Categories
art & yoga emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) favorites teaching what is yoga

meeting resistance on and off the mat

and some books I’ve been reading have me asking why you do yoga. I know why I do it, and why I teach it. But sometimes I wonder if I’m teaching to your needs.

The other night, in a last class of the semester, I asked students what they wanted from yoga. If they came to class as a happy bubble from the outside stresses of life. Eyes got big and heads nodded, almost as if to say, “Please don’t ask more of us. Please don’t ask more.” And for good reason, as exams and finals and graduations are upon us. I remember the stresses of grad school and just trying to maintain. And honestly, this is fine. To feel good for a few hours of your week, to forget all the headaches that will just change into a different stress in a week or a month or a season, is a wonderful thing.

But yoga can be much, much more. It can allow you the space to shift your attention from an external experience of self—how you look, how you’re performing in school or work, what your friends/partner/community thinks of you—to an internal experience of self. How you feel. What your thoughts are. How your thoughts shift. How your muscles feel. How all of this constantly changes.

As a culture, we build up tremendous habits against internal awareness because frankly, we don’t feel that great much of the time. The pressures we take on in modern life to keep up and impress require that we treat ourselves like robots. But we’re not. We aren’t a mechanical airbrushed consumer in a glossy ad. And that’s a good thing. But we often forget that, and how to relate to anything else. Yoga shifts this, which is why it can feel so good.

Most people probably do yoga for this reason. Exercise and a time out. This works, especially as maintenance a few times a week. Many people sense there is more to yoga, but don’t really have the time or need to pursue what that is. And that is a great and healthy thing. Others get hooked and begin to practice more, or look into the other dimensions of yoga. Also great.

There comes a point in a serious practitioner’s practice, and maybe for less dedicated yogis as well, that yoga will make you feel worse. That may or may not be totally conscious. You might start to dislike your teacher, people you practice with, or the style of yoga you recently raved about. You might find it impossible to get to the class. You’ll start missing practices. Or drift away from the mat for long periods of time. But this is when it is most crucial to get to your mat. Your yoga is starting to work on a deep level. It’s when you start to see things you don’t want to see. If you want to shift your incessant patterns, you need to see. But your ego and defense mechanisms resist this. Hate this. Suddenly those patterns seem not so bad. Comfortable. Reasonable. Much better the devil you know, eh?

20130425-NY_April-106

When I first left a job I disliked to do work I love, I was shocked to find my resistance and procrastination was just as strong for things that I love as those that I don’t. Maybe stronger. It can be so hard to get to the mat, or sit down, or stand up and just do the work. Why? Because we like the comfort of where we are a little more than we’re willing to admit?

I could give you a long list of cliches to help you fight resistance, but honestly, nothing will get you there but discipline and an iron commitment. Yes, routine helps. A support system helps. A great teacher helps. But if you are patterned to distrust, the best sangha (community), routine or teacher in the world won’t stop you from mounting a case against them if that’s how you’ve programed things. You know this by experiences past.

Go and meet the hate. Get up and make the phone call. Sit down to your research. Start sewing the dress. Face the terror of doing whatever it is you so long to do. Yoga can help you do this—but you’ll begin to resist the yoga, too. Just keep doing it. Because when you do, you see what’s going on. It is slow and painful and terrifying, but you have begun to develop the tools to work with that. You’ve started to make shifts consciously and unconsciously. Do anything but give in to the devil you know. You’re closer than you think.

This is why I don’t advocate shiny, happy yoga. I wince at the idea of yoga as a happy bubble time that will keep you comfortable enough, when it can be the vehicle for profound change. But I do understand that there’s great value in just feeling good for a few hours a week. Honestly, I’m happy to be a part of that too.

Categories
art & yoga

art & yoga: photography as a daily practice

20130213-NewYork-Feb--322

Photography has always been something that brings me into the moment (except, perhaps, the few years I worked full time as a photog). It also makes me happy. Seeing something that strikes my interest and playing with it via the camera brings me joy. I’ve noticed that on these walks, a few shots can turn my mood around. I’ve often heard the argument that photography does the opposite, takes the seer out of the moment, by looking for a photo or trying to freeze time instead of just being with what is there. This may be true, and may be more true for some than others. Perhaps if you are on a trip and feel the need to snap away to show others you were there—but this is not photography, and the result is not interesting. Yes, there are definitely moments when it’s time to put down the camera. Personally, I’ve found that photography brings me far more into the moment than writing does. Not the moment of actual writing, when there’s little choice, but the stories I write in my head when walking down the street, when I see something funny I want to share. As it is told and retold in my mind, how much accuracy have I retained? How much have I missed passing by? As a form of creativity, I don’t see this as inherently bad. I just notice the power photography has to bring me into the moment and open my eyes. It’s inaccurate to say that photography is not an act of awareness. We don’t hear people complain that writers aren’t in the moment because they are crafting stories in their heads, but it is perfectly true.

