Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Internal Form, External Form: Structure vs. Flow

Internal Form, External Form: Structure vs. Flow

One of the challenges in teaching asana lies not only in sequencing different postures but in deciding how long these postures are to be held. Styles like Astanga vinyasa and its “power yoga” derivatives move students along at a fairly rapid clip, often eschewing props and assigning only one to ten breaths per posture. By contrast, Iyengar yoga and the  “alignment” focused styles generally demand much longer holds. They also dispense with the dance-like transitional moves between postures that are the trademark of the vinyasa styles. Jumping ones’ feet together from a wide-legged pasarita padotanasana is about as racy as it gets!

Which style is better? One answer is this: it depends on the nature of the student—their age, temperament, and physical ability. Generally speaking, younger students(30 years old and under) have less patience for long holds, whereas older yogis aren’t as inclined to jump around rapidly and throw their limbs about with wild abandon. But age, of course, isn’t the only factor.

Unbeknownst to many, BKS Iyengar practiced vinyasa-style yogi back in his younger days, prior to developing the legendary, alignment-based system that he left as his grand legacy. There is a wonderful video of the young Mr. Iyengar, jumping in and out of advanced postures with the skill of a gymnast and the flexibility of a contortionist. Rumor has it that his teacher, the legendary Krishnamacharya, would simply show him a pose, and then B.K.S. would spend the next day or two trying to figure it out on his own. But his real genius evolved later, when he started working with students who were not able to perform asana at his level of expertise. Through the development of props and the experiential anatomy he had gained through self- practice, he began to delineate the deeper layers of the asana experience—trading speed for attention to detail and depth of perception.   Or, as Patricia Walden, one of his primary devotees, once quoted her teacher as saying: “When I was younger, I played; when I got older, I stayed.”

The shala of Krishnamacharya was populated mainly by young boys who needed to be “tired out” by rigorous physical exercise. This is reminiscent of most  “gym yoga” in the US, where people go to get a “work-out” and release stress via intense movement. Hot yoga, too, can increase the intensity and strain on the cardiovascular system that many people in the West seem to crave. Another one of Krishnamacharya’s students, Pattabhi Jois, developed the vinyasa system known as Astanga yoga, which also grew in popularity here in the West. As a former athlete, I gravitated toward vinyasa yoga, including Astanga, and I really loved it. Occasionally, I still do. But when I started to hit my mid-forties my body began to tell me to slow down and pay more attention.  Plus, I started to listen more to senior teachers who were giving me anatomical cues that allowed me to go deeper into the experience of the pose, instead of passing through it like a tourist.

When I started practicing Iyengar yoga, after years of Astanga, one big adjustment I had to make was not only dealing with the slower pace, but altering the mechanism by which I was producing effort, or tapas. In Astanga the physical challenge of stringing sun salutations and postures together in concert with the breath almost automatically builds heat.  There is a lot of jumping back and forth between postures and counter postures, and these transitions provide as much of a challenge as the asanas themselves. In Iyengar, however, attention to the multiplicity of actions and counteractions that exist within each individual posture become the main focus, and (in my mind) they are what produce heat. After all “tapas” can be produced through physical or mental effort.

When I practice Iyengar yoga, I often feel like I am engaged in an elaborate chess game with myself. Mentally and physically, I have to concentrate intently on the various actions and counteractions that maintain steadiness, or stira. As anyone who has practiced Iyengar yoga knows, this effort can be quite challenging, but it can ultimately lead to a greater understanding not only of anatomy, but of something much deeper. Done properly, with the aid of a good teacher, the body itself becomes the tool for self-reflection, and each asana provides a mirror from which you can observe some new aspect yourself. This could be something as banal as a fear of backbends, or something much more profound. And so, out of intense effort, freedom and knowledge are born.

