Instructions for living a life:
tell about it!
from “Sometimes”, a poem by Mary Oliver
Introduction, Part 1: Our Historical Moment
yogash citta-vrtti nirodhah
tada drashtuh sva-rupe’vasthanam
vrtti saryupyam itaratra
Now begins the exposition of yoga
Yoga is the resolution of the (dysfunctional) mind states.
Then “I am Wholeness” awakens and this knowing remains stable.
At other times, (in dysfunctional mind states), the self sense is con-fused with transient phenomena, (believes itself to be separate and limited and thus suffers unnecessary fear and anxiety.)
Patanjali Yoga Sutra, I-1,2,3,4
Atha, the opening word of Patanjali’s seminal work, the Yoga Sutras, carries many layers of meaning. Now, at this very auspicious moment; now, that the preparatory studies and training have been done; now, here and always now, this moment, the only moment, the holy moment, in a state of open, non-judgmental, spacious awareness, yoga unfolds within and without us.
What is yoga? Yoga refers to both the process of awakening and the state of being continuously awakening. Vedantins refer to yoga-shastra, the practices that develop maturity and clarity of mind, and brahma-vidya, unshakable knowledge of the Truth of the Self. (See Bhagavad Gita) Neurobiologists might call this the process of integration and the state of continuous integrating. The yoga process involves the transformation from a life dominated by dysfunctional mind states and an alienated self sense, to a life with a mature and integrated self sense knowing the infinite depths of Being and the infinite possibilities of our life’s unfolding. When the “knowing of Being” stabilizes in an unwavering and clear awakening, igniting the fullness of the human potential, this is known as enlightenment or moksha. Here, life flows as the masculine wisdom of the mind, clearly seeing/knowing the infinite, the absolute as Self, uniting with the the feminine compassion of the heart, feeling / knowing that all forms throughout time, space and eternity are Self, in the non-dual realization of wholeness and oneness.
Our ‘Now’ is a unique and auspicious moment in history. We are blessed to be living at a time of an unprecedented accelerating of awakening, as the depths of human consciousness are being stirred by the cosmic evolutionary forces responding to the devastating effects unconscious human activity is having on the life forms and life supporting systems of the planet. The great wisdom teachings and traditions of human spiritual practice, carefully embodied, preserved and handed down as the light of divine aliveness through history, are now intermingling with the emerging revelations of modern science in an unprecedented cross-pollinating of insight and practices, helping mobilize the awakening process and opening up the possibility of radically changing our social structures, belief systems, and our relationships to each other, planet earth and the universe.
Simultaneously, as the 21st century moves forward, all cultures of the planet with their value systems, belief systems and perspectives are being tossed and turned together in the pressure cooker of the modern world. Sri Aurobindo, writing back in the early 20th century in “The Insight of Yoga” foresaw this coming and compared this intermingling of philosophies and cultures to the cauldron of Medea, the Greek sorceress who cooked up a rejuvenating brew for her prospective father -in -law after gathering plants and other ingredients from many far-off lands.
Although as humans we experience this awakening directly, the awakening is not a strictly human phenomenon. Rather what is awakening is an emergent new expression or dimension of universe power or universe intelligence expressing itself through the new possibilities of a human species that can learn from the innate wisdom expressed in each of the unique life forms accompanying the human on this planet in this moment, as well as the powers the Universe expresses spontaneously at the heart of creation. Or, as spiritual teacher Adyashanti says, “awakening is awakening! Our spiritual ancestors have been pioneers in discovering, exploring and nurturing this process. It is up to us in this historical moment to accelerate the process by unfolding deeper dimensions of our own awakening and by initiating more and more people into this flow. Healing happens here.
