Learning about yoga was a really interesting experience for me and took me to places and headspaces that I would never guessed.
Yoga would not have been on my normal bill of fare. Ever. But I met some people who sparked some curiosity in me and here is what happened.
If you were here in this room with me right now we could walk out to my car and drive up behind Oroville, back up winding Oro-Bangor Highway, past emu farms and old timey cemeteries and tire sculptures by the side of the road, to Marysville Road with fantastic views morphing from valley to hills to mountain terrain, right on 49 where in the other six of the year we would need to carry tire chains (left on 49 goes to the Gold Rush town of Downieville), up through North San Juan/Nevada City turn down a backroad (a very windy and thin one) past horse pens, a road with the same name as one of my ex-girlfriends, left by the little organic foods store with the vaguely scatological name, up another winding road with the falling down framework of a barn on the left and, in slightly under 2 hours, we would pull into a forked road with a sign in front that reads "Ananda Village." To the left and up the hill is Expanding Light, a yogic center. Forward is a small village which I understand is a permanent yogic community (based on Paramahansa Yogananda's concept of World Brotherhood Colonies.) At Expanding Light you will find a large building for classes, a fully organic kitchen, and several small cabins for visitors and private meditation. It is breathtaking with some of the most beautiful views in Northern California.
The people I knew from Expanding Light were some of the kindest, most compassionate people I have ever met. Loving-Kindness, generosity and compassion came off of them in waves and washed over me as I spoke with them. I asked them a lot of questions about what they do, how they came to find out about that place, their work-study program and so on. Then I didn't see them again so I never got to ask some of the big questions that I had. I wondered what kind of doctrine was involved in their practice. So I started writing to anyone and everyone I could find who knew anything about yoga.
Let me start by saying that I knew next to nothing about yoga. I knew that there were some rather acrobatic stretches involved.
So I was determined to find out more.
I spoke with Tobi Sondgroth Becerra who is a yoga instructor at Cloud Nine Yoga Studio in Huntington Beach (for those of you in So Cal. Go check it out.) "Part of my teacher training is making sure that students that graduate from my school embrace ALL of yoga...not just the asanas (the physical practice that is all too often highlighted in the west)."
Which would be the stretches that I mentioned. This seems to be an issue in American yoga as there is so very much more to the practice than just the stretches that lead up to meditation.
So what is all of yoga?
Again from Tobi Sondgroth Becerra, "there are actually 8 'limbs' of yoga, as laid out in the yoga sutras of patanjali. the 'eight limbed ashtanga path,' includes the 'doctrine' that you speak of.
Here is the CNY version of the 8 limbs:
1. Yama (right action)
Ahimsa (compassion, non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (not stealing), Brahmacharya (not being careless with one’s sexuality) and Aparigraha (non-attachment).
2. Niyama (observances)
Shaucha (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (study), Ishvara-pranidhana (worship).
'The spinal column must be held straight and the body firm, in a comfortable position for meditation.' Patanjali doesn’t happen to mention the thousands of asanas we have been learning in Hatha Yoga classes. Asanas are steady poses that help us to concentrate and become ultra aware of our physical body. They move us into a meditative state.
In Yoga practice, breath control forms an intimate relationship with our life force (prana). The breath carries vital energy, giving oxygen to every cell in our body. Breathing exercises and breath focus have a great purpose in Hatha Yoga practice: it helps us pay close attention to our body and ourselves, it brings relaxation by creating mental serenity, it builds physical heat within the body allowing us to stretch deeply without injury and it rejuvenates through the release of dormant energy. Without proper breathing, Yoga postures (asanas) are incomplete and benefits won’t be attained.
To relax deeply and have a clear head sometimes we need to detach ourselves from the external world. This doesn’t mean that we completely lose contact with outer reality; we just don’t let ourselves be disturbed by it. It is the feeling of hearing a sound, but it is far enough from us that it doesn’t cause us to react. The practice of pratyahara can be done in relaxation poses such as Savasana (the corpse pose), in asana practice and even in daily life situations. It teaches us that we have the power to choose how we respond to the external world by consciously withdrawing the five senses.