The ultimate challenge, of course, is to integrate this knowledge and move toward the freedom that more awareness can bring. To be honest, many of the serious Iyengar devotees I’ve met seem so fixated on exterior alignment that they seem challenged by the very notion of  “letting go” of all the methodology and physical holding patterns they have learned for each posture. It is sort of catch-22 of this style of yoga, perhaps, but sometimes the Iyengar practice can feel very dry, intellectual, and mechanical. 

My experience with Astanga, on the other hand, is that it creates tapas via breath, internal seals, or bandhas, and challenging transitional movements between the asana. The postures themselves manifest and dissolve as more temporary structures within the framework of the sequence, punctuating the “dance of energy” that is happening within. Unlike in Iyengar, there is not much attention to external details, but to be fair, structural adjustments are made by experienced teachers. These are generally non-verbal and can be rather brutal.  I remember listening to a group of seasoned Astangis talk openly about the injuries they had sustained from being “adjusted” by Patabhi Jois. They were like a bunch of soldiers comparing battle scars, which they relished with great savor!

While the sort of hyperawareness to external detail seen in Iyengar is generally absent from Astanga, it has other things going for it—primarily, the stringing together of postures with the coordination of the breath, intricately linked to the internal core muscles known as the bandhas. This complex juggling act alone provides a mental focus that can be equally intense and rewarding. As Richard Freeman recently stated, doing Astanga yoga properly is like observing yourself on many levels simultaneously.  Additionally, the fact that the astanga sequences are always done in the same order and need to be memorized by the students also allows eliminates some of the distraction that listening to a teacher can bring. Mysore style practice is really a self-practice, done in a room full of other people. You may be aware of them in the periphery of your practice, and get inspired by their dedication and energy, but you are really focused on your own process.

Circling back to the start of this inquiry, I think we can side-step (if not entirely avoid) the question of which of these two styles is better by instead considering the larger paradigm, or paradox, of stillness vs. movement. Does a vinyasa yoga style, for example, necessarily omit the quality of stillness? Conversely, does a lack of apparent movement in asana always imply that there is stillness? I think any experienced yogin or yogini would easily answer "no" to both of these questions by admitting that the definition of movement and stillness also includes the realm of the mind.

 "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind," says the opening line of THE YOGA SUTRAS. How you get there is really a matter of personal preference.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Classical vs. Creative Yoga Asana

I recently attended a workshop with a popular teacher named Scott Blossum, who came to Boston to introduce the practice of Shadow Yoga—taught to him by his guru Shandor Remete. At one point in his introductory talk, Blossum lamented what he saw as a trend away from traditional, repeated asana sequences toward a “free-style” play that never does the same thing twice. His critique of the latter was that it would never allow a student to create a baseline for his/her practice and thereby be able to observe the subtle changes that occur within a daily, ritualized practice(eg Astanga first series).

I found this statement provocative, as it is something that I have thought about and discussed with other teachers at some length. It was an interesting observation for Blossum to mention, given that Shadow Yoga is a rather “non-traditional” hybrid form itself, created by a former Iyengar acolyte (Remete). The entire morning workshop, in fact, was spent trying to “re-pattern” or at least re-investigate some yoga movements that most of the group had done many times, with an emphasis on getting relaxed and grounded.

In my opinion, any sequence that creates somatic awareness is a good thing, whether it takes place within the context of a familiar form or one that is more inventive. Now, it is true that most beginning students will probably benefit from learning a “set” asana sequence that is commensurate with their abilities before advancing along to more creative play, just as a young piano student is generally taught scales before they start playing improvisational jazz. Ditto for dance training—classical generally precedes modern. This is how things generally go with Astanga and Iyengar, too, where you are not allowed to go further than the instructor permits, and then you repeat, repeat, repeat.

This way of teaching can certainly succeed in getting the student grounded and confident in the postures, and also safeguards against some of the danger that occurs in unregulated “vinyasa” classes, where people drop in who may not even know how to execute the most basic movements without hurting themselves. Repetition of basic movements can also weed out those students who are “not worthy” to be taught—the ones who want to just jump into a handstand before they know how to execute a decent Downward Dog.

