Winter Gathering – On Authenticity

My biggest impression after the Winter Gathering is just how grateful I am for the overlapping communities in my life.  This event required me to play a lot of roles, from organizer and host, to presenter, space holder, and participant.  Everyone at the event was someone who has been part of my yoga journey in some capacity for varying lengths of time.  Many in attendance were not just people who I feel fiercely committed to doing the work of personal and social growth with, but through this work they’ve become my friends to laugh and be silly with, my support in times of need, my confidantes, and my accountability. After years of working together we’ve got significant personal and professional interest in each other’s lives.  Of course, one of the challenges of being so close with one another is the potential of finding yourself in an echo chamber that just amplifies your blind spots and hides the personal and structural flaws that are most in need of the work.  Riding the waves of positive emotion that were forged during our weekend of sharing, I realize that it’s important to stay open to challenge and strive for equity in our spaces.

“Our methodologies are forged within the default mindset of colonization over people, planet, capitalism-as-religion, winner take all, rape and plunder as spoils of victory, human and natural resources taken as subjugation to the land-owning, resource controlling, very,very privileged few…”

“…with all due respect to Ghandi— We can no longer afford to just be the change.  We actually have to be the transformation, which is to say we have to transcend the form, the construct we find ourselves in.  

            The only way we can do that is to observe the construct that we’re in instead of trying to tinker with it right away with the same blind spots that we came to the problem with.”  Radical Dharma, Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams and Lama Rod Owens with Jasmine Syedullah, PhD

The theme of our weekend was ‘Authenticity’ and without any pre-conceived notions of what we would find, recognizing that every voice has value, and knowing that anything we arrived at would change, we set out to explore who we are as individuals and community.  We looked at ways that we can create spaces that encourage authenticity and to hold space for each individual’s view on our shared experience. 

In order to do this we played around with group dynamics a lot!  We had some of the usual formats of a teacher sitting in front of the classroom sincerely sharing the teachings to which they’ve devoted themselves.  Kia guided us in pranayama and Scott guided us in mindfulness.  This connected us to the tools that identify and support us as yoga practitioners to do the work.  We explored the roles and definitions of the teacher-practitioner relationship over the weekend.  Teachers are important and a good one can be a trusted guide and access point to wisdom traditions.  The teachers were skillful in pointing the tools back to the practitioner allowing the practitioners good judgment to adapt the tools for their own bodies, minds, and contexts.

            In a room of 35 practitioners we had an Assisted Self Practice (Mysore style), with seven teachers in the room!  That might sound overwhelming, but the teachers and practitioners had made some agreements before hand about how we would operate in the practice space.  We explored new dynamics in the teacher-practitioner relationship.  Consent cards were present, each practitioner starting with a “No Thanks” turned face up. They could switch it to “Yes, Please” when and if they chose to opt-in to having a teacher involved in their practice.  It was agreed that the cards could be turned up or down at any point during the practice.  Practitioners could ask or refuse any teacher for support or an assist during their practice.  Dialogue between practitioner and teacher was encouraged.  Yes.  There were times where it got noisy, but it offered a new lens through which to consider practice.  Having a support team of teachers made it less about the individual teacher and more about the group of practitioners.

Practice is not static and this weekend was a social experiment among curious folks from various ashtanga yoga communities who wanted to explore together.  One day a practitioner may want more assists, one day they may want more space.  One day someone may feel like talking their practice over, discussing what it brings up for them or strategizing about their progress.  Another day, silence might be what is needed.  The key is that the practice space should encourage us to listen inward to what we need and to feel comfortable that when we express it our choices will be respected.  This was only a single weekend, but it gave us all an opportunity to play with best practices in the classroom so we can start to consider ways forward that will be supportive and effective, that will create safer spaces that share power between practitioners and teachers. Our practices and communities are tools that can be used to do the work of personal and social development or bury us in vertical hierarchies and dull our awareness.  This weekend we explored ways that our practices and communities can offer us the support we need to do the work of authenticity.  

