Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

No Substitutions

Today I noticed a street sign, lazily set there next to a taqueria on St. Marks.  It's neon markered letters read "there's no substitute for the real thing."  Oh what wisdom you proclaim lowly street sign!  Truly, once you experience the real thing, any substitution becomes lack luster.  I've made my yoga life a hunt for the real thing.  Happily, I've been lucky enough to find it.

Satsang and parampara - these are the real deal.  Without them I would not be where and what I am today. They go together like peanut butter and jelly and support each other like abhyasa and vairagya.  Parampara is the spine containing all the nerves ready to pass information from the brain to the body.  Satsang is the body housing the spine with all it seemingly separate parts which nonetheless form a whole system ready to communicate with the brain. Together the body and mind can do amazing things, things neither one could do alone.

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It starts with knowledge - someone's got it and I want it.  This is the essence of parampara, the passing of knowledge. The method is so beautiful in its simplicity:  teacher teaches student who eventually becomes teacher that teaches student and so on through the inexorable march of time.  But parampara has a great caveat, one our modern culture has difficulty with, and that is that it takes time.

Lots and lots of time.

I've gone to great lengths to study in the ashtanga lineage.  I used to assist my teacher, trading hard labor for a chance to learn, two hours a day five days a week for years in addition to my own highly demanding physical practice.  I've traveled to India for months at a time to wake up at 2am to be ready to start practice before four.  I still routinely wake at 3:30am to practice what my teachers have taught before my students arrive for instruction.  I brought a teacher halfway across the country to teach an intensive at my little program on Bleecker Street so that my students and I could have the privilege of studying with her (more on this later).  All this I have done voluntarily (though I cannot claim without complaint) because someone else had knowledge and I wanted it.

These efforts, by themselves, have a couple negative drawbacks.  Exhaustion and loneliness easily creep into a traditional ashtanga practice.  There must be a mechanism in place to avoid the eventual despondency that is bred by exhaustion and lonliness.  Satsang is the buoy that keeps me afloat, lifting my head above the dark waves of the predawn solo practice. 

Satsang is surrounding yourself with the right kind of people.  The type of people that give more to the community than they take.  People that, like me, are searching for experience beyond the mundane.  The type of people that clear away the unnecessary and provide what is lacking.  Typically, these people are not difficult to find; often they are provided by parampara.  They can be mentors, family members, friends, or students and certainly this list is not exhaustive.  Some take a little more effort to hold onto, like caring for a lovable and unruly puppy - others you can't seem to shoo away, like the old cat that has decided to nap in your lap.  The satsang will support you in your times of want, of which there will be many, and celebrate with you in your times of plenty, of which there will also be many.

I was recently reminded of the power of satsang and parampara.  A necessary and vibrant reminder for me whose predawn world becomes cloudy from time to time.  My morning Mysore program Bleecker Street Ashtanga at Sacred Sounds Yoga hosted Louise Ellis for a four day intensive that brought satsang and parampara together with the dramatic results of flint and tinder.  A fire was lit in the attendees who came from shalas throughout the city, country, and hemisphere.  I expect this fire will smolder for quite sometime, waiting patiently for more fuel with which to ignite and give warmth and light.  

 3 generations of ashtangis

3 generations of ashtangis

Louise was described by an attendee as, "A sun warmed lake, still on the surface, deep and calm." Louise is many things that I am not, but aspire to be:  gentle where I am hard, quiet where I am loud, and specific where I am general.  Serene power radiates from her and is immediately picked up by those around her.  Her grace and ease in asana and while teaching are a sight to behold.  Louise has the real stuff:  parampara, the knowledge I want and satsang, the supportive community I enjoy.  

Here's to seeing you again soon "granny."  Thank you for everything. 

Don't Cut Your Finger Off!

My paternal grandfather had only four fingers on his right hand.  To be honest I’m not exactly sure how his ring finger was cut off; I’ve been told several cautionary tales – the garbage disposal, a tractor accident, motorboat disaster.  It have a sneaking suspicion he cut the finger off himself just so he could teach his grandchildren life lessons.  Point is, after “the accident” my grandfather still uses the garbage disposal, rides a tractor, and enjoys a good boat ride along the river.  He’s not going to stop using a tool just because he had one bad experience.  But I imagine he gives these tools a healthy amount of respect.  He must have learned his lesson because he was still in possession of his other nine fingers.

Yoga practice is nothing more than a tool.  A multifaceted tool that can both help and harm – just like a knife, hammer, or saw.  I’ve seen people gain so much through their yoga practice.  I’ve also seen people hurt themselves through mistakes and improper practice.  I find it so disheartening when people walk away from practice because they got hurt.  Imagine leaving a knife in a drawer forever because one time you slipped and cut yourself.  If we can learn from our mistakes then the tool of our yoga practice has even more use.  It is only through learning from our mistakes that we can cease to make them; that we can end the cycle of our own mistaken suffering. 

Asanas are just tools and tools used improperly do not create a quality finished product.  More than tools, asanas are power tools – efficient when used correctly and dangerous when not.  A power tool requires a power source.  That power source is breath.  Without breath asana simply does not function properly.  Using our power tools and our power supply we can chip away at the impurities that hide the shining luster of a clear mind.

I’ve been doing this yoga thing long enough now that I’ve seen people come and go - and come back - and leave again, only to return:  both in my teaching practice and where I’ve studied.  People leave practice for a great number of reasons – family obligations, work, change of location, pregnancy, sickness, injury, etc.  When people return to practice after a hiatus some are excited, some are nervous and others seem relatively indifferent.  One thing is pretty consistent – returning to practice after time off is an uphill battle physically and that battle can be psychologically demoralizing.  It is, lamentably, not like riding a bike.  It’s more akin to training for a triathlon after months as a couch potato.  

