My Yoga journey (so far) – podcast

Greetings. A few months back I had the pleasure of speaking with an old friend about Yoga as well as my experience as a student and teacher. That conversation has been transformed into a nice podcast. I am honoured to be the first in a series of podcasts entitled Rebirth. Thank you Rene.

https://soundcloud.com/rrrrrrren/the-rebirth-ep-01

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On Personal Practice or “Noisy Bangles”

Beaten RiceLong ago in an Indian kingdom, there was a poor girl who wished to marry. When her prospective in-laws came to visit her home, she greeted them graciously and bade them to sit. Her parents entertained them while, unknown to the guests, she went to the back of the house to work in the kitchen. They were planning to serve a meal with beaten rice. Ordinarily pounding the rice is the job of the servant. This family was too poor to have a servant and the girl had to pound the rice herself. She began the laborious process and quickly noticed that she was making a lot of noise. As most Indian women, she wore numerous bangles and this was causing such a racket as the flattened the rice. On account of her poverty, she did not wear gold bangles but ones made of glass. She knew that the sound of her jingling bangles could be heard throughout the house and she did not wish her prospective in-laws to know that she was doing the work herself. She started by breaking few bangles but found that they still made noise as she worked. Eventually she broke all her bangles save two and still they made noise by jingling against each other. Finally she broke another, leaving her with only one bangle and in silence.

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This is a very old story that was told to monks, yogis and spiritual seekers of every kind. The lesson of the story is that as soon as there are two, there is discord. This means that as soon as two people practice together, there will be disagreement. Each of us has a path to walk and we must invariably walk it alone if we wish to reach the destination. Simply, we all have different minds, bodies, capacities and goals; therefore our practice must be different.

This also applies to the practice of Hatha-Yoga. Group practice is nice and offers certain advantages (group energy and motivation). However, to make real progress we must develop a personal practice. This will develop the discipline required to move forward on our path. Practicing alone also allows us to enhance our internal sensitivity and develop concentration in our practice. You can listen to your own breath and follow a sequence that is tailored to your needs, which is unavailable to you in a group setting. It makes it possible to really practice Yoga. By practicing alone, you offer yourself the possibility to deepen and evolve your practice. This will result in real progress toward your goal. This is not to say that you should give up group classes, which can be very enjoyable. It is important for anyone wishing to genuinely practice to remember that true and transformative Yoga is purely an individual pursuit. I understand that it is not what we may want to hear but Yoga is an uphill climb that only you can do for yourself. Understand why you are practicing, where you are trying to reach, take courage and keep climbing.

International Yoga Day

This Sunday (June 21st) is the first International Yoga Day. However, it’s tantamount to having International Exercise Day. The celebration of this event furthers the confusions and ignorance about Yoga’s true value. Allow me to explain why.

Last year India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, visited Canada and the US. He was given the opportunity to address the UN. This is what he had to say:

International-Day-of-Yoga“We need to change our lifestyles. Energy not consumed is the cleanest energy. We can achieve the same level of development, prosperity and well being without necessarily going down the path of reckless consumption. It doesn’t mean that economies will suffer; it will mean that our economies will take on a different character. For us in India, respect for nature is an integral part of spiritualism. We treat nature’s bounties as sacred. Yoga is an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition. Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”

His address was so well received that the UN declared June 21st as International Yoga Day. Across India and the world, Sunday will be host to massive classes but I ask, what good will that do?

There is an inherent fallacy found throughout the Yoga community that doing Hatha-Yoga (postures) will have some profound effect on our lives. In the true spirit of Yoga, we must be precise and clear about our ideas. There is no reason to believe that doing exercises will make you happy. It will help you be fit and healthy, both of which are important but you don’t need Yoga to achieve them.

Mr. Modi called Yoga a “holistic approach to health and well being” and I agree fully (holistic meaning “complete” or “whole”).  The sweeping tendency in the modern Yoga movement is to focus on the first (health) and (largely) forget the second part (well being/happiness). If we practice in a partial way then we will only enjoy partial benefits. If we practice holistically then only can we expect holistic benefits. More dangerous is the baseless assumption that practicing the first will also give the second. We know very well that happiness does not lie in the body but is found in the mind.