As auspicious as our moment is, it is also one fraught with great dangers. As we enter the new millennium, the need for a major transformation in human consciousness has become essential for survival. The individual and collective insanity of the human mind has always created suffering for ourselves, fellow humans and other life forms. Today this madness, combined with modern technology, adds a new level of suffering; the very conditions that allowed life on Earth to come into being and flourish are being seriously threatened. The destruction of the rain forests and other natural habitats, disruption of the oceans, global warming, air, water and topsoil pollution are all accelerating under the onslaught of the human. The threats of nuclear and chemical weapons, of terrorism, of viral pandemics strike fear in the collective heart/mind of humanity. Geologian and spiritual philosopher Thomas Berry describes the modern human being as having macro-phase power and micro-phase intelligence. This needs to change.
The possibility of awakening from this dysfunctional mind state has been the foundation teaching of the great spiritual teachers and traditions in human history. With the integration of modern understandings and global communication, the possibility of millions of people awakening from the madness of the conditioned mind is vibrating right now in the collective consciousness. This is the Great Awakening and the core of this course.
In awakening, we recognize ourselves as Universal Spirit coming into form as emergent beings in a mysteriously evolving and awakening universe. The human mind, recognizing it’s own capacities for self-organizing and self integrating, through relationships as well as through more personal interoceptive contemplation, begins to unfold more complex and integral social systems, which themselves can begin to self organize, complexify and self integrate, within themselves, and also within the living and non-living communities that make up the earth, the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and the universe. As our own awakening process deepens, we become more able to fully participate in the process of collective awakening rippling through the layers of human consciousness, cultures and the ecosystems that support us all.
For most the awakening process begins as a partial awakening, a temporary glimpse of universal truth, of unity, of our infinite unlimited existence and consciousness. Adyashanti, the modern spiritual teacher who is emerging as a clear and articulate voice of awakening, describes this as un-abiding awakening. Even though unresolved traumas and conflict still inhabit the mind field, there can be a breakthrough, an opening, a sudden and spontaneous awakening where the self-sense temporarily sheds its limitations and dissolves into the limitless. The Zen Buddhist term kensho refers to this preliminary glimpse of ones true nature. This is not to be mistaken with enlightenment or fully abiding awakening, as the unresolved issues in the unconscious can easily re-create a limited self sense, and actually use the kensho as food for its own nourishment and self-aggrandizement. A lot of disciplined practice is still needed to transform the un-integrated, dysfunctional mind states that often remain after the first glimpses of awakening, or even after many years of serious and sustained practice. In the Spiritual Foundation section we will explore the strategies and practices necessary at this stage of the process.
Thus, we might say the beginning of yoga is the realization of the potential to consciously integrate the aspects of our selves that were not integrated in the moment of their arising. This may be because we were too young, or because the experience was overwhelming, traumatizing, or debilitating. Here is where the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology offers brilliant insights into how the mind, brain and organism stores and perpetuates trauma and less than skillful patterns and strategies of behavior, but also can develop the capacity to self organize and heal itself. The Neuroscience section will guide us through some of these modern revelations and help us integrate them into our lives. Many classical spiritual practices also offer pathways and therapeutic modalities to heal, to integrate, to reclaim these lost aspects of ourselves and these will be explored in the the third section of the course.
The ancient art of yoga, especially revitalized in a modern context, is a powerful vehicle of the cosmos to help move the evolutionary journey along as it integrates both Spiritual and Scientific foundations and returns the human to its rightful place, in deep intimacy with the natural world. The physically demanding aspects of yoga are well known and appreciated these days, but the integral dimensions of yoga, the aspects that explore mind, emotions, relationships and wholeness, as well as the body, are less well articulated in the modern culture. Although the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are often taught in conjunction with the yoga postures, their transcendent non-dual teachings are often missed if studied from a conceptual point of view. This course is offered as a guide for yoga students, yoga teachers and anyone ready for awakening to help broaden and deepen their understanding and experience of the yogic path of meditation, transformation, and liberation (moksha), and thus more fully participate in the transformation of human culture so urgently needed in our time.