On the flip side however, remember how boring those piano scales were as a kid? Now it could be that most of us just weren’t cut out for the piano, like me. Or it could be that the Suzuki method of musical instruction holds some merit—learning to play more by ear, and being immersed in a less rigid environment where learning is more intuitive. When I think back to my first few years of Astanga practice, where the emphasis was on external
form (ie “alignment”), and my instructors where tying me into elaborate knots, I sometimes get a chill down my spine(or is it a kink?). Ditto for Iyengar, despite the intelligence of its design.

For what its worth, the teachers I primarily gravitate toward now, and the practice I teach, is indeed a more creative investigation of the subtle actions that can enhance classic postures and make them more engaging on a deeper level. For most yogis, I imagine this sort of evolution (or involution) occurs naturally, and doesn’t necessarily require a major “rethinking” or “retooling” of the postures. It is more of a mental “tuning in” or awareness of what is occurring within the framework of the asana(eg pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana).Or, as Patabhi Jois once said: “Just practice and all is coming.” But I would argue, as I have tried to do here, that great breakthroughs can be experience by inviting some creative play within the traditions we now have in front of us.

On a final note, I think these two schools of thought also represent a basic philosophical difference between East and West. In India, there is a strong notion that enlightenment relies on the strength of your devotion to your guru, whereas here the west enlightenment can only begin when you start to think for yourself.

Monday, February 10, 2014

How Old is Yoga Asana?

Recently, a former yoga student of mine returned from a three-month stint in India, very excited to share some archeological discoveries he had made about the antiquity of yoga asana. Zac had studied hatha yoga with me at the Harvard Business School gym, and his physical practice was exceptional—he could press up into a handstand with no trouble at all—but his knowledge of the other branches of yoga (philosophy, pranyama, meditation, krya, etc.) was lacking.

He had gone to India partly to fill in some of those gaps, and partly to do some archeological investigations about asana. On the academic side of things, he did have a master’s degree in archeology. And so, when he told me that he had found some older representations of yoga asana from the Achyutaraya temple in the city of Hampi, my curiosity was piqued(see photo below).

Some of Zac’s photographs were difficult to make out—bas relief figures of yogis with extra arms and legs forming elaborate, swastika-like patterns; but one definitely looked like kukutasana and another was undoubtedly dwi pada sirsana—both of which are found in modern yoga practice. There was also a third that looked like a forearm balance. Zac dated these images to the year 1350 CE, which is older than most yoga historians have formerly ascribed to these types of postures.

As it turned out, I had just been exchanging emails with James Mallison, an Oxford yoga scholar and Nath yogi who was a bit of an expert in this field; so I decided to put the two of them together. I’d come across Maillison myself when I read his wonderful critique of Mark Singleton’s notorious book, THE YOGA BODY. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Singleton and his take on the evolution of modern yoga, I’d say he is a  ‘must read,’ for his studies will probably change the way you view yoga practice.

Singleton’s general argument, as I understand it, is that the “modern postural” yoga practices existing today (Iyengar, Astanga,Vinyasa, Power, etc.) were heavily influenced by the western fitness movement of the late 19th century, operating in and around India. Claims of modern yoga's connection to a tradition dating back thousands of years(the Vedas, the Upanishads, or even The Yoga Sutras), are viewed with skepticism. From Singleton’s point of view, the postures that comprise hathayoga, as it is commonly known, can only (at best) be traced back as far as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Siva Samhita, and the Geranda Samhita— three 15th century classics. Furthermore, most of modern styles of yoga do not even touch upon the more esoteric elements expounded in these books; instead, they focus heavily on asana.