“A new Dharma is one that insists we investigate not only the unsatisfactoriness of our own minds but also prepares us for the discomfort of confronting the obscurations of the society we are individual expressions of.  It recognizes that the delusions of systemic oppression are not solely the domain of the individual.  By design, they are seated within and reinforced by society.”  Radical Dharma, Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams and Lama Rod Owens with Jasmine Syedullah, PhD

In the afternoons, we sat for discussion in a variety of interpersonal settings to do the work of discussion and active listening.  We asked that in each of the phases of the gathering everyone tune into their inner state and note any reactions to the work.  Authenticity is often considered to be an essential inner state that is more real than our social self. We can sometimes burden ourselves with expressing that inner state without change in all circumstances.  However, a key feature of our humanity is adaptability, empathy, and co-operation.  We are hard wired to respond to one another and operate on unspoken social contracts that enable us to work together.  Acknowledging and accepting this is crucial to knowing ourselves and being a more skillful agent in the world.  This knowledge is where we go from being nice to get along to being compassionate in holding space for multiple view points.  Being nice to get along means that we aren’t questioning or aware of the dynamics in which we find ourselves.  We are often simply trying not to rock the boat, even when the social dynamic is harmful or oppressive.  Being aware of and compassionate towards social dynamics gives us the choice to engage or not, and change when necessary and possible.


We sat in dyads where one person spoke and the other practiced active listening.  Active listening is hard.  It is bearing witness to someone’s authentic truth without judging, validating, fixing, or responding.  It is so hard not to consider what their truth means about us, to center our experience as we listen, or think about what we want to say next.  

Then we sat in small groups of four to discuss questions for reflection before then joining the full group for a free form discussion.  In each of these settings we might feel more or less comfortable and we might find ourselves responding differently.

On day two we sat in circle with a selenite wand as a talking piece.  Every one in the circle had an opportunity to speak and everyone else had the opportunity to practice active listening.    It was incredibly important that everyone know that they could participate in any aspect of the weekend or not.  The progression of the weekend felt supportive, opening the door to trust and intimacy without feeling oppressive or coercive.  By the end of the weekend, their was laughter and tears and many radiant smiles. This blog is going out to all participants attached to a feedback form so that everyone who participated can offer their feedback privately as well.

The Same

            This is a time when

            Doing

            is split off from

            Knowing

            and Being

            is 

            hardly at all.

            But here and there

            on this side of the horizon,

            people meet in circles

            to form communities

            and speak their hearts

            that seek the same.

                        —Meir Carasso

In these different exercises the practitioner/teacher dynamic was muted if not totally erased, and the individual/community dynamic rose to the forefront.  It felt like a completely different type of yoga workshop.  It felt as though it honored tradition, but responded to the time, culture, and environment in which is was situated.  There has never been and will never be another workshop like it.  The very structure of the workshop itself was democratic and so the content would be adaptive and flexible depending on who participates.  I look forward to making these workshops more widely available so we can broaden the tent to include as many voices as are willing to participate.

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” -Fred Rogers


Kinship Gathering

This past weekend I took part in a revolutionary act.  Around 30 people met in the desert outside of Palm Springs, Ca. to experiment with new ways of being in community as Ashtangi’s.  We gathered around a felt need to process the turbulence that has arisen in the Ashtanga community these past years as we’ve struggled to understand ourselves, to look into the shadow of our community together, to find out what we will and won’t stand for and just what kind of a community we are.  It seemed important to meet face to face, off of social media so that we could experience each other as humans.  In this self-selecting group, several people talked about coming off of our individual islands to swim in friendly waters together.  We sat in circle together.  We shared in art, and ideas, and practice, and food, and loads of delicious chai.  Throughout the weekend we shared grief, confusion, inspiration and fellowship. 

These past years I’ve been working with Amāyu as well as my friends and colleagues here in the S. Florida yoga community, and part of why I wanted to go to this gathering in the desert was to see how other folks have been responding. It hasn’t always been clear how to move forward.  Our community has been in crisis and so turning to each other and looking to our usual leaders for cues on how to respond has led to confusion and anger that has been stifling.    My response has been to listen, reflect and seek guidance outside of our community and then to organize to create governance and training.  I’ve been searching for solid ground I haven’t always known the right thing to do and I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve known that change is upon us and we need to respond in ways that are as profound as the revelations that shook the foundations of our community were devastating.

