What a day of yoga this has been, absolutely mind blowing. It began this morning with Prashant’s class as we continued to refine our practice using the breath. Again, I remind you that these are not quotes, but remembrances. Yoga is observation, you must learn to distinguish between action and observation. Hardwired for action, our desire is to move and make things happen, but the yoga practice requires us to be patient, watch and observe what’s happening on a subtle level in the body, and remember we are trying to move from a purely physical practice to yog. The key to observation is the breath. Observe what the breath does in the body and learn what it means to be embodied. The nature of the mind is controlled by the body, but bodily actions are also influenced by the mind, so it’s a two-way street. I can see this in my own life on days when I wake up feeling gloomy and force myself to smile. I feel my spirits lift, but technically nothing has changed except the shape of my face.
He challenged us to watch the breath when we are tired, bored, excited, angry, emotional, or aroused, and notice the differences. I kept this awareness with me throughout the day. When I was tired after a full lunch my breath was shallow and I felt dull. When I was excited watching the evening class, my breath was lively and I felt energetic and willful. At one point while observing the evening class my mind wandered to someone’s clothes, indeed in the midst of this excellent class I found myself distracted by desire, grasping in my mind for someone else’s cute yoga shirt. Off I went on a mental holiday, picturing myself wearing it and teaching yoga… It was a Madison Avenue moment, with me at the center, somehow better with the new shirt than I am now. Then I caught myself, I could feel that my chest had tightened and my breath shortened, I thought “relax your breath”. It happened in an instant, my temples softened and there was a sensation of the skin of my face dropping slightly, no Madison Avenue there, then my mind let go of it’s grip on the fantasy. My whole body relaxed slightly and I smiled to myself feeling in control of my emotions once again, however briefly. The breath is always there, always present, from the moment you emerge until your final exhalation. It never takes a vacation, you are always breathing and your breath is reflecting everything that happens to you. Everything is inside of you, the entire cosmos, and the breath is your guru.
I’ve used the breath for years as an object of focus in meditation, and these teachings resonate with me. My meditation practice is being fed and nurtured here by osmosis, chanting voices drift in the open windows of my room and I strain to hear. My asana is slowly taking on a meditative quality, and I have time for sitting 45 minutes each day. My meditation practice has ebbed and flowed through the years, morphing slightly with different teachers, and bringing little bits of clarity along the way that immediately vanish, but leave a little residue. One thing has become clear to me, the practice helps me stay sane.
There are many types of meditation, I do a Buddhist practice called Vipassana or clear-seeing. It has two layers, the first is Shamatha or calm abiding, learning to pacify the mind and cultivate concentration and loving kindness. The second, actual “Vipassana”, is looking directly at the nature of the thoughts and the mind. In Pali, it’s translated as “before the eyes.” Prashant’s keen use of metaphor is helping me to see meditation in asana. His description of the body and mind being absorbed by the breath, speaks to me on a familiar level. It’s like looking at your house from your neighbor’s window, it has a different look but it’s the same place.
Today it became obvious to me that we are all in a state of flux. Prashant and his family are coping with a monumental shift in their personal lives, their beloved father and teacher has died, their business, the Institute, must adapt, and their grief and loss must be dealt with in a public setting. Prashant spoke fondly of his father, how he used yoga to help people, the sick and infirm, the depressed, and those with serious illnesses. He was a great teacher. I am not a teacher. I am just a man trying to understand myself through yoga. He seemed to chide the yoga teachers who came to study with Guruji, They come and they want to see how Guruji is doing everything. How does he teach? What does he is say? How does he practice? What does he eat? They want to be great yoga teachers and travel the world and teach like Guruji. I am not a teacher. That’s why people say that I am an odd ball, because Prashant is not a teacher. As I listened to him I thought, “He is defining himself for us and for himself”. What I heard him say is, I am not my father. I am on the same path as you and I can’t teach you something that you must discover for yourself.
Meanwhile, Karen and I are in a state of flux trying to adapt to life in a small apartment in a strange city on a different continent. While my problems pale in comparison to other people’s they still frustrate me, even dumb things like remembering to turn on and off the hot water heater, and how to convert dollars to rupees, and not to open my mouth in the shower and accidentally consume contaminated water. But most of all, I miss my family and the intimacy of home. I want to see my friends and pets. I want to hold and be held.
We struggle against the flux, but it is the change that makes us grow. When I am at home I am content and happy, but my growth is limited by my comfort. The fact that I have to think so much here about mundane things, and I have to see things I don’t want to see, and smell things I don’t want to smell, wakes me up and makes me alert and breaks me out of my routine. Because habits, even good ones, can can sink us into complacency when we aren’t aware of what we’re doing all the time, and comfort by definition is not a heightened state of alertness.
This long day ended with a class I observed that was taught by Guruji’s granddaughter, Abhijata. It was the most intense yoga class I’ve ever seen. She worked the students hard in Sirsasana (Headstand) and Sarvanagasana (Shoulderstand) for over twenty minutes each, doing all the variations, and this was after 45 minutes of strenuous work in Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) and the standing poses. I truly have never seen anything like it, and I don’t know that I could have kept up. After the class finished she spoke to the group and said something to this effect: Guruji believed that you must go to the infinite. There comes a time in the pose when the mind says, ‘Enough of this. I’m tired of this pose. I want to go to another pose’. So you give in and go to the other pose but then the mind says again, ‘I’m tired of this and I want to do that’, and on and on. This is the duality of the mind that Patanjali spoke of in the yoga sutras, this is what we are trying to curb and ultimately overcome with the yoga practice. If you give in when you can’t take it any more, that is finite and you’ve done only what you thought you were capable of, but if you push through that boundary you explode your image of yourself and you taste the infinite.