Enter Mallison, a Sanskrit scholar, who has done some heavy lifting translating some of these ancient texts (particularly the Siva Samhita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika). The latter, he argues, was actually a compendium of several different texts from different traditions, some of which existed well before the HYP was written. While Mallinson does not completely debunk Singleton’s claims, he tempers them with some textual references to early asana that lend a little more clarity to the subject. Many of these early asana, Mallinson points out, were forms of tapas, or self-sacrifice, performed for the purpose of obtaining ascetic power.

Here is the entire article for those who are interested:


Apparently, Singleton and Mallison are now at work on a new book, in which they will collaborate. Can’t wait!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Is Yoga a Spriitual Endeavor, or: What's in an OM?

One of the questions often batted about among Western yogis is how much we have secularized a practice that was intended to be more “spiritual” in nature, limited to ascetics who have taken vows of renunciation from the material world and/or those with a deep devotional regard for a particular Hindu deity.

Of course, these two terms(spiritual, secular) are rather squishy to begin with, not to mention burdened by the preconceived notion that the West is all about materialism while the East is focused on spirituality. Naturally, any sort of comparison would suffer greatly unless it was delineated to a much finer degree. To be just, then, we would have to look at specific examples of people who practice(d) yoga in India and compare them to specific groups of people who practice yoga in the West today. 

However, without heading down the scholarly road too far, too fast, I think we can generalize enough to say that what serves as yoga in the United States today is by and large a “co-opted” practice, transplanted from India and adjusted to suit the needs of the Western lifestyle.

What does this mean? Well, the average yogin or yogini isn’t going to take strict vows of bramacharya, or celibacy, any time soon; nor do most seem interested in becoming indoctrinated into a particular sect of Indian religious practice—Vaisna, Shaiva, Sri Vidya, etc. On the other hand, given time, many practioners do seem to become calmer people—more mindful about their eating habits and overall interactions with the space and people around them. And, despite Western yoga’s recent confluence with chic day spas and health clubs, some folks even start to realize that yoga isn’t all about wearing tight fitting yoga clothes, sculpting a beautiful body(with or without tattoos), or learning how to jump into a handstand in the middle of the room.

Indeed, the notion that “yoga works,” whether or not it is connected to a particular theological system of belief, may hold some truth. Still, having said all of this, it is interesting to take a peek at some of those residual, ritual trappings that have been carried forward into the Western yoga world, and look more closely at their original purpose and meaning.

An easy example can be found right at the start of a yoga class. In a traditional system such as Iyengar or Astanga, you will typically begin your practice with an invocation, or prayer, which helps to bring you into the present moment, or to locate you in time and space. It also acknowledges the mythic founder of hatha yoga (Patangalim) and the fifth ritual observance(niyama), known as Ishvarapranidhana.

Whether you know it or not, you are observing this niyama every time you utter the syllable OM.

Simply translated, ishvarapranidhana means “subservience to ishvara. But what exactly is ishvara, you might ask? As a fledgling yogi, you may be reading this and start to get worried that you have been bowing to a strange Hindu deity. After all, many Westerners gravitate toward yoga having moved away from a strict religious diet in their past; or conversely, because yoga is popularly portrayed as a sort of vague “new age, self-actualization” philosophy than can fit into any belief system.

Ishvara, as it is represented in The Yoga Sutras, might be thought of less as a specific religious deity or icon than an “original creative force” out of which the practice of yoga was inspired. Yet, if ishvara is without a particularized form, you might ask, how is it represented, or acknowledged?

The one word answer is simple: OM.

When you innocently intone the syllable OM (A-U-M), you are expressing/invoking the sonic form of ishvara, which is said to have an inherent and undying sakti, or energy. Without getting into a discussion about chanting in yoga, OM is most certainly a little taste of that practice. It is also, according to one of my favorite teachers, Richard Freeman, one of the easiest mantras to remember. In short, it is a useful little word that packs a big punch.