It felt important that there were no leaders this weekend. The event was hosted and facilitated, but we didn’t come to seek answers from charismatic leaders, we came to find community. We practiced together with our mats in a circle without the gaze of authority and without pressure to perform.  Each person’s practice was their own. We could each choose to practice in a way that was meaningful for us individually, or not to join the session at all.  It felt like an antidote to authoritarianism. 

An Olive Branch was invited to mediate.  From their website:

“We help spiritual communities proactively reduce the impact of destructive discord by providing training on ethics, policies, governance best practices, and conflict resolution.

We also stand ready to help spiritual communities as they react to the suffering, chaos, and breakdown that results from ethical misconduct. We provide processes for healing and restoring harmony.”

It’s very telling that an organization like this needs to exist.  I asked them how much of their work was on the pro-active training side and they said it was unfortunately far less than their work mediating communities in crisis.  They also went on to say that our weekend was a little out of their wheelhouse as they are used to working with organizations and we were simply a group of practitioners gathering at the margins of our community.

The weekend wasn’t perfect, nor was it meant to be.  There was a notable lack of representation from Pattabhi Jois’s victims, which I was very aware of considering the event took place during the time-frame of the “Take a Seat for Justice Pledge.”   I do understand that there was dialogue between organizers and victims prior to the event and efforts were made even if it didn’t come to fruition.  It may just be that neither side was ready for that type of direct engagement, even with mediators. I don’t know.

If anything it felt like it could have gone deeper and addressed the specifics of abuse in our community more directly.  Abuse and trauma are incredibly difficult to keep in focus.  The pain of staying with the heaviness can make it desirable to let it recede back into the shadows just for a moment of respite.  But the shadows are where abuse thrives. 

I know that in the past I have turned to my practice for refuge and healing from trauma.  Exploring it critically for cracks and seeing danger and harm where once I saw safe spaces feels like a loss.  I think these past years have caused many of us to feel defensive over our practice community and it takes time to see that critically examining is just house keeping and it’s an act of love and devotion, like mending a broken but beloved home.

But this weekend was a hopeful beginning.  Everyone there was so kind and tender with one another.  None of us knew what to expect from this weekend.  It was at times raw, but it always managed to maintain the advertised kinship. I encountered perspectives that were wildly different from my own.  The dialectic helped me see new ways of understanding my own position.

 This weekend felt important, not because anything was resolved or any momentous decisions were made but simply because it restored my faith and trust in community.  I feel like there may be a way for me to share practice in community again post my resignation from the KPJAYI (or whatever it is called now).  I wasn’t certain if that was possible before this weekend.  Teaching without a community of peers to whom I am accountable has felt disorienting and unsettling these past few years.  I’ve had great friends and colleagues with whom I could process. I’ve had tons of support from practitioners and friends I’ve shared yoga with over the years.  I’ve got people with whom I can have difficult conversations and with whom I can be vulnerable.  But I have been skeptical about my ability to organize in a community again.  This weekend I got to see ways in which we may be able to organize without leaders, in equitable community based on shared agreements and practices where everyone present has an opportunity to have their voice heard and their contribution valued.


Paścimattānāsana

देवमनुष्या दिशो व्यभजन्त प्राचीं देवा दक्षिणा पितरः प्रतीचीं मनुष्या उदीचीं रुद्रा [Tait. Samh. – 6.1.1] 
Gods and men divided the directions. Gods took the east, pitaras took the south, men took the west and rudras took the north.

Paschimattanasana, or stretching the west pose, is one of the archetypal forward bending asanas. It is a symmetrical forward bend that, done properly, stretches the entire back line of the body. But why is the backline of the body considered to be the west? Traditionally practice was done facing to the east, and so the back of the body would have been west facing. Many religions advise prayer to be done facing east with a variety of myths, metaphors, or prophecies to explain why. This is why we place the altar in the north or east, and why we turn around during savasana. There are also traditional recommendations for what direction we should lie in while sleeping. A hypothesis about why this might be has to do with the earth’s geomagnetic field and human sensitivity to it. While it has been shown that birds and certain mammals are responsive to this field, it has yet to be proven in humans though research continues.