In this course we will weave together classical spiritual teachings on unity, discipline and practice with modern scientific perspectives on the emergent evolution of forms. These will include the anatomy, physiology and neurobiology of the living organism, a look at how both personal and societal transformations arise, and some of the fundamental aspects of physics that underlie the emerging universe as a whole. Join us as we awaken to the unfolding mystery of the present moment as it emerges within us, within the various societies and communities of the planet, and the cosmos/Kosmos as a whole.
Introduction, Part 2: On the Nature of Practice
“The basis for all creativity is the sensitivity of the physical organism. … The instinctive harmony is our natural animal heritage. It can be seen in the remarkable ability of dogs and horses to to sense the needs or whereabouts of their trainers, even when the latter are far distant. Moreover, many animals are now known to prepare in advance for floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, which commonly catch people today by surprise.”
Lee Sanella, “The Kundalini Experience”.
Early on in my very first class with B.K.S. Iyengar, in January 1982, the Lion of Pune appeared in front of me as I was trembling in trikonasana. My front knee was bending and, in the back of my brain, I could hear the voice of my teacher Ramanand, (who was somewhere in the room) “you can’t bend your knee in trikonasana, he will go ballistic!” OMG, What’s he going to say? After all of the stories I had heard from students in previous intensives, I was prepared for a blistering introduction to yoga the Iyengar way. And here he was eyeing me over.
Amazingly enough, my initiation into ‘yoga the Iyengar way’ for me was not baptism by fire but rather through deep meditative enquiry. He placed his foot, toe to toe, with my front foot, looked at me and said “I want you to know how I practice.” Pointing to his own foot, he says ” what is the pressure on this inner toe?, why is there less pressure here, more pressure there? why is the skin stretching here but not stretching there?, why is the color different in these two areas of the skin? “. Then he pointed at my foot and began asking similar questions. To be honest, in that moment I had no idea how to work at that level. I searched everywhere to find subtlety, and the harder I tried, the most confused I became. But Iyengar was very patient and let me find some entry point I could feel and relax into. Almost 30 years later, I am finally understanding what it means to look quietly and deeply into our own aliveness.
This yoga studies course is based on the 30 plus years of on going enquiry awakened in that class in Pune many years ago. “I want you to know how I practice”. Yoga is not about trying to do the ‘correct’ pose’. Yoga is an open ended enquiry into the mystery of aliveness. The poses are entry points into this mystery. “The body is my temple, the asanas are my prayers ” is one of Iyengar’s more poetic quotes. As we move through 2012, I can gratefully state that my somatic practice is finally emerging as he described: a sustained enquiry into the subtlety of sensation, perception and action in the layered complex energy fields and awesome mystery we call the human body/mind. Where is there dullness, where is there aggression, where is there harmony? Can I study the nature of dullness and aggression, (tamas and rajas in Sanskrit) to discover the roots of imbalance. Can I study the nature of fluid harmony and balance, so I can nurture it further?
This way of practicing did not come at once and has not always come easily. As a beginner, I was full of ideas and aggression, and seriously lacking in direct information from the body. When he asked about my foot, my mind searched everywhere but my foot for help. The few sensations from my foot that trickled through the mental noise had no frame of reference, no basis for comparison. I had no experience in paying attention to subtlety. I was very good at being willful. I could find the basic shapes of most poses, I could hold them, as I thought I was supposed to. I was young, strong, and really clueless.
This course is written for that clueless guy who wanted to get it right all those years ago, if he were to walk into my class today. It is a course to help you find your own entry into the path of awakening, to help develop your own skillful practice, and to point out some of the pitfalls I stumbled into along my journey. But, without all of my mistakes, what would there be to teach? I am grateful for my confusion, my imbalances, my blockages and mistakes, because they have been my nourishment. And if you can learn from mine, if you can avoid my pitfalls, then you will get to discover a whole new set of mistakes, errors and screw-ups that will be uniquely your own, and you will be a better person, a better teacher for your struggles. There are pearls of wisdom hiding inside the knots and entanglements of our lives.
