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.' )

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