Paścimattānasana begins by flexing the feet to stretch the plantar fascia, strengthening the legs to stretch from the Achilles tendon to the hamstrings, engaging the lower abdomen and finding the best pelvic tilt to stretch the gluteus maximus and flexing the spine, and then lengthening towards the crown to stretch the upper back and neck.

It is quite tempting in this pose to be goal oriented about touching the head to the legs, or stretching the torso along the legs.  However in our ambition we may lose sight of some of the common areas of congestion in the joint transitions from one body part to the next. As in any asana, when we lose sight of the underlying patterns and connections of the bodily tissues in an effort to reach a superficial goal, we sacrifice the gradual progress towards health in order to appease the thinking mind and ego. Guruji was fond of saying that in our asana practice there should be “no thinking.” I interpret this to mean that the rational thinking mind can interfere with, rather than aid healthy postural alignment. As we begin to learn more textbook knowledge about alignment, we can begin to impose on our posture rather than finding the most beneficial expression of the asana for our current state of being. It takes us away from our sense of ease in the pose as we tap into notions of what we think the asana is supposed to be like. Being such a long line of the body, we find any number of areas that could interrupt the gentle stretching of the back line or interrupt its symmetry causing congestion at different junctures. It is particularly common to find overstitching or contraction in the areas around and including the pelvis, the lumbar spine above and the hamstrings below, as well as around the neck and shoulders. The way that we utilize our legs, our pelvis, our ribcage, shoulder girdle, and neck will all have an effect on the outcome of our pose.

In my experience, a very common example of this is when students attempt to fulfill the instructions to both touch the head to the legs and to maintain the drishti at the toes. However, if we look at Pattabhi Jois’s description on p. 68 of Yoga Mala he states “There are three types of Paschimattanasana: 1) holding the big toes and touching the nose to the knees; 2) holding on to either side of the feet and touching the nose to the knees; and 3) locking the hands and wrist beyond the feet, and touching the chin to the knee. All three types should be practiced, as each is useful.” You’ll note that it is only really possible to maintain a big toe driśti in the third variation he describes. Photos of Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois bear this out, and yet many students selectively focus on Guruji’s listing of the big toe driśti to their own detriment and not the process-oriented approach that is suggested. It is important to work with a teacher to receive feedback and appropriately interpret the suitability of specific asana instructions for your ability.

In the absence of a teacher, it is important not to strain and to attend to the even flow of breath in the body. Pattabhi Jois also recommends “It is worth noting that, for this asana, one has to retract, or squeeze, and hold the anus tightly, as well as squeeze the lower abdomen and hold it in, and concentrate on the nadis related to the kanda, or egg-shaped nerve plexus in the anal region. As there is no place for the apana vayu [downward flowing prana, or energy], which circulates in the anus, to go, it moves upward and becomes one with prana vayu [upward moving prana]. When this occurs, an aspirant has nothing to fear from old age and death, as Svatmarama Yogendra, the author of Gheranda Samhita, and the sage Vamana both inform us from their own experience.” The quality and direction of prana is inferred from the breath. And so the ideal posture is intended to elicit the movement of the breath to access specific areas of the body for therapeutic benefit.   Below are two translations of Paścimatānāsana’s benefit from Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

HYP 1.31 This Paścimatāna carries the air from the front to the back part of the body (i.e., to Sussumnā). It kindles gastric fire, reduces obesity and cures all diseases of men.

Translation from Pancham Sinh

Principle among asanas, Paschimattanasana causes vital energy to be carried up the spine. As well, it should lead to the rising of digestive fire, slenderness in the abdomen, and freedom from sickness for all. HYP 1.29 translation from Yoga Mala

This movement of breath from the front to the back of the body and then up the spine is, in my experience best practiced in that order. Finding flexion in the spine is healthy and necessary barring contraindications due to injury or degeneration in the lumbar spine. In this case, modification may be necessary. Otherwise, it is best to round the spine and bring the head to the knees or shins first, before then lengthening the torso along the legs. Eventually the torso will lay against the legs and the abdomen will continue to draw away from the thighs. If however, one extends the spine too far, it will interfere with the contraction of the abdomen and cause tightening of the muscles on the back of the torso. One will then notice increased difficulty in keeping the abdomen drawn in as the breath movement is unable to access the back body.

