Tag Archives: Iyengar

Yoga: A Stretch of……Faith?

_MG_1953Hil_new year's 2011_cropped_websizeReligion Is Not Just a Hair Trigger Word

 I wrote this piece and posted it on Elephant Journal in 2010. I never put it on bitchin. I am posting it here today  because the discussion of yoga and religion has made headlines in my family’s home of Encinitas. As the discussion is still relevant, I’m giving it a place here.

The day we moved to our Nashville home our elderly neighbors came out to see who we were. The first question they asked was “What church do you go to?”

Aside from the fact that it was a rude question from the part of the country where I come from as our spiritual pursuits are personal and shouldn’t matter to anyone else, I was taken aback because they assumed we went to a church. We don’t and I was a little uncomfortable telling that to people I’d met for one minute because to my mind they were assessing me the way people around here size you up according to where your kid is educated. 

They meant no harm and for this culture it is not rude and church is their community and they were probably wondering if we would be part of it and hoping we were. As I hesitated with a shake of my head, they asked if we worked in the area and I said I was a yoga teacher.   “Oh, yoga”, the wife quietly said with a confused and forgiving smile.” Did that excuse me from the religious question?  Was yoga my religion?  It didn’t matter. We have been the best of neighbors but what I thought was a silly misinterpretation of my job was maybe more my misunderstanding of yoga.

About fifteen years ago I had a woman in class who said that she had a son with colitis and was looking for ways to teach him to relax. She came back to tell me that though she enjoyed the class she couldn’t come back because it seemed antithetical to her religion. She said she was a Christian.  People here introduce themselves as Christians and think nothing of it but identity by religious beliefs was new to me. She impressed me as narrow minded and trapped and I wondered if her son’s condition was exacerbated by moral strictness or guilt. I never thought that her perception of yoga or my class was correct.  After all yoga is a system of energy management, a philosophy that holds no God as king, a direction for moral and ethical conduct that veers down no particular religious path.

Or is it?  Wikipedia describes religion as a set of beliefs explaining the existence of and giving meaning to the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. It is also described as a communal system for the coherence of belief in a highest truth.

 Webster defines yoga as a Hindu theistic philosophy and theistic means belief in a single God and the popular guru, B.K.S. Iyengar, makes references to the ‘Lord’ in his description of yoga.

 It seems the view of yoga as a religion would be correct. It seems that it was my mind that was too narrow. I’m considering my place in this religion.

Reflected in the media, household publications and the internet, yoga looks like a phenomenon that deserves attention.  Is this country embracing a philosophy or a faith in its runaway yoga mania? I envision how bhakti yoga looks to the eyes of on outsider. Here is chanting, and  prayer shawls flying; eyes rolled up in ecstasy.  A foreign tongue recalls an ancient language invoking the name of Krishna in all his incarnations. Hands form for  prayer in Anjali mudra.  Statues of Hindu gods and strange symbols sit at a shrine. The word “goddess”is  resurrected.  Women lead the dance, hair blowing in the wind.

 An off balance nation searching for answers is a great opportunity for ambitious life-coaches and sales people.   Zen collides with Dale Carnegie as Tony Robbins and Werner Erhard- like yoga gurus gather numbers like Joel Osteen in the mega-church. The term principle, previously enjoyed by polygamists and Moonies, has found a home on the banner head of a fast growing yoga community.( This was John Friend’s Anusara banner which is now defunct.) Yoga isn’t just yoga anymore it’s a kind of yoga and yogis with business heads are marketing names and promises and manifestos like the many divisions of the church.  Come to us, come to us, says the number crunching preacher luring us in.  Cleanse your toxins and free your soul. The yoga studio becomes a franchise. The teachers are independent satellites. They are salaried employees.