Last year, I started carrying a point and shoot with me at all times. Not necessarily to Mysore practice, but everywhere. But because my walk to practice is daily, at my most focused time of day, a series of photos began: The Walk to Mysore. It’s also the walk from Mysore, which can include different paths. Read the full story…

Categories
art & yoga emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) favorites slider what is yoga yoga practice

the thing about gurus: a kumaré review

Gurus have always been problem for me, perhaps my biggest in the yoga and meditation worlds. Though perhaps it’s the strange and often appropriated spirituality that bothers me, and gurus are an offshoot of that. The reason I’ve left most sanghas (communities) is because there comes a point that if you aren’t into the guru, you just aren’t going to be accepted or go further. It’s kind of sad.

I teach at a university rather than a studio because most studios require their teachers to drink the kool aid, so to speak. Even studios and meditation centers without gurus tend to have very strong head-teacher personalities and a doctrine to which their teachers must subscribe. Take just a few classes somewhere and you get the idea. If you don’t, take their teacher training. Corporate studios are usually an exception, but they’re corporate. It’s a shame, because a community of like minded yogis or meditators is an amazing thing.

Why are gurus a problem? Because they pretend to have something you don’t. This is Vikram Gandhi’s point in the documentary, Kumaré, playing now at IFC. Because their willingness to be deified is problematic. Because more often than not, they abuse their power. Because they often take advantage of their disciples, sexually and otherwise. Because anyone worthy of being your guru won’t let you deify her. Good teachers encourage personal agency rather than usurp it. That’s what yoga and meditation communities need, amazing teachers.

So Vikram Gandhi’s documentary was poignant. He’s a Jersey-born Hindu who was frustrated by religion. So he studied it at Columbia and was frustrated further (sounds familiar). He didn’t like the YogaGuru madness blossoming in America, and didn’t find them to be more authentic in his motherland of India. So he set out to become a fake guru, to prove that gurus have nothing you don’t. You don’t need anyone but yourself. The answers are within.

Okay. I agree. But what I don’t quite follow is why Gandhi so strongly needed to tell others what they do or don’t need. I’m never terribly comfortable with that. That’s what gurus do, right?

Regardless, the results were great. The first impression I had of the film (full disclosure) was from anecdotes of a student of mine who played Kumare’s assistant. It seemed that its initial intent was to ridicule those who will believe and worship anyone, even a complete fraud from Jersey. But if that was the original intent, it didn’t pan out. What clearly happens along the way is that Vikram falls in love with these people. It changes him. Temporarily, anyway.

I discussed the film with two friends, Surya, who saw it, and Orit, who did not. Orit said “He fell in love with the power, you mean.”

Surya was raised by European parents who followed a Hindu guru. She was part of a spiritual sangha until she was 12. She is incredibly cynical about the experience, yet she agreed. “No, he fell in love with the people. He did.”

And that’s what makes the movie. But it also, for me, disproved his point. The followers needed Gandhi and he needed them, though not as a guru but as a teacher. Because of the circumstances of the documentary, Gandhi was more of a really good teacher than a guru, in the western sense of the word. In Sanskrit, guru generally means teacher, but has a spiritual context which tends to add some baggage. Teachers also learn from their students, at least as much as they teach. The guru tradition is more unidirectional. Knowledge is imparted by teacher to student.

identGandhi was being filmed while he played the role of guru, and not simply filmed, but filmed by close friends and creative partners. He had checks on his power, and he knew the plot: he was going to reveal himself, which forced a certain responsibility and humility, especially when he began to care about his disciples. Instead of behaving like a typical guru, with omnipotence and hubris, he behaved himself while he communicated his message. Because of this he was a powerful teacher. And because he cared.

I’m not sure that Vikram expected the transformation that came about. I’d guess that he was out of prove his point, not be transformed by his role of the master. But transform he did. As many yoga teachers can tell you, the projections of goodness that students can place on you are powerful. So is the joy of simply helping people feel good. When Vikram Gandhi’s disciples loved him and thought he was great, he felt it, and loved them back. And because his friends were around to film him and keep him in line, and he had to reveal himself in the end, it didn’t go to his head. Instead, he became great, helpful, loving, and caring. And as Gandhi says pretty frequently, “Ask my friends. I am not that kind of guy. I think people miss Kumaré (read: prefer him to me).”

When he said this on stage in a Q&A with cast and crew after the screening, there was a resounding, “Yeah!” from his friends.