This pose is one of the beautiful fundamental poses, or as Pattabhi Jois notes it is “principal among asanas.” It is one of the poses that we have a textual record for, dating back to the medieval hatha yoga texts and so is considered classical. Once one appreciates its full benefit, it is clear to see why it should be given a lot of emphasis and care so that one can enjoy it with grace and ease.


Karma and the hope of freedom

 

The traditional notion of Yoga as liberation can hardly be understood without its counterpart of karma. Karma is the mechanism that keeps an individual consciousness at the core of the human personality bound to the conditioned cycle of existence called samsāra. Samsāra is the provisional reality that we navigate in the course of daily life. Samsāra is what Yoga seeks to liberate us from.  It is the field of our attachments and cravings, it is the place where we discover pleasure, but also where we find pain.  And in this world, our actions are never free, despite common and persistent feelings to the contrary.  For a Yoga practitioner it is worth investigating how the mechanisms of karma work, its underlying implications, and the practical application of working with it.

The word karma is an Anglicized form of the Sanskrit word karman which literally translated means action. Karma as a concept can be traced back to the ancient Upanishads and was originally considered to be amoral. This is distinct from the way that karma is typically understood as a form of moral retribution. In its most basic form, karma is a natural law of causality. Simply stated, any cause will have an effect, and any action will have a consequence. Causality is intrinsic to our understanding of the world and it is woven into the fabric of our decision making process. Society as we know it would cease to function without an understanding of causal relationships. If we have a problem, we seek a cause to formulate a solution. If we get sick, we seek a cause so that we can decide on a cure. If we are happy we identify the cause so that we can try to repeat the pleasure that brought it to us. If I hear a song that makes me happy, I am likely to purchase it so I can repeat the enjoyment by playing it over and over again.

Causality is not the same as meaning, however, and so identifying causes doesn’t necessarily give moral justification to why a thing happened, which can often be frustrating and unsatisfying. Especially when what I perceived as a cause of my happiness is no longer bringing me the same pleasure, or when the cause of suffering doesn’t have a morally defensible justification. How do we explain why random harmful events happen to innocent people. It is often a search for this “why” that we assign a moral dimension to karma.

Karma is often taken personally which leads to the belief that one’s circumstances are the direct result of their own volitional actions, and moreover, that a particular effect can be traced back to a single cause. But, events can only seemingly be traced back to a single cause, like when the wind blows and it causes the branches of a tree to move. Upon inspection this only leads to the question of what caused the wind to blow and what conditions caused the blowing wind to be directed towards the branch. Following the causal chain to its root is considered to be foundational to the yogic enterprise. We make a move from the complexity of causes that influence and largely control the events of a human life to gradually more irreducible causes. In the process we come to terms with the ways in which our perceptions of and attachments to an event largely determine our actions and their future effects. There is often a distinction made between a provisional reality that is the result of the complexity of causes and their effects and an ultimate reality that is considered as irreducible.

One of the root causes of karma is egoism and the belief in oneself as an agent of action. In Yoga philosophy, once the ego is involved, then karma is deterministic and ones actions in this plane lack freedom.  If our current actions and experiences will lead to future consequences, then our past actions and experiences must have led to our current circumstances and have conditioned us to react to it in particular ways.  This may sound like a negative view of action, but it is quite hopeful.  Yoga is traditionally considered the path by which we free ourselves from the conditioning influence of karma. While the notion of ourselves as an agent feels true,  it may only be a story that we tell ourselves after the fact.  Recognizing this is key to overcoming the powerful influence our karma.

If we are truly to act freely, then we should identify with the source of the will, which is transcendent to the ego. We can learn to watch our thoughts, motivations, and reactions without giving them power.  If we act out an agenda based on personal gain, then we are unlikely to consider the implications of our actions beyond our own personal desire. However, by inhibiting our impulses and reactions and instead reflecting on our circumstances and influences, we can begin to see the mechanisms that turn the wheels of fate.  It is through non-attachment to personal gain that ego driven action is transcended.