When we focus our attention on a single thing, either with our eyes, ears or voice – we practice ridding ourselves of distractions. The goal is to become aware of nothing but the object on which you are concentrating. This is often done by fixating on a divine form such as a picture of a spiritual master or using a mantra. As we hold our minds within a center of spiritual consciousness, we are connecting to the Truth within us. The practice of Dharana eventually trains us to eliminate all excess chatter and bring stillness to the mind.
This is the state in which uncluttered mind and heightened awareness lead to complete stillness. The focus is clear and vast – awareness resting on the All in the moment, without preferences. We call this meditation and it can be achieved through practice of Dharana and Pratyahara, Pranayama and even Asana.
Samadi means 'to merge.' It is the ultimate goal of Yoga. It is defined as a state of super consciousness where one has achieved, for any amount of time, oneness with the universe. This integration, or union of the All, is wonderfully blissful and is believed to be the true expression of the Eternal Self."
So, there I had a basic framework of what I was going on about when I misapplied the word "doctrine." One of my questions was whether yoga is a religious practice or not. Tobi told me that a lot of confusion stems from yoga being born from the vedas, which is a Hindu religious text "and it was born in a time historically that overlaps the birth of Hinduism. but yoga is an art form, to be sure. the art of living, breathing, meditation, dying...it's a way of life." In fact, this was confirmed by everyone I spoke with (it is not a religion, but there are religious aspects to the practice.) A pastor friend of mine in town told me, when I mentioned I was working on this project, that there is a confessional Reformed Baptist church on the East Coast that offers a yoga class as part of their church. From the words of those I spoke with, yoga is a tool and an art form.
So, yoga is not a religion and would not contradict a particular religious reality tunnel any more than, say, belonging to a political party or painting or being part of a chess club or, more to the point, having a philosophy (which, I would have to argue, everyone does), nor would yoga replace religion. Now having a basic grasp of the limbs of yoga and seeing how it is a system that is applied to all parts of one's life (not just the time when one is stretching) this brought me around again to the question "what is yoga?"
I have to say at this point I began to wonder if I had taken on way too big of a concept for a single blog post.
Savitri Simpson is the current director of Meditation Teacher Training Programs at Ananda Village (the yogic community that was straight ahead on the road, remember, when we turned left up to Expanding Light.)
"The word 'yoga' means union... the process of uniting the little self with the greater self through various practices, chief among which is silent, sitting meditation and the techniques which help you to do that effectively... It is really much more than Hatha Yoga (yoga stretches or asanas) which is only the physical branch of the yoga sciences. Hatha Yoga is a means to an end, the goal being this being able to sit still in meditation, calming your thoughts, beginning to realize your true superconscious union with God or The Divine or All That Is or however you wish to look at something like this. It is a philosophy and also a way of life, encompassing every aspect of living."
I mentioned that I had a few years of Tai Chi experience and that I had found a sort of calm, peacefulness in me when I was practicing. Savitri Simpson replied, "A spiritual discipline like Tai Chi or Yoga or anything else has as its goal, whether stated this way or not, a personal unification process, that is, calming your body and mind so that you can realize who and what you really are- much more than a body, personality, mind, etc."
On the Ananda website they say:
"We seek fellowship with others willing to join hands with us in this loving labor for universal upliftment. Thus, by our united efforts, our hope is to share inspiration with ever-increasing effectiveness. We recognize that, whether or not others join us consciously in this labor, all human beings, each one individually, serve the Eternal Purpose, doing so by the simple act of seeking, either ignorantly or wisely, the bliss of their own being."
Which made total sense to me suddenly how a rather intrepid Reformed Baptist church with a grasp on the concept of synonyms would have a yoga class.