The film provokes two questions for me. Do people need gurus? Why wasn’t Gandhi’s transformation long lasting? Or, why does he wish he could always be Kumaré, instead of somehow incorporating Kumaré into himself? Why did he return to his cynical, judgmental self after the filming? That for me is a large question. Did he require the constant projection to be (and feel) loving, open and helpful? Or does he just miss feeling needed and useful?

Do people need gurus? These people clearly needed someone to reflect their goodness and inner guidance back to them, just as Gandhi needed people to reflect his. While I prefer teachers, who am I to tell someone not to seek a guru? I have friends whom I respect, amazing and intelligent people, who believe in a guru. The disciples in the film clearly face difficult problems, issues well beyond existential cynicism, and likely lack solid, understanding relationships in their lives, now and as well as in their tender, developing years.

At one point in the movie, Gandhi talks with a woman who’d been sexually abused by a family member. Just after her interview, he states (I believe as the camera shows her walking off), “We are all really the same” in a very we-are-one guru-y kind of way. I suppose it was meant to make us relate to her, to feel with her, but said at that moment, after that interview, I questioned if Gandhi really gets it. If he gets what it’s like to be someone without a comfortable life, without parents waiting with friends and supporters in the restaurant next door to celebrate his most recent success, with problems larger than showing up to his ten-year Columbia University reunion to face his more successful friends. A personal history filled with trauma and lack of support creates a psyche that aches to be seen and to believe in something more grand than the pain thrown one’s way. Does he get that? Or does he really think they can just find their inner truth on their own? Because, clearly, these people needed to be seen. They needed what Gandhi gave them as much as he needed them. No one can just do it on his own.

Who knows? Maybe he does get it. It’s not clear. I guess that is my question for him. How did making the film change his perception of needing a guru and finding truth on one’s own? Especially in light of his post-filming difficulty finding the same joy in himself as he was able to find in Kumaré.

That said, teachers able to help you believe in your own voice are far far better guides than gurus. In Kumaré, Gandhi is almost as good as they get.

Categories
art & yoga yoga practice

yoga vacation

Karen & Angela at Bristo Yoga School

I’m just back from a yoga holiday. On a whim I went on an ashtanga retreat in Edinburgh, Scotland with Angela Jamison. I’d never met her, but we’d corresponded and followed each other’s blogs for a few years, so it was good fun to finally meet. It was during the fringe fest, the world’s largest arts festival in the heart of Edinburgh. Karen Breneman, the lovely owner, took me in and made me feel more than at home during my stay. I also visited friends and family in England, so it was an amazing trip.

Bristo Yoga School

I like to travel with some sort of focus like this, as it adds to my trip. I’ve never been good at backpacking or hotels or hostels or wandering at random. Another museum is only interesting to me if there’s a larger context, and some interaction with locals to add perspective.

There are all sorts of ways to go about this, and it depends on your style of travel. As a once-tour guide, I’m fairly adept at organizing things myself, and both my ashtanga holidays were scheduled at whim (the first was in Sri Lanka a few years ago). Ashtanga is particularly good for this, as it’s practiced around the world. This retreat wasn’t an all day affair but morning mysore practice with maybe a short afternoon workshop, so the rest of the day was open to do as I pleased, like check out shows at the fringe, and the endlessly amazing city itself.

It helps to know the teacher when you go on retreat, as  not to be stuck with a bum deal on your holiday. But you can try your chances, too. Either go with your own, as many teachers lead retreats in lovely locales, or try out a teacher or style of yoga you’ve been curious about, on a retreat or simply visiting an interesting city with a good studio. You don’t have to do a full-fledged retreat to have an excellent yoga holiday.

There are also plenty of yoga centers and ashrams that offer a full yoga experience, or yoga package tours, often run by studios. Again, it helps to know the teacher or studio to know the vibe and style the trip will have. A quick google search will give you ideas about ashrams that offer workshops and retreats in pretty places. Many of these can be pricey, but I’m sure there are some affordable options out there. I prefer to organize things myself, which is less expensive, but can be quite a lot of work. If you want a planned, package group type thing, check out Kripalu or Esalen, or browse the ads of a yoga magazine.

And of course, there’s always Mysore.

Categories
art & yoga meditation yoga practice

stone age mind in a digital world

As with yoga, I wasn’t so sure I’d like Jon Kabat-Zinn. But when I did a retreat with him a few years ago, he was fantastic. Many yogis/Buddhists/etc feel he’s stripping the practice down too far (it’s secular). I don’t. Further, as a person, he exemplifies what he teaches, and that is far, far too rare. This podcast, Opening to Our Lives, is worth a listen.