Every action that we take, conscious and unconscious have a bearing on future outcomes. Our personal actions not only influence our own future circumstances, but also the general circumstances of the world in which we live. The idea that our actions only affect our individual circumstances denies the interdependence of the world.  Recognizing this interdepence would naturally lead to an altruistic consideration for all actions in the social sphere, though ultimately the desire for freedom might be the driving force behind it.

-Greg Nardi

 


Kurmasana

Kurmasana is known as the turtle posture. In the Hindu puranas Kurma is the 2nd avatar of Lord Vishnu, the maintainer, preserver, and protector. Vishnu is said to have 10 avatars or incarnations where he takes form to restore dharma or cosmic order. In several puranas, we see the story of the churning of the ocean of milk, where Vishnu incarnated as a turtle to support Mount Mandara as the rod that the devas and asuras use to churn the ocean of milk with the aim of recovering the elixir of immortality, or amrita buried deep in the ocean. This myth is thick with symbolism and worth studying. However, for today it is sufficient to know that it is an allegory for the yogic journey of consciousness. The devas and asuras represent two sides of the human psyche, the civilized and the natural respectively. In order for yoga to be successful, both of these aspects must be integrated into wholeness. Mount Mandara then represents a focused mind, which is a tool, and the product of an integrated self. With this tool, we can harness our desires and manifest the potentials that are latent, or in this case buried in the consciousness as illustrated by the ocean of milk. Kurma as a turtle represents the minds ability to draw inward as a turtle withdraws its limbs. This is known as pratyahara and is the support for meditative practices.

This posture comes at a point in the primary series after we have worked a series of asymmetrical poses that balance the limbs, affecting the large structures of the pelvis, shoulder girdle, and ribcage that influence the spine. It requires deep external rotation and flexion of the hip. In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois says that this pose purifies the heart and lungs, and the spinal column becomes strong. Gregor Maehle points out in his book Ashtanga Yoga, Practice and Philosophy, that the spinal strength gained in this pose is a necessary pre-requisite for learning to drop back to and come up from urdhva dhanurasana. This posture is said to purify the kanda, or nerve plexus from which all 72,000 nadis originate. Proficiency in the poses up to bhujapidasana should be demonstrated before attempting this pose. Otherwise, modification of the pose will be necessary. It is common to spend some time learning to do this pose properly and it is important to learn this asana through gradual, consistent practice.

This vinyasa sequence has two states of the asana that are held. The first part is kurmasana where the legs are placed over the shoulder as in bhujapidasana, and then the legs are straightened as we lower to the ground with the strength of the arms. The arms then reach to the sides and we extend the spine. If the shoulders do not come to the floor it is important that we don’t use the legs to force the shoulders down. If there is pain where the collar bones connect to the sternum, do not extend the chest or straighten the legs until this pain goes away.

Many students think that it is desirable to lift the heels off of the floor once the shoulders are down and the legs are straight, however, if we don’t have sufficient hip rotation, then the desire to lift the heels will oftentimes raise the seat off the floor as well. It is preferable to keep the seat grounded as lifting the seat can contract the back and result in disturbed bandha control and breath. However, with the seat grounded and bandhas properly engaged, one should extend the spine, perhaps even lifting the chin a bit. This will help to broaden the collar bones and open the chest.

The second asana state is supta kurmasana. In this position, the spine is rounded like a turtle shell, which gives the asana its name. The arms are brought behind the back to clasp the hands, and the ankles are crossed above the head. Again, many students believe that crossing the legs behind the neck is the objective of this pose. In their effort to bring the torso through the legs, they end up extending the spine. However, in this pose, the head is rounded forward and we rest on the forehead indicating further that the spine is in flexion. One should only cross the legs behind the neck if your flexibility, body proportions and strength allow you to do so while maintaining spinal flexion. It is this second asana that represents the turtle withdrawing its limbs. The soft under part of the body should be drawing inward and helping to support and strengthen the back body. In this pose the mind becomes deeply concentrated. If initially, you find this pose brings anxiety, then take is slowly.

The two asana taken together strengthen the spine in both extension and flexion and act as counter poses for one another.

-Greg Nardi