If yoga is a religion then who amongst us is qualified to teach it? It’s a complicated religion which makes it even harder. It’s almost impossible not to happen upon a pathway to things unseen when doing a physical practice done with integrity. Even if we aren’t teaching a religious aspect of yoga but doing asana and breath, students made need guidance beyond anatomy. Through the body comes the awakening of yoga. Then what? Call your shrink and your priest and don’t ask me or do you assume the character of either?  You could be playing with fire. And what if you describe the poses and the names? There is talk of sages and deities. And what about when the first strain of a mantra comes over the loudspeakers. We cross into something beyond the body. What are we responsible for? How many yoga studio advertisements casually toss the words body, mind and spirit into the menu? Are there skills to back that up?

I once took a class from a new teacher who told me that my knee hurt in a pose because of unresolved past life issues. Noooo, my knee hurts because I have a fallen arch which caused a strained medial crucial ligament and partially torn meniscus. But thanks anyway. Maybe she would think that my arch had fallen because of unresolved past life issues but I hope she would get to know me before mentioning anything about it.

I took a class in which we were held hostage in a backbend while being read a description of animal torture from a PETA pamphlet by some ahimsa (nonviolence) preaching visiting yogis.  I, who run screaming from the room if I see a suffering animal on television, left feeling sick and violated.  I later read a quote by the same empire building offender saying that the secret to life was to take things lightly.  Thanks for the laugh.

We use the word consciousness.  Has it become just a word without content? Are we just conscious of what’s convenient to see?

The Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner did an early experiment with pigeons. They got rewarded if they made figure eights and hit tennis balls. That’s funny and awful but Skinner was proving that even natural beings will do weird things for immediate rewards.

What bigger reward is there for a new yogi than to be part of the group?  It’s human nature to want to be accepted by the pack. A couple of students from a local studio which follows a highly stylized practice took class with me recently. They moved through the postures by rote. They paid no attention to my instructions, they finished every vinyasa sequence with anjali mudra although I wasn’t teaching that and jnana mudra, the seal of wisdom, appeared at every opportunity.

I asked one of them what those gestures meant.

She answered, “I don’t know.”

I said, “Then why are you doing it?” and she said again that she didn’t know.

“If you don’t know what it means and you don’t know why you’re doing it, then it’s just jewelry!  Do what you need to but you ought to understand what you’re doing.”

 Tennis playing pigeons remind me she’s been trained to mimic for the reward of membership and the uniquely human bonus of pride in emulating a popular teacher’s style that was borrowed from an even more popular yoga teacher’s style.

The sign on the church across from my house which has maybe the worst sentiments ever once said, We like Sheep.  Do we like ‘sheep’ in yoga too?  Are we raising sheep? Not for me, thanks. Raising two kids has been all I can be responsible for. And that crowded barn just feels claustrophobic. I’m not crazy about hanging out waiting to be fed and watered on anyone’s schedule either and I expect my students feel the same way.

Are we supposed to be missionaries spreading light into the darkness?  What are we part of? Who are we accountable to? Who are we kidding, could it be ourselves?  What about the aim of yoga to uncover the veil of illusion that covers the universe, how’s that going?  What about for profit and power? Religion tends to be entwined with society and politics.  We need to make a living at our work and power may just be handed to us when people follow. Are we fit to manage that? How many times have I been ignorant? Have I done any harm? Those are hard questions but they have to be considered on a regular basis when you’re dealing with so many personalities; when some may want to find in you their physical therapist, psychotherapist and priest.

I’m driving down a country road on a moonless night and the street lights are suddenly and briefly gone.  I’m driving blind. It’s just a stretch of darkness, I think.  It’s a stretch in the dark; a stretch of faith.  I don’t want to hit anyone, any animals and I slow down and tell myself, “I can’t see anything but I won’t hit anything. I refuse to hurt anyone.”   “I’m on a stretch of faith.”