A few highlights:

  • Kabat-Zinn talks about our stone age minds operating in a digital world. We’re not programmed to handle the sorts of stresses that we’re creating for ourselves and we are not considering the consequences. Nor have we fully explored what it means to be human, having very little understanding of how our minds work or who we are. He suggests that it is crucial to do so before we start inserting microchips into our skulls. I agree.
  • Humans have a natural tendency toward empathy. The economic theories that drive our culture, which support the ultra-wealthy and have proved once and again to have dismal consequences, would have us believe otherwise. We’ve been culturally brainwashed by them. But more and more scientific evidence backs both human and primate drives toward empathy. I am not denying tendencies toward violence, but that gets more than enough of our attention.
  • Stress dampens natural tendencies toward empathy. Again: stress dampens our natural tendencies toward empathy.
  • Kabat-Zinn explains that the word for mind and heart in Asian languages (at least, he’s been told) is the same. Mind and heart are the same word. And the mind, in Buddhist traditions, is taken to be a sense. Something by which we perceive the world. This is important to understand, because in the West, we tend to think of our minds as organs of knowledge and truth, rather than perceptions. And, again, the word for heart is the same as the word for mind.
  • Ergo, when you hear be mindful, or mindfulness practices, “if you are not hearing heartfulness, you are misunderstanding.” Mindfulness, heartfulness, is a way of being. (This is around 13:30 in the podcast.)

Categories
art & yoga yoga habits

the yoga of sylvester graham

Jessica’s fantastic comment a few posts back reminded me of my undergrad thesis on health reform. Sylvester Graham was an activist of the 1800s. He had many interesting beliefs (and followers, like Ralph Emerson and Upton Sinclair), some of which parallel those of yogis. He was generally severe, believing that such things as cold cereal and flannel clothing worn against the skin (specifically undergarments) excited the body and should be avoided. However, he was a great advocate of dance. He believed that  it was preferable that people meet to sing and dance rather than to eat and drink, lest “They should endure a miserable existence in moping melancholy, for want of proper exercise and relaxation….If I could have my wish, the Violin…should be played in every family in the civilized world” and that were singing and dancing practiced in theological seminaries, literary groups, and scientific circles, then “immense benefits…would result for society at large.” Exactly! He goes on:

The salutary influence of animating music, connected with exercise, is very great; in fact, it may almost be said to be medicinal, for it actually has the most healthful effect on all the vital functions of the body; and hence, dancing, when properly regulated, is one of the most salutary kinds of social enjoyment ever practised in civic life, and every enlightened philanthropist must regret to see it give place to any other kind of amusement. The religious prejudice against dancing is altogether ill founded; for it is entirely certain that this kind of social enjoyment is more favorable to good health, sound morality, and true religion than perhaps any other known in society.

—Graham, Sylvester. Lectures on the science of human life. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1858, p.39.

Perhaps I’m a bit off topic here, but I love to see the parallels between yoga and other health practices in American culture, historical or otherwise. Soon, a shift from art and yoga to a post on Namaste नमस्ते. What it means and why we say it.

..

Categories
art & yoga

art & yoga :: off like a prom dress

skellyA number of sketches have been pasted to the wall of a tunnel that leads from street to subway in Manhattan. I love this one especially (cell phone snap). It gently nags me to write down my thoughts about the connections between art and yoga.

The connections between dance and yoga are seemingly more obvious than other forms of art, given that both are movement oriented, and there are many dancers in the yoga world. I know nothing about dance (or opera or theater or any of the performance arts, really) but I’ve always gone out of my way to see it. Not knowing is where my bliss comes. I’m not tempted to analyze or judge. I’m simply absorbed by the beauty of moving bodies in front of me. This absorption in the moment is yoga, and it is also art. It’s also, I imagine, where the performers need to be to pull off a powerful show. No more thought. Only the execution of what’s been learned and internalized.

I was talking about dance titles recently, which brings to mind one of my favorites: Off Like a Prom Dress (which reminds me of a fantastic Aussie saying, “a gownless evening strap.”) Friend and yoga teacher, Jessica Dixon Majka, was in this performance last month (choreography by Kara Tatelbaum) at Dance New Amsterdam.

“Off Like a Prom Dress” (2010) excerpt from Kara Tatelbaum on Vimeo.

While the physical practice of yoga might be easier for dancers, the relationship between body and mind might not be. Because dancers are trained to use their bodies as instruments, learning to be with the body rather than guide it can be difficult. Depending on training, a dancer might be inspired to move through the asanas easily, without connecting, in a way someone entirely unaware of his body might not. In this way, learning a different relationship of mind, breath, and body can be transformative. I wonder what effects this has when taken back into dance.