In yoga class, you’ll often be told to “go deeper” while you’re holding a pose. It’s a yoga cliché, a lesson that’s lost its power. It can be taken literally, but that’s not always the best idea. So what exactly does it mean?
I’m reading The Feminine Mystique right now, one of those books you always hear about but never get around to reading. A pithy quote from Betty Friedan finally got me to the library. It was written in 1963, but it’s kind of blowing my mind. I’m not much of a history buff, so to read her analysis of WHY these liberated career women of the 20’s and 30’s CHOSE to become the polished, yet depressed, housewives of the 50’s, is staggering. (Short answer: WWII veterans filling the media w/domestic nostalgia, Freud’s “penis envy” equating female achievement with sublimated jealousy, and the 50’s daughters rejecting their mothers as role models in the typical pendulum of generations.)
The book is especially interesting to read now, with all the Martha Stewart, Mad Men, and back-to-the-farm nostalgia going around. One passage in particular made me think:
The uncritical acceptance of Freudian doctrine in America was caused, at least in part, by the very relief it provided from uncomfortable questions about objective realities. After the depression, after the war, Freudian psychology became much more than a science of human behavior, a therapy for the suffering. It became an all-embracing American ideology, a new religion. It filled the vacuum of thought and purpose that existed for many for whom God, or flag, or bank account were no longer sufficient—and yet who were tired of feeling responsible for lynchings and concentration camps and the starving children of India and Africa. It provided a convenient escape from the atom bomb, McCarthy, all the disconcerting problems that might spoil the taste of steaks, and cars and color television and backyard swimming pools. It gave us permission to suppress the troubling questions of the larger world and pursue our own personal pleasures. And if the new psychological religion — which made a virtue of sex, removed all sin from private vice, and cast suspicion on high aspirations of the mind and spirit — had a more devastating personal effect on women than men, nobody planned it that way.
Wow. We’re in similar predicaments today, right? But we’re choosing other philosophies at the moment. So let’s play Madlibs and insert some more modern topics.
The uncritical acceptance of yoga in America was caused, at least in part, by the very relief it provided from uncomfortable questions about objective realities. After the recession, throughout the Iraq war, yoga became much more than a workout for hippies, a therapy for the suffering. It became an all-embracing American ideology, a new religion. It filled the vacuum of thought and purpose that existed for many for whom God, or job title, or bank account were no longer sufficient—and yet who were tired of feeling responsible for global warming and Guantánamo Bay and the military-industrial complex. It provided a convenient escape from the oil spill, Fox News, all the disconcerting problems that might spoil the taste of organic food and iPhones and HDTV and luxury travel. It gave us permission to suppress the troubling questions of the larger world and pursue our own personal pleasures. And if the new psychological religion — which made a virtue of physical fitness, removed all sin from self-absorption, and cast suspicion on material well-being — had a somewhat devastating personal effect on our joints, nobody planned it that way.
[Last bit referencing http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/24/24stretch/ and other updates on the increasing injuries due to yoga.]
What do you think? Am I off my rocker? There’s a bit of escapism needed right now, and I think that’s part of yoga’s popularity.
It’s sometimes hard to justify a yoga class. The day-to-day challenges of life in NYC are pretty time-consuming, and the bigger picture is full of oil spills and underprivileged children and other important causes that need help. How is a full two-hour practice, or even a five-minute routine, really going to make the world a better place?
Tina Fey, for example, has “thought about yoga, even done it a couple times” but says “While it would be great to work out an hour a day, there is something inherently sort of selfish about it. I can’t do it.” [quoted on YogaDork]
Book 1, Sutra 4: At other times [the Self appears to] assume the forms of the mental modifications.
Book 1, Sutra 30: Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained – these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles.
I’ve been thinking about obstacles. New York is full of them. About a month ago I went to the kirtan at Sonic and one of the song we did was a chant to Ganesha. One of the cantors talked about Ganesha as the remover of obstacles, or the one who carefully places obstacles in our way when we need them. I didn’t understand this later explanation and it’s been nagging at the back of my mind.
In Book 1, Sutra 30, Patanjali talks about the nature of obstacles, and their residence in the mind. Despite that I consider my biggest obstacles to live outside of my own body, Patanjali reminds me that the true obstacles are within, in the mind. Linking this to Book 1, Sutra 4, I realized that the most effective way to remove obstacles, internal or external, is to change my mind about them.
I thought some more about the cantor’s description of Ganesha. The Prana has a sense of humor and a sense of deep compassion. There are obstacles within me that I have been turning away from for too long. I deal with them by avoiding them. So Ganesha, in his wisdom, forces me to deal with my obstacles by placing other obstacles in my way that I must respond to, ones that I cannot turn away from. And in dealing with those obstacles, I am being forced to deal with the bigger obstacles within.