And yes, some people OM louder than others…

Loud or soft, most yoga students willingly chant OM without having the foggiest notion of what it is all about; and perhaps in this case ignorance does equal bliss. But just to play the devil’s advocate for a moment, what if the instructor of a yoga class suddenly told everyone that they were going to say “Amen” instead of “Om”?

Many of those who flock to yoga are trying to get away from the religiosity of say, a Christian based service. But despite its obvious lack of theistic specificity, isn’t OM still a term that carries religious, or at least spiritual import? Some of the commentators on The Yoga Sutras believed this to be true, and associated OM(or its constituent parts A-U-M) with the “holy trinity” of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma.

Perhaps because of this, one of the conservative health clubs where I teach forbids their instructors from using OM in class. At first, I thought these corporate types were being utterly ridiculous, banning a word that has become so commonplace that it almost seems like a mere affectation. But does the complete separation of church and state, or in this case religion and exercise, hold some merit? Or does it further strip away the soul of yoga?

Surely, it is easy enough for a sophisticated urban agnostic to laugh at such a concern. But what if you are a member of a specific, non-Hindu faith, and you still want to participate in yoga without the anxiety that you are prostrating to a Hindu divinity? The former concern was actually expressed by a woman to my chiropractor, who is an active yogi himself.

His advice to this troubled woman was absolutely brilliant and worth sharing here. While everyone else in her yoga class was chanting the normal Sanskrit invocation, he told her to simply recite The Lord’s Prayer.

Amen. I mean, Peace Out.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Challenge of Teacher Trainings

1. 1  1. Whether you are a teacher training junkie or a newbie looking to acquire credits this blog may lend some food for thought. Personally, I've always been somewhat conflicted about the modern format of "teacher training." I'm referring to the yoga alliance approved 200 hr. programs that now proliferate in the USA.

Not to sound cynical, but in many ways many of these resemble pyramid schemes. On average, a 3-4 week program charges each individual $2500-$4000 to cover the basics of yoga practice--anatomy, philosophy, pranyama, asana sequencing and alignment, etc. You then graduate with a "diploma" and the promise that you are ready to get out there and teach your own students.

There are some essential problems with this plan, of course.

First, and most obvious, teacher training programs do not necessary produce good teachers. While the information can certainly be taught, it takes practice, passion, humility and inherent ability to shine as a teacher. In other words, you have to go out there and work it! You have to take the information you've been given, digest it, and then express it in your own unique, honest way. In my opinion, this can't be taught, and there are more than a few yoga teachers who are merely "clones" of their gurus, trying to borrow the same phrases, alignment cues, etc.

This is fine if you've decided to stay on and teach at your teacher's studio, but at some point you need to find your own voice. Otherwise, you'll never attract enough students to run your own show, hold your own teacher training program, and pay off the debt you incurred by "learning how to teach yoga."

Cynicism aside, how would I recommend you train to become a teacher?

-First, chose a style of yoga that it relatively authentic and stick with it for at least three to five years, or until you are well-versed. I say "relatively authentic" because most yoga styles, at least in terms of the asana portion, are not all that ancient. Iyengar, Ashtanga, viniyoga, are the usual suspects.

-Along with this, try to chose a good teacher. This is probably more important than the style of practice. You will absorb a lot of things from your teacher beyond techniques and skills, and you want to make sure they are healthy for you. Take your
time to check this person out, and remember that you are as valuable to them as they are to you. Keep in mind that you are entering into a relationship with another human being which requires trust, and if you put your trust in the wrong person it can be
detrimental. Don't be wowed by their prowess on the mat...just trust your intuition about them when they aren't "on display."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Trip to the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe

Sometimes there is nothing like a trip to New Mexico to get you out of an East Coast state of mind. The open spaces, the dry air, the native american and mexican influences on architecture, culture, and cuisine. And early September is a particularly good time to go, when the strings of chiles are hanging out to dry and most of the summer touristas have headed back to Texas and California.