I was recently reminded again of the depth of Iyengar’s intuitive genius when, in pursuing my neuroscience studies, I came across Jonah Lehrer’s recently published book, “How We Decide”, on the neuroscience of decision making. In it there is an interesting discussion with an unusual man by the name of Bill Robertie. Bill is a world-class expert in three different games, chess, Texas hold-em poker and backgammon. This is an extraordinarily rare event as most of the masters in these domains spend their lives studying and playing just one of these games. Form Robertie’s perspective, his success has a simple explanation. “I know how to practice, I know how to make myself better”. And, he adds, “It’s not the quantity of practice, it’s the quality”. He constantly studies and reviews his errors. Self criticism is the key to self-improvement. (pg 50 -51)
Further on Leher quotes famous quantum physicist Niels Bohr who states an expert ” is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field”. Lehrer goes on to say “From the perspective of the brain, Bohr was absolutely right. Expertise is simply the wisdom that emerges from cellular error. Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged. On the contrary, they should be cultivated and carefully investigated.” Here was the neuro-scientific explanation of my lesson from the guru. Lets look at just what we will be exploring in the practice of hatha yoga.
What is Hatha Yoga?
The living organism we call a human being is a marvel of the emergent evolutionary creativity of the cosmos. It’s innate capacity for sensation, perception, contemplation and action is complex, profound and subtle. Hatha yoga explores this organismic intelligence of the human as expressed in what is being called “the living matrix”. This matrix is a dynamic structure that allows integral functioning of the three principle holistic information systems in the body: the fluid/circulatory system, the fascial or connective tissue system and the nervous system, with all the cells, organs and organ systems of the body. The matrix facilitates the flow of energy and information to and from every molecule, cell and organ of the body, through fluids and tissue, from skin to core and core to skin. An intelligent yoga practice engages this matrix in awakening and facilitating a process of spiraling self integration.
This dynamic energy/information collective has traditionally been called ki in Japanese, (as in aikido), chi or qi in Chinese (as in chi gung or tai chi), or prana or prana-shakti in Sanskrit, and has long been explored in the embodied disciplines of the East such as yoga and the martial arts and the healing practices such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Insights arising from the modern scientific tradition allow us to include proton and electron flow, electromagnetic and gravitational field effects, and resonance in our understanding of the integral energy of aliveness. Developmental neurobiology, integrating psychology, anatomy, physiology and embryology, offers insights into the complex ways in which human energy systems may evolve, depending upon genetics, relationships, life conditions and other factors. We may complexify and mature, or we may get stuck in less efficient, less mature, and possibly destructive patterns and habits.
An embodied yoga practice seeks to facilitate the natural process of maturing and integrating the energy and information systems, involving both structure and flow. It brings a harmonizing of all of the organic systems of the body, awakening the capacity for all of the cells and organs to be deeply conscious and present to the fullness of this moment, through all the fields of creation. Life is a flowing exchange of energy and information between the organism and the environment, including gravity and the electro-magnetic fields arising from the galaxies and stars, the sun and moon, the earth, and other living beings. Embodied living is being fully present to this ongoing dance of moving energy, a full expression of self, other and wholeness.
Modern civilization has long engendered a dissociation from the body and the natural world as a whole and the consequences of this are coming home to roost big time in the 21st century. David Abram, in “The Spell of the Sensuous” discusses the possible origins of this estrangement in the emergence of the alphabet and writing. Leonard Shalin offers a parallel discussion in “The Alphabet and the Goddess” and links this to emerging dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain over the right. We will look at this in more detail in the neurobiology section, but suffice it to say that an embodied spiritual practice such as hatha yoga can offer a powerful entry point into the healing of the multiple layers of nested relationships that comprise the living body of the earth, the solar system and the Kosmos as a whole.
What is an asana or yoga posture?