None of us is getting any younger.  We’re all inexorably marching toward our eventual doom and Father Time is not doing us any favors. 

The physical challenge of returning to practice after hiatus can cause the mind to entertain rather depressing trains of thought.  The idea that somehow the lack of physical ability makes a worse yogi and the idea that if I’m not doing all the asanas that I used to do I’m getting less value from my practice are a couple examples.  This is nonsense.  Most unfortunately our brains enjoy pondering the nonsensical.  With a bit of patience, a great deal of surrender, and perhaps a little luck we can get back on track with our practice despite our wayward and mistrustful minds.

As we become adept at parts of our practice things start to get interesting – fascinating – even exciting.

Yoga is exciting!.....  Sometimes too exciting. 

As we gain dexterity and mastery with our tools wonderful things start to happen.  Temper your excitement with a bit of caution. Don’t cut your finger off in the process!  It’s important to have a healthy amount of respect for your tools – they are sharp and unforgiving.  Start your power tool up too fast or use it without proper caution and you risk an accident.  Be patient, take it step by step.  If you’re coming back to practice after a break be forgiving of yourself.  After all, if you haven’t taken the tractor out all winter you might want to check the oil before you start her up.

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Lost In Translation

The other day I was giving a lecture on yoga philosophy (or at least my version thereof).  I posed the question:  “What does yoga mean?” and I received the expected answers of union, to yoke, peace, oneness, etc. 

None were the answers I was looking for and to be quite honest it was a nasty trick question that I was asking.

I rephrased my question:  “How would you translate the word yoga?” and received much the same response.  Again, not what I was looking for.  Again, a trick question.

The answer is – drum roll please:  “Yoga means yoga.”  It’s a simple answer, if a bit obtuse. 

A word must be experienced to have meaning.

Yoga is a word originating in another language (Sanskrit) that is used in the English, just like sushi is a Japanese word used in the English.  I developed my personal definition of sushi by trying sushi.  The word sushi causes various images to jump into my mind and feelings to rush through my system.  Just hearing the word sushi can cause me to salivate.  My personal definition of sushi – as a once in a while sushi eater living in New York City who has never traveled to Japan – is going to be different from that of a Japanese native who eats sushi often and it is also going to be different from the unlucky person who tried sushi once and got food poisoning.  All of our experiences are going to color and shape our own personal definition of the word and certainly be much more genuine for us than that of our dear friend Merriam Webster:  “a Japanese dish of cold cooked rice shaped in small cakes and topped or wrapped with other ingredients (such as pieces of raw fish),” and that’s just fine.   

Let's consider a term a bit more broad.  A word from my mother tongue.  The word "mother" holds meaning for me as I'm sure it does for you.  This meaning is of vast scope and most definitely eclipses Google’s:  “noun.  a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth.”  I could write for pages about the word mother and what it means to me.  I guarantee that if my brother and I (we share the same mother - I have to clarify that because not all brothers are of the same mother) were to both write up the meaning of mother our compositions would agree and disagree and possibly be paradoxical.  The meaning of mother is fully subjective.  It is colored by experiences with mothers directly and by how culture portrays the term mother in general.

Meaning can change.

My mother told me about sushi before I had ever tried it:  “It’s raw fish, gross, we don’t eat that.”  So for a while the meaning of sushi, for me, was based on second (possibly third) hand knowledge and involved general yuckiness and prohibition.   I had no reason to doubt my mother because the meaning of mother, for me, involves a woman who is more knowledgeable than I am and who is always looking out for my best interests.  I eventually tried sushi for myself and the meaning of the word radically changed for me – both mentally and physically (remember the saliva I mentioned earlier).  This also necessitated I make a slight change to the meaning of the word mother.  I’ve had more sushi throughout the years and each experience has changed the meaning for me.  I’ve also had experiences with that which is not sushi, but that is masquerading as sushi.  Had my first experience with sushi been with false sushi I would probably have been fooled, but since I’ve had so many experiences with real sushi I am now confident I can single out the fakes.  What if I’m wrong?  What if all this time all my experiences with "real sushi" were actually experiences with "fake sushi"?  This is possible, but not probable.  It is not probable because those I trust around me, my relations, my community, my satsang (a Sanskrit word), my sangha (a Sanskrit and Pali word) generally agree with me on the meaning of sushi, though our meaning comes from many different experiences.

Yoga means yoga.

If you want to know the meaning of yoga you will have to experience it for yourself.  
If you want to know the meaning of samadhi (“cognitive absorption” or “to put in place perfectly”), which means yoga, you will have to experience it for yourself.
If you want to know the meaning of citta vrtti nirodah (“stopping the fluctuations of the mind” or “stilling the mind” or “controlling the mind stuff”), which means yoga, you will have to experience it for yourself.

If you want to use yoga to attain yoga you will have to do it yourself.  

Get out there!  Talk to people that have more experience with yoga than you do (maybe even your mother).  Do some yoga, whatever that means.  Acquire enough experience of yoga with the help of enough knowledgeable people that you can separate real yoga from fake yoga.  Build a relationship with your yoga.  Work on this relationship for a long time, without interruption always dedicated to finding truth.

Oh……. And don’t hold onto that truth you find too rigidly.  Most likely it’ll change.

Post Scriptum

Words are powerful.

Yawn………………….that is a word…………………have you yawned yet?  I bet you will soon.  The world yawn is so powerful that just by seeing it or hearing it you are quite likely to have a physical reaction, namely a yawn.

Be careful with the words you use.