Blog highlight: Yoga/writing

Note: While we are in India, we intend to post new items if we have the Internet access. In the meantime, to keep our mojo going, we’re running some of our most popular posts.

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There are an unusual number of classroom teachers in any given Ashtanga practice room. I’ve been noticing this phenomenon for a while now.

I’m not going to try to explain it here. The new school year has me thinking about it, though, and about how often I draw on my experiences as a writing teacher to teach Ashtanga, and vice versa. I often tell little yoga parables to my students to instruct them on a given aspect of writing.

Like courage: You have to take chances as a writer, I’ll say, and quote something Tim has said about the fears we overcome in the “heroic practice”: “It’s only courageous if you have fear to begin with.” Tim was talking about pincha myaurasana. I was talking about revising your writing.

So here are a few things I think writing and yoga share:

“Practice and all is coming.” Becoming a good writer requires a lot of work, and the more writing you do the better you get.

Failure is inevitable. A related, but different aspect of writing. You have to accept you won’t get it right the first, second, third, fourth, fifth time (and etcetera). The key is to accept the failure, and revise it. True for yoga practice (“They don’t call it ‘daily perfect’,” Shayna used to say). I remember Diana Christinson passing out a little slip of paper after her Sunday led primary class with a quote from Winston Churchill on it: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” True for Ashtanga. True for writing.

Focus is key. The instant you stop paying attention to what you’re saying and the way you’re saying it, you stop making sense. The instant you stop paying attention to the pose and the way you’re doing it, you stop doing yoga.

In the original.

“sthira sukham asanam.” From the Yoga Sutras, II.46, the elusive combination of stability and lightness where you are. We all know that doesn’t happen without a lot of sweat. You want to get to a place where your writing (practice) seems comfortable and effortless, even though it has in fact taken you a lot of effort (practice) to get there.

Wisdom comes from it. One of the best ways to understand the world is to write about it. Writing will make you smarter, more aware, more engaged with the universe, if you practice it with right effort, without shirking or phoning it in–with total honesty. Sound familiar?

There’s more, of course, and many things for the teacher to learn from the students. But that’s a different post.

Posted by Bobbie

Teaching yoga without asana

 

“Yoga.”

For me, on September 28–the first day of my fall writing class–worlds will collide. Well, meet anyway. I’ll have 20 brand new university freshmen staring at me, ready to learn. They’ll be freaked out, stressed, full of uncertainty. They need help with their writing, and they’ll be looking at me to give it to them.

This term, my answer will be The Bhagavad Gita and portions of other texts (The Yoga Sutras, The Little Prince, Thoreau). I’m not saying I have an agenda, but I seem to have an agenda. They’ll be writing about yoga.

What’s funny about this is, of course, this is a writing classroom. It’s the negative image of the shala and my Ashtanga teaching: No asana involved.

It is true that I’ve tossed in a few postures during the course of the quarter before. Around midterms, students actually start complaining to me of physical pain, mostly in the back, shoulders and neck from sitting at a computer too long. We’ll do some standing shoulder openers and seated twists. If the class seems sleepy or lethargic, I may have them do switchychangyasana, and make them all move to a different desk—it gives them a new point of view.

But this doesn’t really count as teaching yoga. I’ve been re-reading The Gita, and the Yoga Sutras are fresh in my mind from my summer training. I’m faced with the fact that I’m going to have to help my students understand what the word “yoga” means in a very complicated way.

“Yoga is skill in actions,” Krishna says in The Gita, “ “Yogas citta vritti nirodahah,” writes Patanjali. This word goes untranslated into English. We think we know what it means. Or maybe it’s untranslateable. I’m thinking it may take me all term to work that out with my students.

I am, myself, more inclined to the yoga of study, to reading and quiet thinking. Learning to integrate my brain with my body has been my chief challenge in Ashtanga over the years, and it’s caused me to revise all that I thought I knew about who I am. I hope that through their writing, my students also learn a new way of thinking about themselves.