©Hilary Lindsay 2010, all rights retained

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Drifting Across the White Line

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Just beyond my house the city has repainted the quiet road that washed out in last year’s flood; a double yellow line down the middle and the edges marked in white. Without those borders the road had appeared open and included the woods to each side.  Why does this secluded neighborhood road need so much definition? I find it oppressive. On the other hand, the main road along this neighborhood, Franklin Road, is one of the most spacious roads in Nashville. The interstate is a bit further south and the popular choice for a speedy path so the road by me is less traveled than many. Wider than most, emptier than most, this road claims a life every few months. We cannot understand the cars that veer across such open and easy to navigate space to smash into a neighbor’s wall or the guard rail that marks the edges of a sheer drop to the interstate. This expansive road was Civil War territory. We think it must be haunted.

Or does Franklin Road prove that it’s not easy to tune in to empty space? It’s hard to pay attention. We drift in the expanse. We create order in the form of rules, yellow lines, fines and warnings to force attention.  We do the same in yoga.

In yoga we flood the senses with light to find ourselves.  From there we can proceed to wisely dissolve the limitation of perceived boundaries between ourselves and the world. Focus comes first. See yourself. Then choose what to let in or what to let go because drifting is just a game of luck.

I have a son who is a musician but doesn’t want to go to school for music, doesn’t want to play anything other than what he feels like playing and doesn’t reign in his focus enough to finish a composition. He’s totally undisciplined. He’s completely free. I told my composer friend Chris that I thought my son would do well with some parameters despite his aversion to restraint.

Stravinsky thought the same thing, said Chris, who described Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve- tone technique which Stravinsky claimed gave him the parameters to find more freedom and depth in his compositions. The technique orders the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, forming a series which provides a unifying basis for a composition’s melody, harmony, structural progressions and variations. The composer has to work within that 12 note series.

Schoenberg’s technique came to mind in a recent class at the University. I asked about injuries and requests, as I always do there, but they asked me to do whatever I wanted and then laughed because they know when they go with my flow it can be a wild ride. But I wanted an unambiguous job. It often makes teaching easier and I like to solve problems. It also offers the students a comprehensible learning experience. I remembered the lesson Stravinsky learned from Schoenberg.

Postures were ordered in wide brush stroke instruction and compared to the same postures again using detailed and specific instruction in architecture and clues for observation. The lesson revealed that it’s not easy to see without relationship. Postures without parameters create a vague sense of density and resistance while parameters reveal space. Once form was defined in terms of bone breath and muscle, the student could strip away what wasn’t necessary for the pose.

 

Focus

 

 Feel

 

Choose

Strip away layers and what is left may seem small at first but this is the flow. The imagination creates the parameters inviting muscle to bone and bone to breathe in the waters of the soft tissue which expose a floating nervous system.  The water is deep. There would be no depth without banks. Parameters create the banks. One must know when it’s safe and time to let the banks overflow.

Chris recognizes that the six Emmys sitting on his mantel reflect a time gone by. He was a prodigy in his field and knew both fame and fortune. His business has shifted and he’s barely skipped a beat reinventing himself with a new line of work. You must define yourself on the internet, he insists, because there are no filters anymore. There was a time you had to be accomplished and respected and vetted to get work. People knew who you were and that mattered. He says that now anyone who owns equipment and can get a job done cheaply is acceptable. It’s an open field and you have to throw your net far to make a living. Get on the web and let them know who you are and what you have to offer and be clear about it.

I hear the word “Web” and I think trapped.  I picture a gigantic symbiotic culture of single celled creatures. I picture whole cities of Chinese assembly workers devoted to making mattresses or socks. I picture us like stamina seeking specks clinging to the speeding bullet train of a web world as it hurls into the abyss.

I resist definition. I am not a planner either. I am my son. I like improvisation in my teaching and spontaneity in my life. I’ve driven friends and family crazy with frustration but I persevere.  I argue with Chris who has no problem sitting at a keyboard for 15 hours a day navigating the universe and creating useful programs while his wife slides meals under his door. Has the untitled yoga teacher gone the way of the country doctor!  Must I be a specialist or have a shtick? And by the way why does it seem like all the doctors I know are specialists but don’t know how to treat a cold or a cut? I balk at the idea of delineation. I feel as containable as mercury.