Needless to say at this point I was becoming increasingly fascinated with the concept of yoga. I went to the used bookstore (to be honest I went to look for an unabridged copy of The Count of Monte Christo) and bought Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I have just started it and I am also looking for several books as there were so many recommendations. Books by Donna Farhi, Swami Vivikananda, Swami Svatmarama, Ed Crowley, Gary Kraftsow, and James Hewitt. How to Meditate by Jyotish Novak, Light on Yoga by Iyengar. As I said, I realize that in embarking on this particular project I have set foot on the tip of a very large iceberg. You can probably expect a lot more posts on this thread.
I wrote to my friend Sean Campeau. He said, "Doctrines seem interchangeable to a yogi. That is not to say that ideas are toys to be tossed about with disrespect. On the contrary, practitioners seem to strive towards respect for all doctrines. Try on your neighbor’s doctrine for a few months. Really try to get into his spiritual head as part of a regiment of Bhakti yoga (devotional yoga). The more doctrines you are comfortable with, the more realities you can successfully mesh with. The more guitar styles I master, the broader my venue opportunities."
Which was a pretty good encapsulation on what I am aiming to achieve with this ongoing project of learning more about the world around me. My project is to find topics which strongly interest me, ask people who know things on that topic a lot of questions, and share what I have gleaned. This will be an ongoing project on this blog (and a wide variety of topics.)
Sean continued, "Don’t ask why. Just do the exercises, and PAY ATTENTION to what is happening. After successful Hatha Yoga (the Tai Chi-esque body exercises) you should know more about yourself/body. Teneo Vestri. Asking ‘why’ requires the construct of an abstract, cause-effect chain which may not jive with objective reality so much as the psychology/expectations of the answerer.
Sean tries to avoid 'why.' It’s so disruptive…
Observations follow curiosities along similar lines; there is no need to slow down the process with abstractions surrounding ‘why.’
The goal of yoga is Paul Mathers;
there are a billion paths that lead there, but the number of distractions is exponentially greater.
Yoga is a set of tools to help you reach the goal of Paul Mathers by avoiding the distractions."
At the end he wrote "You’re already good at yoga."
In all of this I am finding what sounds like a beautiful practice which I never understood nor was particularly aware of outside of the peripheral. So, I decided to try something. Having a teacher was recommended (and I think we probably all know that most of us near a city can easily find one) but there are some practices that one can just try out on their own.
I have to start by saying that this was very very basic and nothing more than a suggestion from a website. It is called Walking Meditation. It is simply this: stand, make sure your spine is straight, walk, let the scenery pass by, let your thoughts pass and don't cling to them, when you are done walking stand.
Now I have to mention I had a misgiving going in about letting the scenery pass. Part of the reason I go to Bidwell Park and not the mall is the scenery. In fact I carry a camera when I walk because of how attached I want to be to the scenery. But for the sake of the experiment...
And I found something I'd forgotten. This little experiment showed me that my brain is a tangled mess, full of stresses I don't even notice most of the time, screaming to be drowned out with noise. Also I don't usually stand up straight. I slouch. I imagine a lot of my problems come just from that.
It amazed me what a simple few moments of focus could show me about myself, the world around me, and the way my brain works. And I was struck by how I have anger in me, how it hops out at odd moments and I think "Gee, where did that come from? I didn't know I still had that in me." I begin to see some potential benefits here in possibly getting to know what really is in me and maybe gaining a few tools of self-control. And while I'm not sure that this is a practice by which one somehow gains, somehow is endowed with joy, peace, brotherhood, contentment, compassion and loving-kindness, I do think that it may be a means or a tool by which one might keep what is important and discard what is not helpful. I fully intend to do a lot more experiments.
My conclusion is that I still don't completely understand all of this, but that's okay. My understanding of myself, the world around me, God, are a process that grows and shifts the more I live. Also that living 26 years in Orange County and 5 in Chico may not have opened all of the answers, points of view and lessons that are out there. The more you dig, the more you find. Or, as Sean put it in his email, "Who cares if your cart is loaded with the best produce?
Who cares if your ox is the strongest in the land? Without a yoke to attach one to the other, neither will get to market."