The city of Santa Fe is its own unique colony—of artists and, well, people who want to be. Despite its laid back, casual feel, there is an abundance of chic clothing stores and expensive galleries. But somehow the smell of trust funds manages to mingle well with the scent of Mexican food and sage brush.

Perhaps the best way to describe Santa Fe is to employ the local custom of reversing it's name to "Fanta Se." My own fantasy was to spend a week doing yoga and Zen meditation at the Upaya Center, a modern day Buddhist monastery set well above the town plaza, at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

The week long session I had signed up for was called "The Art of Healing," and it was orchestrated by Tias Little and his wife Surya, rising stars in the US yoga community.  I had been meaning to study with Tias for quite some time, having heard from friends that he was a gifted and knowledgable teacher, but the distance and expense of traveling West had put me off.

My first glimpse of Tias Little had actually come from watching one of his early videos, ("Opening the Bird of Prana") an innocuous blend of the Astanga and Iyengar yoga systems. To be honest, I was not entirely taken by it,  mainly because it seemed to lack the kinetic intensity of straight-up Astanga on the one hand and the fine alignment details of Iyengar on the other.

Still, I'd always liked the concept of cultivating a bridge between these two systems, each of which has insights to offer and challenges to overcome. Besides, you can't always get a true sense of a yoga teacher from his/her video. This did prove to be the case with Tias.

Judging by the hushed air in the Zendo before Mr. Little made his entry, most of the other attendees (some thirty in number) were unadulterated devotees.

"Don't cross your legs into lotus," I overheard one woman counsel her friend. "He always wants people to sit in sukasana...here, I'll show you." Of course, I immediately wrapped my legs into padmasana and waited to see if I would get chastised, but no one cared.

During his introductory talk, Tias explained how he and his wife Surya had once been ardent Astanga devotees who had segued into Iyengar as they grew older and wiser and more interested in the theraputic side of yoga. Tias had a sing-song, but articulate way of speaking, that made you want to listen, and he often repeated his points for emphasis.

As a former bodyworker, Tias had also incorporated some of the somatic body awareness exercises of Thomas Hanna and the myofacial "anatomy trains" work of Tom Myers into his repetoire.The agenda for the week set out to cover the use of restorative postures to remedy specific health challenges (low back pain, hypertension, etc).

As we started to move into some of these subtle exercises, I found that they were very similar to some of the movements I'd been playing with on my own after reading Thomas Hanna's book, Somatics. Most of them were executed on one's back, and involved subtle movements of the spine in concert with the arms and legs. It was wonderful work, and Tias had clearly thought his way through the anatomical considerations of each exercise and how it built upon the one before it.

As we got up onto our legs, and began to tackle some  classical standing postures, Surya went into action—demonstating and helping with assists. I liked her spunky energy from the get-go, which seemed to add a necessary counterpoint to the sessions. While Tias has an intellectual bend of mind, his talks were not without their moments of humor. Surya was very intuitive and warm. In short, they made a good team.

While there was not much time to explore the grounds, the views at Upaya were wonderful and added to the overall placid atmosphere of the surroundings. Participants were also encouraged to take part in the community zazen sitting practice, held at the beginning and the end of the day for one hour, which I was always able to do in the mornings, and sometimes in the evenings as well.

Zen meditation (zazen) is a very simple practice that is unencumbered by elaborate methods or rituals. You simply find a comfortable seat on a zafu cushion and align your shoulders over your hips. Your right hand rests in the palm of the left, cupped upward and restsing in your lap, thumbs lightly touching to form an oval. Your eyes remain just open enough so that sleep is avoided. One focuses on the hara center, a few inches below the navel, but otherwise the breath is allowed to follow a normal, relaxed rhythm. Any random thoughts or emotions that enter consciousness are not blocked, but merely observed without attachment.

Half way through the sit, most participants get up from their cushions and slowly perambulate around the room while trying to maintain a meditative state of mind. Then everyone returns to their cushions to resume the sitting practice.

