Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Few people are capable of wholehearted commitment, and that is why so few people experience a real transformation through their spiritual practice. It is a matter of giving up our own viewpoints, of letting go of opinions and preconceived ideas…. Although this sounds simple, in practice most people find it extremely difficult. Their ingrained viewpoints, based on deductions derived from cultural and social norms, are in the way.

If we have a relationship with another person, and we love the person but don't understand him or her, the relationship is incomplete; if we understand the person but don't love him or her, it is equally unfulfilling. How much more so on our spiritual path. We have to understand the meaning of the teaching and also love it. In the beginning our understanding will only be partial, so our love has to be even greater.

~ Ayya Khema, from When the Iron Eagle Flies

* * *

I’m holding a scissored and revolved version of what I think of as Crow Pose – an arm balance – in an asana room of Cosmic Dog Yoga, a Livermore California studio that’s under construction but nearly finished. Sunlight streams in from the west-facing windows.

“Come forward about three feet, and face this way.” She gestures. I come out of the pose, back to my feet, and move forward. I resume the pose. Now I can’t see her, but I hear.

“Extend your foot from the ankle.”

I adjust the foot.

“Now holding the foot-ankle extension, draw your toes back toward the shin.”

My peripheral vision notes that she’s lying on the floor nearby, propped on her elbows. She begins taking pictures.

The heels of my hands press into the floor. The right, unweighted, forearm begins to tremble.

“Lift the forward foot slightly, the light angle’s wrong.”

I shift. Another picture.

“Can you draw your spine and neck into alignment?”

I try lifting my neck into alignment. Maybe the neck moves a half inch, but no more.

* * *

In the world of yoga, the word bhakti is Sanksrit for devotion. It is a path toward liberation through devotion – encountering the divine as You. Not an impersonal third-person Independent Divine that we perceive as a Deist might the Kosmos. Not a first-person manifestation of Divinity as Walt Whitman conceived of Self. But rather second person – You – a relationship – a friend.

St. Teresa of Ávila wrote that her form of contemplative prayer, oración mental, “is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” This is also the essence of bhakti yoga – a relationship of worship. It is the path described in the Bhagavad Gita: “One can understand Me as I am, as the absolute, only by devotion. And when one is in full consciousness of Me by such devotion, he can enter into the kingdom of God. (B-Gita 18.55). It was Jesus’ message to his disciples: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends…”

* * *

Laurie climbs the construction scaffolding, and I hand up the cameras.

“Let’s see Triangle.”

I move through the eight or nine actions involved in building a Triangle Pose: ground back foot heel-to-toe, angle foot out 30˚; place front foot four feet ahead, align heel and toes to the front. Lift the arches of the feet, engaging the groin muscles. Extend torso and abdomen, draw front arm forward…

As I move, from above the camera clicks.

* * *

In the political circles I frequent, devotion isn’t at the top of the agenda. It does not affirm or fortify the independence of a soul, but rather the discovery of spirit in the utter interbeing of each with the other. It is not the clear, structured rationality of logic and formalism, but rather the discovery of freedom through submission, of liberation through discarding insistence on self, of coming to life by uprooting the individuality-hedgerows we’ve planted and watered and groomed. It does not bear the hallmarks of scientistic objectivity. It is, instead, a path into and through subjectivity. Not so much a “moving toward” as a self-surrender.

* * *

“Let’s try uttanasana.”

I stand, big toes touching, side by side, heels parted an inch or so. I raise my arms and gaze up to the ceiling, then bend at the waist, bringing my hands first to the floor, then to the backs of my calves, my face to my knees. I extend my spine. My face presses into my shins.

“Rotate slightly to your left.”

I shift to the left.

* * *

Part of the modern objection to self-surrender is rooted in historical recognition of Jim-Jones style cultism, “just-following-orders” war crimes, and perversely co-dependent pathologies. Those problems are painfully real, and I’m not entirely sure how to describe and contour my sense of how they differ from bhakti yoga. I suppose one could avoid those problems by confining the scope of one’s devotion to bounds set by rationality, but that very constraint seems inconsistent with the whole-hearted connection and liberation that characterizes bhaki. Perhaps there are more and less mature ways of engaging in bhakti, just as one can engage in a variety of non-rational ways of being, some pre-rational, unaware and dismissive of all that rationality has to offer, others post-rational, incorporating all that rationality offers, but wider and deeper than rationality, not confined by its limitations.

Or perhaps, though, bhakti is just stepping through a darkened doorway.

* * *

“Deepen the twist.”

“Now lift your head.”

“Draw your chin back a bit.”

I comply.

* * *

Bhakti is the part of yoga that most resembles religious practices. Consequently, it is the part that can make those devoted to a particular religious practice –and equally those opposed to religious practice altogether – distinctly uncomfortable.

In bhakti, I find joyful, whole-hearted connection. Some bhaktis love the embodiment of that connection in imagined images of divine. For me, I find it in the twisting wisps of smoke rising from a smoldering incense stick, in chanting.

Now in fairness to my specific-religion friends and to my specific-no-religion friends, if I chant Jaia Ganesha Jaia Jaia Ganesha Jaia intending to curry special favor with an invisible, portly-human-bodied, elephant-headed god named Ganesha who is particularly inclined to remove obstacles from human endeavors for those who worship him repeatedly, then yes, I’m engaged in a kind of pre-rational worship that may well conflict with a belief in a different deity that is appeased or approached through a different set of practices or with a “no-deity-no-way” policy. I get those ways of looking at the world. I lived versions of them myself for a long time. And I don’t criticize anyone who finds them useful or good or important. There is neither point nor good in rejecting what is.

