Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fifth and Sixth Class

Week 2, Days 2& 3

Day 2 (Saturday) Jae demonstrated some finer points of Virabhdrasana I and II, and working with us as we practiced cueing Integration, Sun A and Sun B.

Day 3 (Sunday):

Meditation Exercise: maintain general awareness while also maintaining attention to breath.

History of yoga

There are multiple incarnations of Shiva – some related to the development of yoga, some to Hinduism.
The yoga system (non-religious)
The Hindu system (religious)

OM namah shivaya
Shiva mahadeva
OM namah shivaya

Recall definition of yoga: union and balance of the higher self with the divine. Yoga is both a practice and a goal. Just as a water droplet always finds the ocean, so, too does consciousness find the divine. That state may be referred to as enlightenment, bliss, Samadhi, or ecstasy. Yoga was created by people who wanted happiness. The formed the practice through observation of the world around them. Without study, you can still find yoga. Yogis were the original tree huggers. Yogis observed the trees, birds, animals, the people around them, the plants, the earth.

If you’re like most people in the US, you came to yoga seeking physical fitness – maybe a little less back pain, a little more flexibility or strength. And yoga can provide those things. But you stayed even after you obtained those. Why? Yoga doesn’t stop when it obtains small goals. It is a practical philosophy that transcends religions. Because yoga and Hinduism both started at about the same time and in about the same places, they tend to intertwine. The chant we began with to Shiva could as easily been a chant to Jesus, Allah, Earth, or the Goddess. Yoga doesn’t tell you how to pick a belief – only that you do so. It seeks to unify. Religions divide.

Shiva sat at the top of a mountain meditating ten thousand years. Shiva is a rough character – dreadlocks, covered in mud. As he meditated, he saw forests arise, animals come and go, birds fly and depart. And in them he found incredible happiness. The yoga of it all penetrated his body, and he realized that it was a way that others could gain the same happiness, but without the need to sit in meditation for ten thousand years. So he got up and left the mountain, and he went to find the goddess Parvati. When he found her standing by a stream, he said, “I just discovered yoga. All things around me came into my mind. It can be taught through meditation, asana, pranayama. Parvati already understood these things, and just nodded. But in the stream was a fish. When he heard Shiva start to explain yoga, the fish paused in the middle of the flowing water and stayed in that position to listen to Shiva. And as he listened, the fish reached enlightenment. And in that moment, the guru/disciple relationship was created. So we practice fish pose. When some attain enlightenment, they disappear forever. But when others do, instead of seeking nirvana, they choose to return to or remain on earth to assist others to achieve the same enlightenment. The fish returned to earth as Matsyendra, for whom was named the pose Matsyendrasana, Lord of the Fishes pose.

The concrete aspects of yoga history come to us from the four Vedas, the oldest spiritual texts in the world. They are understood to have been given by God, and are recorded in an old version of Sanskrit. They outline rituals that were performed by vedic priests. As many of them required very careful preparation and performance, the rituals gave rise to meditation. Among the vedic rituals were fire rituals – practices that were performed for special events such as the blessing of a home, the celebration of a birth or a marriage. The offerings could be various kinds of food, but they were placed into fires where they burned. Those performing the rituals saw the flames of the fires leading upward, saw the smoke rise into the sky, and saw at the end that the offerings were gone with only ashes remaining, and they understood this as the offerings being consumed by the gods. To this day, we do the same things in yoga practice.

Tapas means heat or fire. It also represents a burning desire for self-realization. Tapas is understood, also, as the heat or fire within the body that burns together food and breath in the belly. Ujjayi breath intensifies the fires and warm us up. If we offer impurities into the fire of yoga, they are burned up. If we offer our happiness, it is consumed. Anything can be an offering, and all of it is consumed and transformed through the practice. If you engage in a yoga practice without such an offering, you are foregoing the opportunity to make your practice more than physical postures. This is why we encourage practice to be dedicated to something more than creation of a yoga butt.

The Vedas were distilled by various practitioners into the Upanishads. It is in the Upanishads that OM is first mentioned and explained, that it is the vibration that is in and through all things. Many other subjects are also addressed in the Upanishads, including four basic kinds of yoga practice: bhakti, karma, raja, and jnana (pronounced “ng”ana).

Jnana yoga is an exercise of the intellect, using the mind to discern the nature of the mind. It is a pursuit of scholars and priests. The key question of jnana yoga is “Who am I?” So who are you? Normal responses include names, occupations, social roles, politics, likes and dislikes. But are any of these really who you are?

Consider an extreme example. Suppose I am a devoted piano student. One day, I cut off my hands and throw them across the room. Am I still me? Is what is “me” still encased in the hands I no longer have? No. What remains me is the creative power. I am acquainted with a quadriplegic who, prior to becoming so, was a physically active person, one who worked full time at a job. When he became a quadriplegic, was he not still the same person? He continues to be active and engaged in the world. The only thing that does not change is the seeing – the consciousness. At the level of consciousness we are all the same.

A key question is “What is real?” The jnana practitioners distinguish between the real and the unreal. For them, the real is what does not change. All else is unreal. What does not change? The divine. Is the body real? No, it changes. Are friends real? No. Is the carpet we sit on real? No. Am I real? No. Nothing is real but God.