I like my yoga metaphors as life to make sense. Also, I notice that all my disagreeing makes me disagreeable and no one likes that so I consider that with greater definition there is opportunity for great depth in yoga and yoga is practice for life. I have to allow that on the open road of an international world the double yellow line and white borders may not only help us to stay on track but point us out to those whom we’d like to find us. I’m not sure where the road is going but since I’m not a planner I shouldn’t complain. It seems like a circuitous path so I’m paying attention; to me, to us, to the road. I wonder what Schoenberg would say.

It’s not easy to see without relationship.

It’s hard to pay attention.

We drift in the expanse.

Pour light.

Focus.

See.

Choose.

Drifting is just a game of luck.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty – Albert Einstein

 

Get out the crayon.

Color inside the lines to find yourself.

Redraw the outline so we can find you.

So we can dissolve the lines again.

We yoga teachers enter the arena looking for answers for ourselves. Teaching keeps the dialogue going. I remember a senior teacher telling me that no one had the right to teach before she had completed the eight limbed path herself. (Ironically it seemed that she was stuck in the branches looking for a foothold but…) I remember this as I finish this writing, as I hurl down this open road, a drifter, as I look for metaphor to cling to as I fly through this life, thrown clear. I have no answers;   only questions, changing opinion, fury and the desire to be happy. This is no soapbox but another directionless improv, a lesson to consider or throw away. As my husband notes, laughing, you write like the person weaving down Franklin Road. He is quite right. But I’m paying attention so I don’t hit anyone. I see/feel clear and present borders. I leave with a suggestion from one of my favorite guys which is easiest remembered when we take a walk in the natural world.

Adopt the pace of nature:  her secret is patience – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Hilary

(Published in Elephant Journal)

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Svadhyaya in the Jungle

An unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates


Many of us are too overwhelmed with the imperative of getting through each day to spend energy listening to news or thinking outside our personal lives but the rebellion of a few has woken us up.  In a country which has gone wild with yoga, how many of us are practicing or living yoga as it applies to our life as a member of a collective that is bigger than the yoga class? The answer may be in how well we know ourselves. If we dig deep enough to discover that, perhaps it could change the heart of a country.

This weekend there was a country wide rally organized by MoveOn. Org Political Action to protest an attempt to kill collective bargaining rights by Governor Walker of Wisconsin. Tennessee may be soon to follow. Nashville gathered about 300 folks who looked to be mostly over the age of 45 and the signs they held indicated a majority of teachers among other union workers.

The teachers in Wisconsin had already offered to take cuts in both pay and benefits to accommodate the Governor’s quest to shave money from the budget. They have thrown in a compromise on tenure, which may not be a bad thing but had nothing to do with the plan to save money. It seemed like a desperate cry for mercy.  The Governor had cut corporate taxes which increased the state’s deficit. Then he needed money. Unions needed to be destroyed to make their members easier prey.

If we acquiesce that cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest  among us is more essential than ensuring the wages of public servants, doesn’t it seem by logical extension that down the line we might consider abolishing public education altogether?  After all, public education is socialist. Maybe it’s time to pay attention.

If taxes pay for state services, why cut corporate taxes? Wisconsin’s recent drama tells us why. A Governor is elected thanks to the financial support of businessmen with the understanding that he will pay those businessmen back by cutting their taxes and he does. Then he makes up for the tax revenue lost by taking from another group of people who he tries to render powerless by breaking their collective bargaining rights.

Then he goes on T.V. and earnestly recites a continuous loop of nonsense that makes no sense, knowing that most of us will give up eventually. He’s not alone.  We end up with a country that has an uneasy balance and as a result we are a people who are uneasy.