But there’s a way of devotion, a tao, that is more immediate, that is neither petitioning of an independent Other, nor simply empty ritual, but that is intermeshed with consciousness in the very act of devotion itself, whatever form that devotion might take, whether burning incense or paying tithing or feeding the hungry or cleaning toilets or weaving flower garlands or painting the Sistine Chapel. And that tao dissolves everything but the devotion, both lover and beloved, both teacher and student, both subject and object.

* * *


I sit. Balance. Grasp my toes. Extend my legs. I lift my heart toward the ceiling.

“Hold it there.”

I hold.

* * *

My first experience with bhakti was singing. My earliest memory in life is sitting on my mother’s lap in a rocking chair, singing with her before bedtime. I was, I think, about 3 years old at the time. The memory remains, I’m sure, because it was the first time I recall singing dissolving into harmony – perfect fourths, if such a distant memory can be trusted. As I grew up, I sang in children’s choirs at funerals and church meetings. I sang in school choirs throughout grade school. I spent more hours singing in college than I spent in course work for either of my majors.

Singing – an activity made of breath, vibration, and mind – can be entirely self-focused concentration. But it can also be bhakti – devotion. It takes all kinds of forms, ranging from Protestant hymns in 4/4 time with rhyming lyrics sung in well-lit chapels, to textured drum-beating, tabla-droning, body-swaying kirtan chants in Sanskrit to Ganesha in a half-dark yoga studio, to Gregorian plainsong chants intoned in stone cathedrals, to OM continuously chanted in a circle of friends sitting on the floor of an office, converted for a time into a sacred space.

Or, as happens most mornings of my life, an invocation sung quietly to the field above my yoga mat before I step into that sacred space.

Really, we don’t sing to communicate information. We sing to embody feeling. We sing to embody ideas. We sing to vibrate in a harmonic dance with the universe.

When I sing, I open my heart, not to myself, not to I, but to You.

* * *

I’m in hurdle pose – balanced on my hands, arms bent at elbows, my left leg angled forward, resting on the back of my left tricep, right leg extended into the air behind me.

“Can you draw your left leg forward a bit?”

I press. Not sure whether anything moves or not.

“Engage your toes.”

“Now lift the left leg a bit.”

I lift.

* * *

As I said, for a variety of reasons –some pre-rational, some quite rational – not everyone finds the path of bhakti to be particularly appealing, so many yoga studios scale back the overtly bhakti aspects of the yoga they practice. The studios where I practice most of the time tend toward the austerity of postures, heat, and breath. But for a person inclined toward bhakti, the lack of a Shiva statute or a Buddha mural isn’t really an impediment. The basic elements of bhakti yoga are still always present: there’s the devotee, and there’s the teacher.

Exactly what it is about working with a gifted teacher, I truly don’t know. There isn’t much about the western practice of yoga asana, breath, and meditation that makes obvious the need for a teacher. Lots of people practice their yoga based on a few books, a video or two, in the solitude of their own homes. I have a home practice, myself. But nonetheless, many of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had have come through yoga, and almost always have come through teachers.

…love is the vehicle through which you can much more quickly learn the language of your own True Self. Precisely because this learning is driven by love, it happens more rapidly than sitting alone, in the corner, on your meditation mat, counting your breaths.

Ken Wilber, One Taste, pg. 209

* * *

“Do you have a standing backbend?”

I position my feet.

“Come closer to the scaffold.”

I move toward the platform.

“Face away from me, and bend back toward me.”

I turn 180˚, lift my arms to Mountain Pose, then widen the pelvis, rotating the femurs inward, creating space for the sacrum to descend. The tailbone rotates down and under, the pubic bone rotates up and forward, bringing a stretch to the quads. Spine lengthened, the shoulder girdle begins its motion up and back.

“Relax your arms – bring your hands to heart center, anjali mudra.”

I press my palms together, just above my heart. The back bend deepens. My eyes gaze upward, but now up is back. I breathe slowly, each exhale taking me more deeply back, the entire front of my body from knees to pelvis to ribcage to sternum to chin is bow-string taut, vibrating with fatigue.

“A bit more.”

I exhale again, the backbend deepens, my gaze travels across the ceiling and suddenly, I’m seeing into the inverted eyes of the photographer above and behind me in the air.

Looking into Laurie’s eyes, I feel the prana of devotion to the presence above me, and I see that the next stage of the backbend is constricted not by the limitations of muscle or sinew, but by fear and self-protection. I release them and trust the pose, the teacher, the photographer, the alignment of existence, the internal point of singleness, Shiva.

Ishvara pranidhana indeed.

The spine arches more deeply, the abdominal and diaphragm muscles release slightly, and my gaze moves from the photographer’s eyes, to what is beyond them.

* * *

Eye-to-eye, we connect: the unity, the dance, the connection, the not-two-ness of the experience – bhakti – a way of relaxing the attachment to self.

It is momentary freedom, beginning as one, discovering another, and each disappearing, leaving only the twining.

[For more pix, go here.]