For those unfamilar with Zen, it is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that claims direct lineage back to the Buddha himself, via a non-verbal method—"a transmission outside the teachings." It often eschews much of the formal intellectual training of other Buddhist schools in favor of achieving  an "enlightenment" experience, without which any knowledge is considered to be as dry and insubstantive a piece of cardboard. True wisdom, or Prajna, is gained through the insights of
a meditative mind.

There are two main schools currently in existence: Rinzai and Soto (from the Japanese tradition). The Soto school favors "just sitting" as the best means to achieving enlightenment, while the Rinzai school also employs the use of koans (condensed narratives, or "case studies"). Koans are used as a way to "shake up" and/or bypass the normal logic of the intellect in order to bring the practioner toward a higher state of awareness.

Tias is a Rinzai fan, and we spent one evening doing a group koan study. Like a lot of medition work, what you take out of these experiences relies heavily on what you bring forward, and I always find these "one-off" sessions to be a bit challenging. On the other hand, since Zen postulates that we all have the inherent potential for enlightenment, I tried to keep an open mind.  After all, Zen history is full of legends of the "unschooled" bumpkin who arrives at a monastery and suddenly understands Zen better than the advanced students who have been studying for years.

After we meditated, some people in the room claimed to have wonderous visions, while a few started crying and got severely depressed. (Welcome to the world of yoga) Again, I think these meditation workshops are a a bit like opening Pandora's box, and without proper groundwork things can get a bit dicey. Yoga teachers are many things, but most of them are not trained psychiatrists. Maybe they
should be.

For my part, after cutting through the visual floatsam and jetsam that normally occupies my brain, via the koan, I eventually arrived at a sense of absolute void and darkness. Surprisingly, though, it wasn't a frightening place--quite the opposite, in fact, and it left me with my own koan:  "emptiness is energy."

In terms of the asana study sessions, perhaps the most valuable piece occured when Tias demonstrated an actual "one-on-one" yoga therapy session with a member of the Upaya community--"a sitter," as he called them. As good as sitting can be, it can also take it toll on the hips
and low back. I have one friend who has been sitting Zazen for years and his body is not in great
shape. I keep telling him to sit in a chair, but his pride gets the best of him. Anyway, Tias was very
adept at ferreting out an individuals body history and issues without being intrusive. This is a
skill that few people have developed to the level I saw him perform.

The founder and head abbott of Upaya, Joan Halifax, was unfortunately not in residence while I was there, but by all reports she seems like a person well worth meeting. She received her Ph.D from the Harvard Divinity School, and has subsequently written many books, including the noteworthy title "Being With the Dying."

I cannot comment on the residence at Upaya, since I opted to stay in town at a Motel 66, which saved me quite a bit of money, but I would probably stay there if I went again. Here's the reason: after you
meditate and do yoga all day, your filters have come down and you are in a "unprotected" state of mind. Once, after a particularly long day, a friend mine and I decided to walk around the plaza and go
out to eat. At one point we looked at each other blankly and said "Do you feel weird?" Each of us
nodded simultaneously. We felt anxious from all the sensory information coming at us, post meditation.

I did eat at the Upaya Center and the meals were first rate. All and all, I would recommend the trip out to Santa Fe if you have the time and money to spend.

Zen out.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Budda and The Yogis

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a unique retreat in the Catskills called "Buddha and The Yogis," hosted at the Menla Mountain Retreat Center. The teachers-in-residence were Richard Freeman, John Campbell, and Robert Thurman, and the goal of the week was to explore the concept of using the body as a vehicle for apprehending the wisdom of ultimate reality, referred to as "Varja," or "Brahma" in the Tibetan and Hindu traditions.

Menla, which means "Medicine Buddha," is a 120-acre property located in Phoenicia, NY, presided over by Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University. Thurman is also the first American to have been ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama,  and part of the mission of Menla is to help preserve the Tibetan spiritual practices and "wisdom sciences."

