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Yoga and Politics: It’s the Reality, Stupid September 19, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Well, this is a bit much, but it's still a hopeful thought...

I would have liked for Monsta Yoga to stay above the political fray — in my experience, a rather nasty place where both civility and rationality are in short supply — but after watching more than a little coverage of the recent GOP presidential debates, I just can’t do it. So we’ll proceed into the Red-and-Blue, then, but armed with an open mind, some Patanjali, and an absolute refusal to take anything that anyone says — right or left — too seriously.

Yoga Sutra IV.15 informs us that, “Due to the differences in various minds, perception of even the same object may vary.” Well, this is one of those axioms that at first blush sounds kinda deep, kinda profound, but after a little critical thought becomes one of those “no shit, Sherlock” no-brainers. Because of course everyone is going to perceive an object differently, and not just in the man-sees-pile-of-trash, goat-sees-pile-of-food kind of way. Some regard paying their federal income tax to be a patriotic duty; others consider their 1040s to be unholy tributes to Lucifer himself. With my 20/god-knows-how-bad vision, I perceive billboards and buildings a bit hazier than my 20/20 best friend.

Now, variance in perceptions is a good thing. The world operates on perceptions of differences between things, and not on the actual things themselves (This is why a busy signal is more interesting to listen to than a dial tone). And indeed, politics (as an institution) works best when many different ideas and perceptions are brought to the table, examined, then reconciled.

The Three Bears

"But I'm hungry!"

But while these differences are the most appreciable aspects of the maelstrom of human activity that makes the world go round, they’re also, ironically, the least important. Nobody lives inside of a difference. Yes, variance in porridge-temperature and bed-softness provide the literary fuel for the “Goldilocks” story, but when all is said and done, the trespassing little brat still eats a real bowl of porridge, still goes to sleep in a real bed. Upon returning home, the Three Bears don’t fret over Golidlocks’s examinations of food and bed; rather, they’re upset because the food is gone and the bed occupied. While Goldilocks demonstrates that the perceivable differences between objects are excellent fodder for analysis, debate, and experimentation, the Three Bears show that the buck stops with reality — in this case the actually-missing food and the actually-unusable bed.

In yoga, we practice non-attachment, which means we don’t identify with these differences. We eliminate the word “too” from our daily evaluations, accepting bad weather as rainy, but not too rainy, scalding porridge as hot, but not too hot. What is, is. In a sense, yoga allows us to transcend fluctuations in perception, and we strive to envision a unified, whole planet in which the one-ness of all is recognized and made manifest.

While I’d never expect, or even want, American politics to “ascend” to a yogic level of unity and harmony — dissent is vital to democracy and is, appropriately, Constitutionally enshrined and protected — it would be refreshing if politicians regarded policy differences more like the Three Bears and less like Goldilocks. That is, while the salient actions of Goldilocks are tasting and testing, those of the Bears are eating and sleeping (or not, as is the case in the story). GOP presidential front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry highlight the differences between their own candidacies and between their potential presidencies with that of Barack Obama, but these differences are not what feed and shelter a nation.

I expect Republicans to offer strategies and policies that run counter to those of Democrats. But too often these days, the offering trumps the actual problem-solving that these policies are intended to facilitate. Now, elections are all about deciphering difference, but we mustn’t let our country identify solely with these “political” chitta-vrittis (fluctuations of thought) that our politicians are wont to promote as their actual identities and actual personalities. Instead, we must recognize these margins without institutionalizing them. It’s fine to espouse “smaller government,” quite another to then determine what, outside of the fact that it’s not “big government,” that smaller government will actually be and actually do.

Politicians are canny and savvy (perhaps too much so). If we demand reality from them, they’ll provide it, and we can see differing perceptions for what they really are: invaluable tools that help us construct a better reality.

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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.

There are no yoga cops: coming to terms with your sadhana June 29, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’m not immune to negativity and disenchantment, and if I’m not careful, I can lapse into outright cynicism. About three weeks into my Jivamukti Teacher Training in Rhinebeck, N.Y., I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with what I was being taught. There was too much unquestioned reverence, I thought. There wasn’t enough room for debate and dissent. There were short answers given to questions that guys like Rumi, Thomas Aquinas, and Keith Richards had spent lifetimes pondering.

Whether it was the string of 18-hour days; the never-ending kale, collard-greens, and lentils buffet at the dining hall; or the upper-respiratory bug that had been plaguing me since the second week, I’d just about had it. Maybe I’d heard the word “guru-ji” one too many times. Whatever it was, for a couple of days, I crossed over the dark side and indulged my inner cynic.

We were made to learn, for example, a list of ten ways a student can honor his teacher. It was all perfectly respectful and reasonable, but from my hole on the dark side, I saw it as Orwellian. I spitefully let my imagination carry me away to North Korea. Number 1, for example, instructs a student to use honorifics when referring to or addressing his teacher, which I took as the equivalent of referring to the long dead Kim Il-sung as “Great Leader” and to his megalomaniacal son, Kim Jong-il, as “Dear Leader.” Number 8 directs a student to ask his teacher to stay in his life, which to me sounded analogous to supporting the hereditary Stalinist dynasty that the Kims had established in Pyongyang. And number 9 charges a student to pay attention when his teacher teaches, to not let the mind wander. Admittedly, I thought USSR, not North Korea, on this one, but the enjoinment nevertheless reminded me of those apparatchiks whom Stalin had sent to the gulag for, allegedly, not laughing at his jokes or for being the first to sit down during a 30-minute standing ovation. Yes, for these and every other item on the list, I’d listed their totalitarian corollaries in my notebook.

As training crept by and my imagination ran rampant, I felt more and more like an outcast, a heterodox dissident living on borrowed time until the “Yoga Police” ferreted me out and banished me from Jivamukti. I even designed a medallion for the Yoga Police Department, which my roommate quickly christened the “Bitter Badge.”

The "Bitter Badge"

But mercifully, the truth dawned on me soon thereafter: There are no “Yoga Cops.”

My practice—and yours—are personal journeys, private experiences. One’s entire sadhana is, in effect, carried out entirely behind the closed doors of one’s body, mind, and soul. One student’s maddeningly rigorous regimen of asana is no better or worse, no more right or wrong, than another’s hours of devotional chanting. Built into yoga’s existential paradox—that it is both the end of the journey and the journey itself—is the space for you to define it how it benefits you—and the people with whom you share your life—the most, and the most joyfully.

Karma teaches us that the intention behind an action is far more resonant than is the action itself; indeed, one’s intention is a transformative agent, the reason behind one’s behavior and the mold into which the wet plaster of action hardens into result. When I set aside my cynicism—and, alas, handed in the Bitter Badge—I found my intention to be no less devotional, no less pure than my fellow trainees. After all, though we had different bodies, different expressions of different asanas,  we were all striving in Rhinebeck for the same thing; that is, the teaching tools and expertise required to instruct others onto their own paths. We were taught to respect our students’ journeys, just as our teachers respected ours. Even if the Yoga Cops had raided my room, they’d have found woefully little evidence to arrest me of any yogic “crime.”

When I was in middle school in Oregon in the early nineties, the skaters would spare no opportunity to slap a “Skateboarding is not a crime” bumper sticker on any accessible flat surface, even the backboards of basketball hoops. After my imaginary run-in with the Yoga Cops, I finally figured out what they meant: no matter what others think of it, skateboarding is definitely not a crime. Neither is your yoga practice.

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