I need to slow down, to learn how to make and stick to boundaries, to find my edge and live there – mentally and physically – so he handed me a yoga practice so intense that I have a sore bum and the need for far more sleep than usual. I have no choice but to slow down and consider what it is that I’m really trying to do with this life. For too long, I’ve been so worried that if I slow down, I’ll miss out. I’ll lose an opportunity or a lucky break.
Since I was a child, I have struggled with insomnia. My mind and my body literally couldn’t calm down and go to sleep. Now almost 2/3 of the way through this yoga teacher training, I am sleeping better than I ever have in my life. For 18 minutes a day, I think about these two Sutras. I think about changing my mind, and I wait. And the opportunities, better than ever, are showing up. I don’t need to keep looking around for a better life. The one I have is amazing; now’s the time to slow down and appreciate every moment.
Guest post by Christa Avampato
“As a man adorns worn-out clothes and acquires new ones, so when the body is worn out a new one is acquired by the Self, who lives within.” ~ 2:22
On Labor Day weekend in 2009, my apartment building caught fire. I was almost trapped inside and only by following my intuition was I able to get out in time. Almost all of my belongings were lost to extensive smoke damage. September 5, 2009 was a kind of death date for me; a date when stripped of almost all my material possessions, I realized that none of it mattered at all. I stood outside in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, holding nothing but my keys, watching my apartment building burn. Looking back, I think of that day as a day when I stepped out of my old, worn-out Self, and into a new frame. I still don’t know what the art inside this new frame will look like just yet. I’m a work-in-progress.
Verse 2:22 in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the texts I had to read for my yoga teacher training, resonated with me, as does that image of Shiva, the Destroyer, dancing in a ring of fire. Sometimes we get in the way of our own personal development. We get bogged down with belongings, material and emotional. We need not stand on a burning platform, literally nor figuratively, to recognize that change is needed. Yoga can be the practice that helps us recognize our truth, our purpose, our dharma.
Where do you find answers to your major life decisions? Hopefully you have a few trusted friends. Maybe your family still gives good advice. Obviously you have Google. But at some point aren’t you tired of digesting everyone else’s advice? Where’s your intuition?
Once I started listening, I found answers everywhere. Some are quiet, some are loud. Here are five clear flags I learned to trust.
Read the whole thing on the Huffington Post: 5 Clear Flags of Hidden Intuition
Most Americans are introduced to yoga through the poses. (Sometimes I think that Krishnamacharya’s genius was to let us see it as a physical thing, instead of another religion to convert to or flee from. Later on, we can try on the spirituality.) Then we might find breathing or meditation practices. And eventually we get it hammered into our heads that it’s not just about physical health, or habits, but our whole psychology and worldview. And there’s more to practice than just Down Dog. As Patanjali put it:
“The eight limbs of yoga are: respect toward others, self-restraint, posture, breath control, detaching at will from the senses, concentration, meditation, and contemplation.”
[Bernard Bouanchaud’s translation of Sutra II.29 in The Essence of Yoga]
That’s where you get the benefits beyond a gym workout. Postures are only step three. Do we want to be in third grade forever? Did we even DO first grade?
But still, once we study and (somewhat) understand these tips that Patanjali gives us, it’s really interesting to circle back around and apply each of these steps to our roots, for example our asana practice.
- Are you respecting your teachers, fellow students, and studio staff?
- Are you applying self-restraint in asana practice, or always going for the most advanced variation?
- Do you understand the definition of a yoga pose — hard yet soft?
- Are you breathing comfortably in your practice, or holding / controlling / ignoring the breath?
- Are you able to detach from the sensations — or appearance — of your body?
- Are you really concentrating on the present moment as you practice?
- Are you able to prolong your focus and receive insight?
- Are you able to leave “you” behind and become just insight?
I’ll be on retreat for the next 8 days, so think about these 8 limbs for now. We’ll have some special guest posts, too, so keep dropping in. Take a look at some of the archives. Or, you know, actually get off the computer and practice ;)
There was a great quote in the Times last week. Nicholas Kristoff, writing on the different neurology of liberals and conservatives, had mentioned that we often use the Internet to simply reinforce ideas we already have. To balance this narrowing tendency, he said we should seek out people with opposing viewpoints for regular debates. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, wrote in to say Kristoff got the problem right, but the prescription wrong. “Simply exposing people to counterarguments may not accomplish much… and may inflame antagonisms.”
“Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart,” Professor Haidt says. “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”
Beautifully put. Understanding is much more easily achieved by traveling, by spending time in another community, by getting to know and care about another person. Our monkey minds, our left brains, are doing their jobs well when they debate and dance around issues — if we want to get to the heart of things, let’s use the right tool!
I went hiking this weekend, in the hills across the Hudson from Beacon, with three yoga friends. We started late and stayed late but managed to make it back to the car three hours after sunset. Aka in the dark.