I hadn't actually heard of Thurman prior to this workshop, (although I have heard of his daughter, Uma) and I have taken only an academic interest in the field of Buddhism. I have, however, studied with  Richard Freeman before, who was representing the Brahminical/Vedic tradition. Freeman is a very talented teacher who fuses his deep knowledge of the intellectual traditions of yoga with an "advanced" yoga asana practice, nicely tied together by an exquisite sense of humor. Campbell was billed as "the bridge" between Thurman and Freeman, because of his yoga practice and formal academic study.

Perhaps because of his age (he was much younger than Thurman and Freeman), or perhaps because he arrived late and missed a few of the other sessions, Campbell became the odd man out during my four-day stay. While he came off as a very kind and thoughtful young man, my impression was that a bit overwhelmed by the other two teachers. Again, the fact that he had to keep dashing out to deal with family matters didn't help.

The days were divided up into an optional Mysore practice in the morning, an "internal yoga" session with Freeman, breakfast, a lecture, lunch, another led yoga session with Freeman, dinner, and a section discussion/meditation session.

The yoga sessions were all very insightful and fun. It is hard not to become a Richard Freeman fan, unless you can't understand the sophistication of his jokes and metaphors(e.g. "Downward dog is your 'home away from home.' You can take it anywhere, like an RV.) His sly and playful wit, combined with his focus on the importance of "staying grounded," make him a hybrid embodiment of Hanuman and Patanjali. I've studied off and on with Freeman for the past several years, and I still learn something every time I see him.

His wife Mary is also a very accomplished teacher/practioner, and she often renders things in a more "nuts and bolts" sort of way— a nice compliment to Richard's esoteric manner. I practiced Mysore beside her every morning, and she was inspiring to watch (not that I was watching, of course).

The lecture sessions were a bit of a mixed bag. First off, there was no real outline of what we were going to do during this time, other than listen to Bob Thurman and Richard Freeman interpret a few very old, important texts (The Yoga Taravali of Sankaracarya and The Vajra Repetition Stage of the Five Perfection Stages), drawing parallels between the Vedic and Tibetan Buddist systems.*

Admittedly, some of the back and forth banter between Freeman and Thurman (and occasionally Campbell) was fascinating--if you are into the subtlies of tantric practice--but otherwise I suspect it went straight over many people's heads.

Occasionally, Thurman would also use a point in the text as a launchpad for a political diatribe again the US war machine or US materialism, which seemed a bit unnecessary given the nature of the audience assembled before him. Still, there were some good personal asides as well, like the recollections each man shared about their gurus.
Mantra meditation, which was also on the agenda, was a bit of a wash. We did one Tibetan pranayama exercise during my time there, which explored the left and right channels (nadis) using a unique form of alternate nostril breathing (although Thurman apparently got the sides mixed up). There was also an interesting back and forth about the challenge/value of combining mantra with pranayanma. Freeman had once asked his main teacher, Patabhi Jois, about
this, and Jois had cautioned him against this very difficult practice.*

The participants were an equal mix of "meditators" and "yogis," not that the two are mutually exclusive. If there was one theme of the retreat, in fact, it was to bring these two practices closer to one another. "Practice yoga every day, and all the time," Freeman once advised the group. If one were to interpret yoga purely as asana, this would be an impossible request. If yoga is really just
mindfulness, however, then his words rang true.

While I will probably not attend this workshop again, I recommend it to any student who wants to explore the subtle energy paths that lie at the heart of hatha yoga.

(*As an interesting side note, I showed a copy of "The Vajra Repetition Stage" to
a Tibetan Buddhist friend of mine and he quickly handed it back to me without reading it. When I asked him what was wrong, he explained that this was a very
sacred text, and only those who had been initiated into a high level of practice were allowed to even look at it. According to Dorje (my friend), practicing this
method without proper grounding was likened to a 'three year old boy getting up
onto a wild horse.' )