Many of us have adopted the fallback position of I can only change myself which somehow brings to mind fasting to protest world hunger. Politics is just us individuals as a collective. Who we’ve chosen to do our collective bargaining for us in the House and Senate may be doing us wrong. I heard someone say today that different people just have different ideas on what works.  Is there never right or wrong? It seems like our politics are nothing but a continuous argument. I hear the political pundits’ debate, exchanging words without discussion. People don’t seem to be communicating as much as reciting.

It takes humility to listen and shift. It takes security and self awareness to speak with honesty. It takes love to look beyond personal gain. If one is fully present, it takes moral bankruptcy to do harm. First, it takes introspection.

Svadhyaya  is described in the ethical observances of yoga as self knowledge. It is a step toward psychological freedom or self realization and it may be such desire for self knowledge that attracts so many of us to yoga. Many, if not most of us, are teaching yoga before we’ve achieved that. The business of yoga is subject to the same pitfalls as any business including government.  We may not be sure of ourselves but hopefully our attention to yoga will dictate our business practice. As we work to attain or maintain self awareness we can implement the ethical restraints that describe a fair, kind, and honest relationship to the world. Yoga has the capacity to make a contribution to society as an example of ethics in business. But yogis have the same challenges that anyone running a business or the business of country have. It’s not enough to go through the motions of setting up shop. If we don’t know ourselves we run the risk of doing unconscious harm.

Patanjali says that the vitamins we need to maintain in yoga are faith, courage, boldness, absorption and tremendous memory to understand exactly what is happening in us today, what happened yesterday, the day before yesterday and many days ago, with uninterrupted awareness. I you haven’t got these five vitamins you are not doing yoga at all but only bhoga which is translated as satisfaction. This can be described as health of the body and harmony of the mind. – “The Tree of Yoga”, B.K.S. Iyengar

Perhaps we might interpret this for today as a call to look at history to gain perspective on the nature of politics.  I’ve been thinking of poets’ and writers’ calls to attention in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the industrial revolution changed the lives of a people across the Western world. The world that Charles Dickens describes in his novels was not that long ago. In the course of human evolution, we are minutes away from the world of debtor’s prisons, child labor, and a general willful ignorance of people’s needs. Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” describes the corruption of human beings that took place because the workers had no rights. I wonder if we are so much more evolved now that we don’t need laws to protect people.  Are we enlightened enough to proceed as every man for himself or would the result of that be more akin to Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities” which describes a  starving people’s revolt against disparity.

Mr. Iyengar goes on to interpret Patanjali’s teachings:

When the body , the mind and the senses are cleared by tapas ((ardor and self-discipline based on burning desire), and when understanding of the self has been attained through svadhyaya (self-study) only then is the individual fit for Isvara-pranidhana (surrender to God).  He has brought down his pride and developed humility, and that humble soul alone is fit for bhakti-marga, the path of devotion.

We are a nation whose catch phrase is “meant to be”. We are also a nation of religion. We fall back on God’s will. We are also now a nation of yoga. And that nation of yoga tends to fall all over itself to avoid negativity or avoid admitting it. While some fall over backwards to be fair and open minded, others of certainty are pushing onward. While some refuse to engage, others take what they want. The people in between are often victims of ignorance and inertia.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity”……William Butler Yeats, “Second Coming”

In a country which stands so often on the mandate of “God” have we “given it up to God” instead of doing the work ourselves?  Certainly in Mr. Iyengar’s translation of Yoga as subscribed to Patanjali it seems fair to extrapolate that we need to get right with ourselves before turning ourselves completely over to anything else. I may be alone but I stay clear when I see a bumper sticker that says “Jesus drives this car”. How many times has God’s name been invoked for the sake of war? It is delusional. We have work to do. My mother used to say that God helps those that help themselves. It was her way of ensuring that I took charge of my own fate. There are things that are out of our control. There are times that we have to surrender and trust the universe. But first we are called to introspection.

An interviewer asked Halle Berry tonight, Oscar night, what she liked best about the Oscars. She said she liked to see what outfits people wore. She said that people’s outfits revealed how they saw themselves. If it was only that easy……..

