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How the ‘what’ of yoga can trump the ‘why’ August 8, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I worry, from time to time, that I approach yoga with improper motives.

When I was nine, I first encountered “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” a novella by Roald Dahl. In the story, Henry, a wealthy English playboy, discovers a so-called yogic technique that, if mastered, will allow him to identify playing cards by “seeing through” their backs. Immediately grasping the financial implications of such an aptitude, Henry dedicates himself to perfecting the practice, assuming that it will one day allow him to earn millions at casinos. And so he practices, honing his concentration and harnessing his consciousness for years, until he finally deems himself ready to take down the world’s blackjack tables.

But yoga, of course, is not a get-rich-quick practice! Quite the opposite, rather, and when hatha yoga is practiced with dedication and vigor, it renders such material motivations irrelevant and vulgar. As Swami Muktibodhananda writes in her commentaries on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “Hatha yoga is not being taught for its own sake, for therapeutic purposes, or for gaining worldly or psychic powers, and this is something the hatha yoga practitioner should always keep in mind.” And in his explication of the siddhis in Book III of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says, “These powers are uplifting and encouraging when the mind is turned outward, but they are obstacles to samadhi.” (III.38).

Henry Sugar is a selfish and worldly man, though, and it is the decidedly worldly inspiration of personal enrichment that leads him to yoga. But at the casino, on Henry’s path to the bank, something funny happens:

Well-fed women stood around the roulette wheel like plump hens around a feeding hopper. Jewels and gold were dripping over their bosoms and from their wrists. Many of them had blue hair. The men were in dinner jackets and there wasn’t a tall one among them. Why, Henry wondered, did this particular kind of rich man always have short legs? Their legs all seemed to stop at the knees with no thighs above. Most of them had bellies coming out a long way, and crimson faces and cigars between their lips. Their eyes glittered with greed. All this Henry noticed. It was the first time in his life that he had looked with distaste upon this type of wealthy gambling-casino person. Up until now, he had always regarded them as companions, as members of the same group and class as himself. Tonight they seemed vulgar. Could it be, he wondered, that the yoga powers he had acquired over the last three years had altered him just a little bit?

Henry manages to set his distaste aside for an hour or two, and he neatly pockets £6,600 before leaving. Yet upon waking the next morning, he finds the wad of bills revolting. Climbing onto his Mayfair balcony, he showers the streets and people below with twenty-pound notes, delightfully giving away the riches he’d won the night before. And after a stern rebuke from a policeman (The money drop had caused a riot of sorts), Henry decides that he must find a more meaningful way of sharing his wealth. He embarks upon a twenty-year mission of winning millions at casinos and then using that money to build and finance orphanages all over the world. And when it’s over, after he dies, we’re told, “He never kept a penny of the money he won, except what he needed to travel and eat.”

Though it’s flawed and somewhat skewed in its representation of yoga, the story of Henry Sugar nevertheless underlines the potency of the practice; that is, it illustrates the importance of sadhana as well as samadhi. Swami Muktibodhananda writes, “[H]atha yoga is to be practised for the sole purpose of preparing oneself for the highest state of raja yoga, i.e., samadhi.” Most of us, though, come to yoga for other reasons–“to improve or restore health, to reduce stress, to prevent the body from ageing, to build up the body or to beautify it,” suggests Swami Muktibodhananda. But even if we begin our spiritual journeys with these different–perhaps less-pure–motives, through conscientious and enthusiastic practice we ultimately find our motivation elevated to the ideal whether we want it to be or not. We may begin our practice with a fitter body (or pile of money) in mind, but honest diligence will replace that material goal with a spiritual one.

The practice does indeed prepare one for the sublime, but perhaps more importantly, it also prepares one for the mundane. And perhaps even more importantly, for the rotten. Whether or not a yogi actually achieves nirvikalpa samadhi in his lifetime, he will still find his relationship to the temporal world permanently shifted by his practice. Like Henry Sugar, an initiated yogi will eventually find himself unwilling and unable to savor material pettiness and worldly desires, even if they are what brought him to the practice in the first place.