Bhaki yoga is a second variety of yoga practice taught in the Upanishads. Bhatki means devotion. It is a practice that identifies the individual with the divine, but also uses the perception of separation from the divine as a way to recognize divinity. Bhakti yoga is practiced in many different ways, including the use of altars, rituals, singing and chanting. (Krishna Das is a devoted bhatki yoga practitioner.) Chanting is the creation of a vibration, and vibration is identified with the divine. Bhakti yoga does not include ansana practice.

Karma yoga is a third variety of yoga described in the Upanishads. It is the path of pure selflessness. Instead of seeking action for our own desires, we devote all our actions to God – and here you should understand that I use the term “God” without reference to any particular religious belief system. When a karma yoga practitioner acts, it is without the desire to receive the fruit of that particular action. In practicing karma yoga, one does not give a gift with the expectation of receiving a thank you note. One doesn’t go to work in order to obtain a paycheck. Rather, it is done selflessly. By acting without intention to obtain the fruits of action, the practitioner escapes the endless cycle of karma. Most of us can’t do this. We work and love and befriend and nurture others with some intention and desire to receive something for our actions. Many of these things create good karma. While good karma is better than bad karma, no karma is better than both. When we are free of intention, we take the position of “Not my will, but thine be done.” Mother Theresa was an example of a karma yoga practice. Try practicing asanas sometime with this understanding – that is, try practicing yoga asanas while releasing desires to obtain something, whether it’s a yoga butt, a kind word from your teacher, or whatever it is you seek from yoga.

Raja yoga is the fourth variety of yoga described in the Upanishads. Raja means king or royal. Patanjali’s yoga sutras describe the path of raja yoga. There is a one-step path: give all up to God. Since that is very hard to do, he also describes a two-step path: practice (whatever practice one has, whether asana, chanting or whatever) and detachment. But as detachment includes detaching from everything, including family, possessions, etc., it, too, is a difficult path. So the sutras describe a three step path, known as kriya yoga, which consists of tapas, ishvar-pranidhana, and svadhyana – studying the highest self. The sutras also describe the eight-limbed path, or “ashtanga yoga.”

Modern yoga history

In recent years, what we understand as yoga practice originated largely with Swami Vivekananda. He came to America in 1893 to address the World Congress of Religion. He was invited to give one of the keynote addresses. And while each of the other speakers began by describing in some degree of detail his particular religion, Swami Vivekananda began “My dear brothers and sisters…”

Following his introduction of yoga to America, Krishnamacharya, born in 1890, became the first source of yoga to North America. He started the emphasis on asana practice, as he thought it would be beneficial to the physically-oriented people he encountered.

He passed his teachings on to three key students: BKS Iyengar, who began a yoga instruction known as Iyengar yoga, a practice that emphasizes intensive study of a few postures. The book Light on Yoga provides a great deal of information about Iyengar’s approach to yoga. A second student was PK Pattabhi Jois, the creator of what we refer to as the ashtanga yoga series, a vigorous flow-style yoga, from which power yoga has been derived. Desikachar is a third student of Krishnamacharya, and he established the vini yoga practices.

Bandha Discussion

Mula bandha: it is an energy lock that should be engaged from the beginning to the end of a practice. It seals of the energy that would otherwise escape downward. Performing the mula bandha is an expression of the desire for enlightenment. It also strengthens the muscles associated with the lumbar spine.

Uddiyana bandha: not just the tightening of the abdominal muscles. In fact, so tightening them can actually impede breath. The bandha involves the psoas muscle. The classic version of uddiyana bandha can only be performed with an empty stomach, as it pulls all abdominal organs up into the chest, and if the stomach is not entirely empty, performing this bandha can cause vomiting. Since much of the work of the psoas muscle occurs unconsciously, working it can be an exercise in bringing mindfulness to a part of which we are not typically aware. The uddiyana bandha does not work without the mula bandha.

The third lock is the jalandara bandha, and is performed by drawing the chin in slightly, and then bringing the chest up to the chin (not the chin down to the chest).

Vinyasa: to place in a special way. The sequence of poses decides a particular outcome based on a particular intention. Each pose should be placed like a pearl on the string of breath. Breath moves a vinyasa practice, and we should strive to make each inhalation and exhalation symmetrical. Vinyasa practice entails breathing through the nose – not the mouth. When breath is consistent, so too is the mind.
As there is a breath style for every mood, so too is there a mood for every breath style. Mood can follow breath.

Practice: go to a class a notice how the teacher cues breathing, and whether the cues are consistently symmetrical or rhythmic in time. When you are cueing students, call the breath together with the pose to be taken. When you want to pause the vinyasa flow to instruct on some specifics, instruct the class to breathe themselves in the pose. When you want to resume the flow, cue an exhalation for all, then resume cues with the next inhalation.
Work on keeping consistent rhythm by using your fingers as a kind of metronome, counting each of the four fingers against the thumb for one inhalation, counting the same fingers in the same time against the thumb for one exhalation. With enough practice, the timing will become steady, and you will be able to do that timing while talking of other things, as well, enabling you to have a reference point to keep the class breathing steadily.