I think it’s a real shame because not only do we short-change Yoga but mostly we short-change ourselves. Yoga’s most precious gift is in regard to our mind (peace & happiness), which we are in desperate need of in our modern lives. I agree that health is important and a pre-requisite for happiness but beyond that what will it bring us? Fitness is great but it’ll never make us happy. My concern in reducing Yoga to a form of exercise is in losing it’s most valuable gem.

I certainly do not wish to take anything away from all those enthusiastic Hatha-Yoga practitioners who are going to participate in lovely community events on Sunday. I encourage the physical practice but I would also suggest an addition: I encourage everyone to take five minutes of quite reflection and self-examination. Please remember that Yoga is about right knowledge and right practice. We should not be so naive as to think a few thousand (or million?) people doing Sun Salutations is going to change the world; imagine if that same number re-invented themselves from the inside by practicing holistic Yoga. That is a world I would like to see.

yoga around the world

The “Yoga” of Fight Club

I thought an easy way to get back into soapwriting would be to start with something on the lighter side. Often enough, surprising things come out in my yoga classes and a few weeks ago it was the 1999 film adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club. It is a remarkable movie that offers extremely insightful commentary and criticisms of modern society and it’s misguided priorities. I hope it hasn’t gone under the radar of pop culture over the past 15 years. The following list is just a survey of some of the themes and is in no way exhaustive (the film has plenty of gems). I should point out that the central theme throughout the film is about consumerism and attachment.

On Appearances: Often in our practice we get carried away with form while neglecting substance. Appearances can be misleading and are quite hollow without any internal support. In one scene the narrator and Tyler Durden board a bus; on seeing a standard men’s underwear advertisement, the narrator asks Tyler, “Is that what a man looks like?” to which both chuckle.

On Attachment to the body: Of all things, we identify most strongly with our physical body and thus we often have difficulty seeing ourselves beyond only that. There is a great scene where the narrator is brushing his teeth and is dismayed after he pulls out a tooth with his fingers. “Hey, even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart!” is Tyler Durden’s casual response.

On Attachment to objects: The main theme of the film revolves around the narrator’s lack of fulfillment despite consumer success. We also identify with pleasurable objects but what kind of pleasure do they bring us and why do we pursue them? The central thread of the film: “We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.” “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” “The things you own end up owning you.”

Fight Club (1999)Edward Norton and Brad Pitt(Screengrab)

 

On Perspective: We can keep life in perspective by remembering death. A Momento Mori was a device used largely by Western Medieval philosophers and mystics (but also right into modern times). It is a Latin expression meaning: “Remember, you are going to die”. It functioned as direct reminder of your own mortality and often came in the form of a human skull kept for the purpose of reflection. The concept figures in other traditions as well, notably in Hinduism and Sufism (often practiced by visiting graveyards or cremation grounds rather than keeping a skull). In Sufism the concept is called dhikr al-mawt (I have a great Sufi story about that but for another time). Tyler Durden very poignantly reminds us that “This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time.” and “You have to know, not fear, that someday you’re going to die.” There is another powerful scene where Tyler threatens to murder a store clerk if he doesn’t go back to school. After leaving the clerk, Tyler tells the narrator “His (the clerk) breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever had.”

On Mis-Identification: As noted above, we identify so strongly with our body and our goods, that we forget who and what we really are. If we mistakenly identify with these things, as they change for the better or worst, so do we. If we can recognize that we are something far more real, everything can spin around us but we never loose our footing. “You’re not your job; you’re not how much money you have in the bank; you’re not the car you drive; you’e not the contents of your wallet; you’re not your fucking khakis!

On the Ego: One of the most explicit comments made by the film is in the split personality of the narrator/Tyler Durden. Their relationship shows how we are our own worst enemy. We are the narrator and our ego (ahamkara) is Tyler. They are the best of friends but in the end all Tyler cares about is his continued existence and the subjugation of the “real” narrator. The final scene is powerfully symbolic as the narrator is only able to free himself from Tyler by figurative suicide. He has to kill Tyler to be truly free.