(Published in Elephant Journal)

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Just bitchin: Domain Name for Sale

The Author Formerly known as the Rebel

I tend to dance around things.  I had a student years ago who called me back door yoga. She was also a student of Mary Dunne, the Iyengar teacher who would likely give her students building blocks to create a finished picture while I just paint the picture and then let you see how that happened. It’s just the way I approach things.

I’ve been dancing around Rebel Yoga. I got pissed when the New York Times described a young go getter named Tara Stiles as Rebel Yoga. Now Tara may be tiny enough to fit into Deepak Chopra’s pocket and she may be a lovely person but calling her Rebel Yoga just made me mad although it certainly was not her doing. I didn’t say exactly why I was mad. I just said that yoga as an exercise class was nothing new and it isn’t. Just ask the people in Pune. I want to say in print why that made me mad and then I’d like to say that the domain name Rebel Yoga.com is for sale. I’m done with it.

I entered a small town in the Bible Belt and knew no one except a yoga teacher I’d met on the phone through Bryan Kest. She became one of my best friends. The yoga community was tiny. The yoga elders were from the Iyengar school.  They garnered respect and the next generation sat at their feet. I showed up like Kevin Bacon in the movie Footloose and brought a rock and roll, dance and power yoga based class into the local gym and from there gained the attention of the whole town and a massive following of happy shiny people and I was the topic of the news from the Nashville Scene to Newsweek.

There were only two studios at the time. They were small and run by women older than me. The women were good teachers and brought a wealth of amazing, exciting, (some mean), creative teachers to Nashville and I’m forever grateful as I learned so much from them. They all thought I was loose cannon. My favorite teacher was Rodney Yee who unlike many of the other teachers who loved to pick me out of the crowd to make an example of me as my reputation was no secret, treated me like a friend and colleague.

I had one particular group of strong willed people who were all leaders and outspoken people and completely irreverent and rebellious and would no more have enjoyed the Iyengar training that I loved any more than they would have been willing to be crate trained dogs and I created a calendar named Rebel Yogis: A Celebration of Students to honor them. The name Rebel Yoga became synonymous with me. I had shirts made with the Active Yoga logo that said “Rebel Yoga” bearing the Rumi quote that was the banner for my website:

Forget Safety

Live Where You Fear to Live

Destroy Your Reputation

Be Notorious

I saw that in a card store. I’d never heard of Rumi before. I sent hundreds of shirts into Nashville bearing my Active Yoga logo and “Rebel Yoga” and lines from that quote. I’m wearing one of those shirts as I write this almost a dozen years after I made it that says “Rebel Yoga – If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space”.

I had to fight to be respected by the yoga community in this town. I had the town with me but not the elders, so to speak. Not for years. I was notorious. I had to be willing to not be liked to do what I loved.

I feel like I won the title “Rebel Yoga” while maintaining my integrity as a person who studies and teaches yoga. I feel like I earned that title as someone who walked into a place where she wasn’t welcome, who sat at the feet of those who found her threatening and brought yoga out of the dusty corners of a small town into the limelight. It was good for everyone including the old school.

When Kripalu wanted me to teach “Rebel Yoga” I told them that Rebel Yoga was not a thing. It was me. It still is me but yoga has changed all around me now. I’m the old school and what I brought here is now everywhere. I’m not saying it’s the same as me. We are all unique. However if I am rebellious now it’s at the idea that yoga is so damn fashionable. It just takes all the joy out of it for me.

I own the domain name Rebel Yoga but I never used it because I felt rebel would be misunderstood as the Confederacy and later Al qaeda. Now I don’t want it linked to both me and to someone who seems to me to be disrespectful as she’s selling yoga like it’s a generic pill for everything.  I was saving it for something but now it just feels like it’s time to clean house. I’ve outgrown it. I just wanted to try it on one more time.

Domain name for sale; Rebel Yoga

(Published in Elephant Journal)

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