Yoga postures or asanas, whether linked in flowing movement (vinyasana), held briefly as in the more difficult poses, or sustained for longer periods of time such as in meditative or restorative practice, are profound vehicles to bring higher levels of balance and integration to the human organism and nervous system and awaken new levels of understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. An integrated yoga pose is a highly sophisticated state of embodied stillness, and to fully understand its subtlety, (sthira and sukham to use Patanjali’s terminology), we need to study not just the poses themselves, but the fundamental organizing activities of the body/organ systems that underlie movement and posture, namely the spontaneous movements of the prana or chi and their western scientific correlates.
The body is a verb, not as noun. As Emilie Conrad is fond of saying, the body is movement. Movement is not something the body does! The cosmos, all of creation, is movement. Life is movement. From the sub-atomic realm, through the cellular activitites, into circulation, respiration and digestion, and the movements of our bodies through space and time, our aliveness is sensed and expressed in our bodies through undulating rhythms of breath, pulsating rhythms of the heart beat, and the vibrations arising from the cellular and molecular levels into the fascial matrix.
Posture implies a sustained stability, of our aliveness, and also our particular structural/psychological/emotional relationship to the world in the moment. Ideally, this is a stability of flow and flexibility/novelty and not contraction, freezing or collapse. A yoga posture starts with our structural/psychological/emotional core energy of the moment and then plays with gravity and leverage, limbs and torso, organs and cells, to discover new ways of sensing, feeling and acting. Whether standing, sitting, prone, inverted, rotating, flexing, or extending , the organism is challenged to sustain flow, strength, flexibility and novelty.
A yoga pose is an entry point into mystery, not a place of arrival. A common mistake made by yoga practitioners, especially beginners, is to assume that there is a correct pose that is somewhere, out there, to be acquired or arrived at in the future. What is happening in the moment is often ignored as the mind tries to remember past instruction or impose its will onto the body to move toward a fantasized future.
This mind-set or belief system is a difficult one to overcome and mindful awareness is the primary antidote. Most certainly there are bodily positions that are compromising or down right damaging to the body. The study of basic alignment principles will help the student recognize the most common challenges that arise from a yoga practice. But what is most important for the student is to learn to listen to what the body is saying moment by moment so that you feel the mis-alignments and learn to feel the moment by moment adjustments that alleviate strain as it arises. Eventually the poses become a living example of self-education and self – integration.
In working with yoga sequences or vinyasas, we discover the fundamental possibilities of movement available to the human form. Like the practice of Tai Chi, postures are linked together in a fluid way, recognizing the every moment on the path of somatic enquiry is ripe with possibilities, not just the end points. In this way, when we pause in a pose, or sustain as in meditation or restorative yoga, there is still flow. We discover how to remain poised without holding on or collapsing.
The Three Sections of the Study Course
In our yoga practice and teaching, we will explore as many points of view as possible, and in time learn how to create a truly integrated spiritual life practice. This course is divided into 3 sections, beginning, intermediate and advanced, that are based upon the 3 nested, increasingly more subtle bodies or shariras as denoted in both classical yoga and Buddhist teachings, and the three dimensions of the universe as described in physics: matter, energy and fields. Each of these sections will include general instructions for spiritual practice, a detailed study of the principles of hatha yoga through work with breath and posture with references to relevant revelations of modern science and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
The first course is grounded in what is called the gross or structural body, known as the shthula sharira or the anamaya kosha in Sanskrit, and the nirmanakaya in Buddhism. This is the physical or tangible, flesh and blood body. The literal translation of anamayakosha, first articulated in the Taittiriya Upanishad, is the body composed of food. It is the body that can be seen and touched, has mass, weight, and inertia. It is described by anatomy and refered to in yoga through alignment instructions. This is the simplest and most familiar of the bodies and the body most modern yoga classes address. From a scientific point of view, it is matter or the world of gross forms.