If one has a wholesome desire to make yoga his life’s work, then the practice will see to it that one’s life’s work becomes yoga.

Exile on Yoga Street: Sadhana and the Stones July 25, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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This past spring, I closed every evening of Teacher Training with a good half-hour of reading from Keith Richards’s Life. Believe me, nothing washes down bandha and kriya like a solid helping of heroin addiction and Goats Head Soup, and if absorbing Keith’s decidedly un-yogic habits seems to you like a medicine counterproductive to discovering pure and good Samkhya philosophy, just remember that “Paint It, Black” was the first #1 hit in the UK and US to feature a sitar. Sure, it was Swami Vivekananda who brought Yoga and Vedanta philosophies to America in 1893, but it was Keith, Mick, Brian, Charlie, Bill and Jack Nitzsche who really made it rock. (Richards’s initials are also, incidentally, kr, the Sanskrit root for “action,” but let’s not get too philologically carried away here.

Most people love Keith Richards, if only for the fact that he’s so easy to make fun of. After all, who—besides Johnny Depp, of course, whose Pirates of the Caribbean character Jack Sparrow is an amalgam of Richards and Looney Tunes skunk Pepe Le Pew—knew that the only thing separating the Rolling Stones legend from a ridiculously lampoonable pirate was a small dose of cartoon polecat?

But in Life, I find enough high-brow and low-brow wisdom to complement and supplement anything I read in Hindu scriptures. Many of us, for example—myself included—initially approach yoga as a way to flee frustration and disappointment. Many of us feel trapped or indentured to what we’ve been told is conventional, expected, or normal.

My first yoga teacher was a successful journalist who tired of Fourth Estate politics and found rejuvenation in her practice and study. And as I’ve written before, I found yoga to be an antidote to the back-biting and imperious literary world in which I was grudgingly striving and competing as a young writer and editor.

So at Teacher Training at Rhinebeck, it was quite refreshing to hear Richards’s willful dismissal of a mundane career at an ad agency in favor of—at that time, at least—a low-security, one-in-a-million shot at becoming a professional musician:

“I left art school around this time,” he writes.

At the end your teacher says, “Well I think this is pretty good,” and they send you off to J. Walter Thompson and you have an appointment, and by then, in a way you know what’s coming—three or four real smarty-pants, with the usual bow ties. “Keith, is it? Nice to see you. Show us what you’ve got.” And you lay the old folder out. “Hmmmm. I say, we’ve had a good look at this, Keith, and it does show some promise. By the way, do make a good cup of tea? I said yes, but not for you. I walked off with my folio—it was green, I remember—and I dumped in the garbage can when I got downstairs. That was my final attempt to join society on their terms.

Granted, most of us who choose to make at least a partial living by teaching yoga won’t come anywhere near to sniffing the galactic success of the Stones. But as I progress in my practice and come across more and more opportunities to share what I’ve been taught, I recognize in myself the courage and conviction it took for Richards to not “join society on their terms.”

On our spiritual paths, we strive for non-attachment, to somehow emulate the life of a renunciate saddhu who has abandoned more “traditional” pursuits and dedicated his life to the practice and achievement of yoga. Yes, we’re more likely to belt out lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu in a small gathering of fellow sadhakas than we are, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” in front of 40,000 screaming fans but still, like young Mr. Richards, we are making a good cup of tea—just not for “you.” As yogis, we recognize the imperative of liberation—of freedom—in our lives. We recognize that our lifestyle does indeed produce a damn good cup of tea, and we’ll happily share it with you if you ask. And we must always acknowledge, no matter how financially or politically or materially frustrated that we get, that our commitment to yoga is really the most liberating thing we’ve got going.

Writes Walt Whitman,

More precious than all worldly riches is Freedom—freedom from the painful constipation and poor narrowness of ecclesiasticism—freedom in manners, habiliments, furniture, from the silliness and tyranny of local fashions—entire freedom from party rings and mere conventions in Politics—and better than all, a general freedom of One’s-Self from the tyrannic domination of vices, habits, appetites, under which nearly every man of us, (often the greatest brawler for freedom,) is enslaved.

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