Posted by Bobbie

 

The Use of Asana: More from Tim’s Second Series Training

Our most recent email from Robert Moses, leader of our upcoming sadhana yatra to India, began with this:

Atman or Brahman is Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute. It is different from the gross, subtle and causal bodies. It transcends the five sheaths (Pancha Koshas). It is the witness of the three states: waking, dreaming and deep sleep. The Self appears to be finite on account of Avidya. But when the ignorance is dispelled, that one Atman shines by its own light, like the sun when clouds are dispelled. This Samsara which is filled with love, hatred, etc., is really like a dream. It appears to be all real, so long as one is involved in it, but when one awakes by acquiring true knowledge, it becomes unreal.  Swami Sivananda

In one of those beautiful moments of synchronicity, the email came just as I arrived home from Tim’s teacher training. To me, much of what we learned about second series involved ways of using it to find a way to this awareness, to use the practice as a step toward the last three Limbs. (Tim told us, by the way, that Guruji used to say, “First five limbs, very difficult. Last three easy.”)

Because I am a student of Tim Miller, and also of his students who became teachers, it’s impossible for me to separate asana from yoga philosophy. It’s probably true that this strong connection is why I was able to stay with the practice all those years ago—I was all in the brain, not very active; the philosophy gave me a kind of mental drishti. So I admire Tim’s ability to connect the philosophy in a practical way to practice.

He cited the Bhagavad Gita a number of times, but in his discussion of the second chapter of The Yoga Sutras, he quoted Krishna’s definition of yoga as “skill in action.” We should apply skill in a reflective way to our study of yoga, to our sadhana. “The intent of sadhana,” said Tim (that is, study), “is to establish the experience of samadi, and to do this by removing the kleshas.

The “afflictions” that Patanjali names are ignorance, egotism, attachment, aversion, and fear (“avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesha,” II.3).

Tim’s way of connecting this section of the Yoga Sutras to the practice of Ashtanga was both simple and complex. We live in a constant state of confusion. We confuse the seen with the seer, the conditioned self with the unconditioned self. We don’t extricate ourselves from this confusion because we cling to the known. In the practice, however, we gain an increasing level of control of our senses, of the mind, until, in a state of pratyahara we become capable of reversing the flow of prana, sending it back, inward, where we can see the distinction between purusha and prakriti, and become, as Tim said, “Like Shiva watching the dance of Pavarti.”

I’m thinking here of our other guru, William Blake, and his lines from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

The “narrow chinks,” for Blake, are the sense organs, and the effect they have of shrinking our world down to what can be measured or perceived by them (with a passing glance at Plato’s Cave). Second Series is in part about gaining control over all of the organs of perception, including the mind. “By the time you get here,” Tim said, “you’ve demonstrated your ability to have a high level of bodily awareness, mental and physical flexibility.”

So it seemed to me that many of the things we learned about the asanas of Second Series lead to this inward journey, things like “pasasana is a trap for the ego,” and “kapotasana gets the cobwebs out of the attic of the mind,” and (my personal favorite) “eka pada sirsasana is good for cultivating humility, with that foot cutting off your big head.”

Asana, Tim made clear (on Day 1, actually) can be a path to all the other limbs, but it is only one way, a way that may appeal to more “kinasethetic” personalities. For the more visual, the Tantric yantra may be the way, or a murti. For the more devotional, a guru, or chanting. But whatever the path, he said, “Actively participate in it!”

Posted by Bobbie

Second Series and the Body/Mind Connection: Notes from Tim’s Training

 

yoga sutras
The Yoga Sutras, in the original.

While I’m waiting for Steve to get back from a morning surf session, I thought I’d do a quick post from the trenches of Tim Miller’s Second Series Teacher Training.

First of all, it’s an amazing group, and a privilege to be practicing with them. This is my third training with Tim, so some are old friends. Some are friends from his Mt. Shasta retreats. A few I met at the Confluence. There’s some magic in the air. Tim said it best: “When a group of dedicated practioners get together to study, anything can happen.”

Right now, I’m still settling in, still warming up. In an earlier post, I said we’d all soften slowly. Things seem to be happening a little more rapidly than I was expecting. The “epic” (Tim’s word) Hanuman Chalisa on Tuesday was both moving and energizing. In short, I cracked open.