In the last hour or two, when we were really struggling to see the trail markers with our flashlights (and iPhone lamps!), and making frequent backtracks to regain the zig zag ridge trail, my friend G commented, “You know, I get so happy each time I see a marker — too bad there’s no markers in real life! Like, good job, you’re going the right way!” We all agreed, and then I realized, “You know, there’s not really markers in nature, either. Some guide figured out a path and put these here for others.”
It made me think about the importance of people on any path. We learn a lot from those just a little bit ahead of us — not always some grand guru. It’s rare to find someone you respect, trust, and want to follow one hundred percent. (Plus, that’s kind of dangerous.) But there are many friends with mini lessons.
I had a pen pal ask me who my teacher was. I haven’t answered yet; I have many that I love, and I’m searching more for a solo practice than an instructor right now, but I do feel weird that I haven’t picked a particular lineage. I’m not really shopping around, like I did in the first months and years, but I’ve always had a critical eye for gurus, like “who is this guy talking at me now, and why would I want to be like him?” No more student-teacher / child-parent patterns. I’m not making myself into the likeness of anyone, I’m finding my inner intuition and self. My current hatha / meditation teacher Steve Prestianni leads hour-long silent meditations with no instruction, because he says the path of meditation is an internal, individual one, and for him to direct that would just be sharing his inner experience, not helping anyone else to find their own. It’s a strong, if frustrating, push in the inward direction.
But just thinking about the markers makes me feel a little more open, and thankful for all my random teachers. A solo practice is still an expression of or against tradition. Like the statement, “You have to know the rules in order to break them.”
On the trail we would get bored, and find a side path, or split up a bit, or rest for a while. It was a fluid, spontaneous day. Our personalities combined well enough to make things easy, but the brisk air kept us moving.
We stopped on the west side of the ridge to build a fire, and watch the sunset, and share food. Earlier, G mentioned how he wanted to do some kind of puja, or ceremony of reverence, in his life, but nothing felt right. When we set out the food — bread, crackers, hummus, arugula, tomatoes, apples, oranges, bananas, almonds, dates, raisins, and an assortment of cooked grains and beans — V suggested a 15-minute meditation on the food, before we ate. The spread, on a bright orange blanket, is still crystal clear in my mind. It took on the significance of ritual, or holiday, to just sit in silence and appreciation. I realized how little appreciation I had for the meals in my life, how much I expected, planned, managed, rushed, restricted my sustenance. How beautiful is even a little grape tomato! Silly V roasted the bananas in the fire, and then it was time to move on. (Chilly Scout is a bit too Vata to sit in the shade at 40º F.)
Halfway back I realized I’d relaxed enough to have faith in these friends through a tricky situation. We were never in serious danger, but we could have ended up miles from the car, or hiking all night, so the sense of relief was high for each little marker and landmark. But comedy reigned; at the most nerve-wracking part (step-stones through a murky swamp that risked soaked shoes for us all), we held tense hands as G lit the dim path with his penlight. It felt like a Grimm Brothers’ escape scene — and then his cell phone rang. He took the call.
As we slipped and slid through leaves or on rocks, G said, “Take care of each other.” I am very grateful this was taken literally, as I was also loaned hat and long gloves for the decreasing temperatures. (I dressed for a day hike! I had no idea they planned fire-building and sunsets. I call that camping.) New York can be so hard, competitive, and demanding, that a break from selfish self-fulfillment is amazing. Less thinking about myself, more joy for us all. We took turns leading, and lighting the path, and I am still amazed people can be such good leaders with so little ego.
And of course the trail took us right back where we started.
As we all seek more connectivity, we lose our sense of a private self. We no longer hear the still, small voice that speaks only in silence.
It feels somehow wrong to blog about this essay — in fact I interrupted my own reading three times to post it on Facebook, Google Reader and Yogoer — but I’d be an ostrich to think Thoreau’s state of mind might return. No matter how much the Brooklyn flannel/beard trend would like to convince me. We can’t find peace on the farm; it’s been spiked by cell phone towers. I went hiking in a state park, and could not escape views of suburbia. But I’d never really acknowledged that when we make it home to our sanctuaries, we are still not alone. The television is there as background noise or escape route. The internet offers infinite answers to questions we have only to think up. And the cell phone never stops buzzing.
So, what’s a girl to do? I can dream that this evolution of society might follow the path of meditation: from individual consciousness, to group consciousness, to universal consciousness. Yogi Bhajan emphasizes that we must pass through the second stage to get to the third (which is why he emphasizes group practices), but can you really envision our entire world in the third stage? With everyone, from reality show rejects to peace prize winners, in six degrees of congregation? And with technology as the route to get us there?
Sorry for the Carrie Bradshaw ending, but it’s time for bed.