences of an Ashtanga practice. Why exactly? Who knows. My own best guess, which I think only partially explains things — and I think this is true of Ashtanga but not flow classes, Bikram or most other Hatha styles — is that Ashtanga boils down to being a meditative practice. There’s next to no sound other than people’s breathing, your focusing your gaze on fixed points and you are alone with yourself for 75 minutes, 90 minutes, maybe 120 minutes?

Sort of sounds like meditation, right?

My understanding is Guruji didn’t teach people to meditate. (I know I’ve heard tales of this, but I can’t remember details. Apologies!) I wonder if he didn’t do so because he knew he already was teaching them. And then it was up to them to move deeper and let it work.

Be careful. Enter at your risk. Because work it definitely does.

Post by Steve