Tim began by delving into the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is something he always does. But he’s layering in new sutras, ones I can’t remember him covering before, and I’m seeing a pattern, a stress on recognizing the asana as a tool to connect us to the more subtle aspects of the body and the mind: “Are you doing the asana, or is the asana doing you?”

I’m trying to slowly understand the potential of what Tim is offering me, offering us. It may come down to three sutras for me: 1.31-1.33.  You can look them up yourself, but Tim told us these sutras are indicating a powerful mind/body connection. That suffering—both mental and physical—are in direct proportion to mental distraction. That we can cultivate happiness through the practice, through focusing on “one element.”

Tim: “When the mind is disturbed, the body is disturbed. When the psyche is disturbed, the soma is disturbed. And it works the other way around.” Ergo, “The body can change the psychological state. The breath is a powerful tool for this.”

A great gift. And when surrender happens, and mental stability is there, we have the potential to take part in the thing we’ve surrendered to—we can “actively participate in it,” we can become it (1.48).

I know. Mind blowing. So while we’re breaking down each asana, learning counts, adjustments, correct form, we’re also learning how to change ourselves, our students, and the world. Today, we start with parsvottanasana.

I think I’ll leave it at that. More to come!

Posted by Bobbie

 

Report from Tim Miller’s: “The Physics and Metaphysics of Asana”

 

South we went!

It was a packed house at Tim Miller’s on Saturday. “We’ve oversold,” Tim informed us, “We may need to pass out vouchers for the next flight.” Steve and I got there early, though, and parked ourselves in the front row.

It was Tim’s at-least annual benefit for the Sean O’Shea Foundation. This one was titled “The Physics and Metaphysics of Asana,” and he jumped right in.  Even before he got started, I informed him my shoulders were sore from the previous day’s class. “Some opening there,” he said, “Sweet pain.”

Sweet pain. That might sum up both our practices.

Tim began simply. He talked about his first, amazing encounter with Ashtanga 35 years ago, how it took him internally, to a place of expansion and peace that “felt like home.” Much of his study since, he says, has been trying to explain what happened that first practice.

His talk reviewed the Yoga Sutras: the purpose of yoga, the gunas, the koshas and our relationship with eternal truths. The purpose of yoga, he told us, is to cleanse the organs of perception so that we aren’t bothered by duality, to see through impermanence, and to use that clarity of vision to see only truth—the thing that never changes.

Obviously, this is the meta-physical bit. Why is Ashtanga, the most physical of physical practices, a unique way to access it? Its intensity produces heat, heat that not only purifies but softens.

Tim gave us a wonderfully consoling insight: We should be thankful for our resistance. It’s the resistance that produces friction, conflict. It’s the conflict that produces the heat we need to melt those outer layers, to go in and allows for surrender. Although I’ve  heard Tim say things like this many times, this insight had a big impact for me–it’s sticking with me, and I pondered it all weekend. Really, Tim gave us a direct connection between the physical reality of the practice of asana (“Why do we have to do all these damn asanas?” he asked at one point) and seeking truth, between prakriti and purusha.

That brought us to sthira sukham asanam—Patanjali’s description of what should happen in an asana—a “seat.” Stable, but happy. Tim described this as “Fifty percent making it happen and fifty percent allowing it to happen.” A wonderful ideal to aspire to, one that requires surrender.

He also described Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as a particularly effective tool to make this happen, of its use of a “physical methodology to get at something metaphysical” and its “dance of duality”: Forward bend, backbend; upward- facing, downward-facing; movement, stillness; inhaling, exhaling.

It’s also the cultivation of the breath in Ashtanga, he told us, that makes it so well suited for sadhana. It allows us to gain control, so that “you feel you have a body instead of the body having you.”

Speaking of the body. Tim then took us through a “greatest hits” of the primary series (he was mindful of the crowded room, and the high percentage of those unfamiliar with Ashtanga). He was his usual good-natured self, with some gentle jokes here and there. And he ended with a short but intense pranayama practice,  and of course some singing in gratitude to Hanuman—all connected carefully to yoga, and pragmatically to the practice itself.

Look for Steve’s report later today.

Posted by Bobbie