For a beginning yoga student, the practice in this realm is to actually ‘move into’ the body, to inhabit the realm of inner sensations. Most people are quite dissociated from the body and live in a world of thoughts. They ‘live in their heads’. Through the early stages of hatha yoga we will explore gravity and discover how a coordinating intelligence integrates fluids and tissues, bones and joints into graceful movements and stable relaxed posture. The science will include anatomy and kinesiology. We will look at the principle of leverage and learn how to use our bones intelligently. And we will discover that by feeling and observing how we move our bodies through space we will begin to get glimpses of the energy body.
The second course centers on the subtle or energy body, sukshma sharira in Sanskrit sambhogakaya in Buddhism, which is experienced as energy, energy flow or fundamental aliveness. A rock has a gross body, but not a subtle body. The terms chi, qi and prana refer to the organizing movements of aliveness of the subtle body that have been well explored in the spiritual and healing disciplines of the East. For a student new to this level, it begins with paying attention to the breathing process. Soon the breath is experienced as more than just air moving in and out of the lungs, but as an on-going oscillating flow of energy everywhere. Over time, the whole physiological realm is explored: circulation, respiration, digestion, elimination, immune function all involve energy flow. Practice involves first learning to recognize when the energies are moving freely, when they are dull or sluggish, and when they are aggressive and chaotic. (These correspond with the Sanskrit ‘gunas’ or qualities of energy that are the foundation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.) Then skillful means are applied, using poses, breath and attention, to awaken the sluggish aspects, pacify the aggressive ones and nurture what is already free
The major players in this realm are the emotional energies. These are deeply affected by our thoughts and belief systems and is where the confusion of the mind most directly manifests. Thus, as we will see, it is by far the most complex and complicated body and the most important body for our practice and explorations. To help sort out the layers of complication, the Taittiiriya Upanishad divides the sukshma sharira into 3 distinct and progressively more subtle layers or koshas (sheaths.) These are: the pranamaya kosha or physiological sheath, the manomaya kosha or mental sheath and the vijnanamaya kosha, the sheath of intelligence. The pranamaya kosha includes the physiological systems, (digestion, elimination, circulation etc), and it in turn has five majors energies and 5 minor energies which we will explore more deeply in the postures section of the course. The mental layer includes sensation, perception, memory and all of our conditioning. The intelligence layer includes the cognitive capacities to transcend and transform our conditioned patterns and to integrate and develop more and more complex and sophisticated ways of processing information and acting in the world. The newly emerging field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, where 3rd person neuroscience is integrated with the 2nd person relational and 1st person subjective realms, will be used to help unfold the complexities of the psyche so key to the subtle body realm. Thus another aspect of subtle body practice evolves as mindfulness, meditation and metta practice, where our attitudes, beliefs, thoughts and emotions are examined. Be ready for a few more lifetimes to fully explore these possibilities!
The third body is the causal body, the karana shirira, sometimes called the light body or rainbow-light body . Here, the individual is experienced as being a field embraced by and suspended in series of integrated, nested fields from gravity’s macrophase shaping of the galaxies and stars, to the ‘web of life’ dna fields of the life systems of the planet, to the strong nuclear, electromagnetic and quantum shaping of the atomic and sub atomic realms and light itself. From this point of view, it is totally clear that you and the universe are never separate, and thus this is also referred to as the body of bliss, the anandamaya kosha or in Buddhism, the Dharmakaya. This is the realm of spiritual intelligence and where the grace of transcendence is readily available.
The third section begins with the major spiritual teachings in thyoga world, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads. The Hsin Hsin Ming, from Buddhism is another clear and profound articulation of awakening and sustaining this awakening. Each is these is of course offers a life time of study. From there we will offer some themes from modern science, Brian Swimme’s Cosmic Vision, and an introduction to Embryology for yogis. For those interested in large scale social change, the Spiral Dynamics model offer a fascinating perspective on cultural fields and social transformation. Finally, we will introduce a few other somatic explorations that are totally complementary to hatha yoga. They will in fact expand your sense of possibilities for embodying divinity in your own unique way.
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