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Yogis Get Hurt Too January 10, 2012

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Unlike some of my teaching colleagues, I wasn’t angry with the New York Times Magazine article about the dangers of yoga. And actually, I’m a bit confused by the yoga-teaching community’s reaction to a thesis as elementary and anodyne as that of author William Broad; that is, that Practicing yoga can lead to injury. I’m not sure what’s controversial about that statement.

I’ve been injured many times over the course of my practice—sometimes worse than others, sometimes because my ego tricked me into attempting that third wheel before my back was ready, sometimes because a well-meaning and well-trained Jivamukti teacher fudged an adjustment and did my hamstring more harm than good. (That last example, performed during Extended Side Angle C, resulted in a bhav-shattering pop, my dead-weight thudding onto the floor, and the spontaneous halting of class when everyone turned to gape.) I don’t blame anyone but myself for each of the times I’ve gotten hurt, and the Jivamukti teacher in me urges me to search for the lesson to be learned from each overexertion. But though I make a point of maintaining my yoga practice specifically by using my injuries as gross and subtle teaching tools, the fact remains that I sustained—and sustain—the physical damage in yoga class.

Though yoga aims to shrink the ego and merge the small self with large, the inconvenient paradox remains that, for all but the most enlightened of us, a healthy-sized ego is necessary in order for one to recognize that it needs to be shrunk down in the first place. Our egos work as unwanted conduits that cause the energy we devote to our spiritual intention to leak into our physical intention. We try not to identify with our bodies, but until we actually, ultimately, succeed at that, we do. In other words, you may not care about toned arms and a yoga butt, but trust me, your body certainly appreciates them in an eight-breath Warrior II. You can detach yourself from the physical body, but you cannot leave it behind.

We don’t enter class in a state of samadhi, and though we spend the next ninety minutes sandblasting them, our egos practice alongside us on our mats. Excluding living saints, then, every yoga practitioner deals with his or her ego throughout sadhana. So, if ego is the source of so many bodily injuries, and ego is always with us, then wouldn’t it make sense to educate and elucidate ourselves about the physical dangers that, in our self-liberating practice, can cause us pain and suffering—indeed, the opposite of liberation?

Broad’s article has been called an attack on yoga. One yoga teacher complained that, “[The article’s] talking about yoga like it’s another sport fad. It’s not just another thing. It’s not just another Pilates. It’s meant to be so much deeper than that.” Now as a certified teacher and daily practitioner, I can agree that to me, yoga is not just another thing. But I can’t say that for any of the other 20 million practitioners out there. I don’t know the breadth and depth of their individual sadhanas. Though it is certainly true that intention and mindfulness can prevent injury, you can’t expect thoroughly Western, thoroughly skeptical, and thoroughly cynical Times readers to naturally understand this esoteric, hard-to-grasp principle. Nor is a relatively short item in the Times Magazine about injury the place to discuss the ins and outs of vairagya.

If we play out this notion, then, that yoga is special and must therefore not be discussed plainly, we arrive at a place of isolationism; that is, that only yogis are fit to discuss yoga and, even then, only with other yogis. Yoga doesn’t belong to yogis; neither do its discussion and study. Should we avoid discussing the dangers of teenage smoking because to talk about lung cancer would be to miss the point that the purpose of teenage smoking is to look cool, something we adults could never understand? As a cigarette-smoking teenager myself, I felt any surgeon-general’s warning intrusive, completely unsympathetic to the 8-limbed path of looking cool as a teenager. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t deserve to know about the nine hundred kinds of nastiness that I was inviting into my lungs. True to my intention, I looked cool—the samadhi of sixteen—but physically, I was terribly abusing my body.

Of course, teenage smoking and yoga aren’t totally comparable to one another, but they both illustrate the real danger of ego-caused physical side effects that can and do result from the pursuit of a “higher” intention.

If we’re to believe the masters—that yoga itself is an empty vessel to be filled with one’s intention—then any attack on “yoga” is silly. The article certainly doesn’t impugn my sadhana; it merely reminds me to keep my intentions pure and to watch out for my ego.

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Satya: The Inherent Truth of Existence October 25, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Satya – truthfulness – is the second of the five yamas, or restrictions, outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Shri Brahmananda Saraswati translates, “When the yogi is firmly established in satya… he or she obtains the fruit of actions without effort” (2.36).

New Mexicans call places the darndest things.

Patanjali seems to define truth-telling as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme: accomplishment without effort. It’s a couch potato’s – or stoner’s — greatest dream. Telling the truth, after all, isn’t really all that difficult – it requires much more energy to invent and perpetuate a lie than it does to report that which you’ve observed as truth – and if the end result is satisfaction without effort, well, how is that not a practical no-brainer? Yet still, people lie and cheat, fabricate and obfuscate. So it can’t really be that simple.

For an explanation, I turned (as I have before) to Walt Whitman. “Great is the quality of truth in man;” he writes.

The quality of truth in man supports itself through all changes,
It is inevitably in the man – he and it are in love, and never leave each other.

The truth in man is no dictum, it is vital as eyesight;
If there be any Soul, there is truth – if there be man or woman there is truth – if there be physical or moral, there is truth;
If there be equilibrium or volition, there is truth – if there be things at all upon the earth, there is truth

O truth of the earth! I am determin’d to press my way toward you;
Sound your voice! I scale mountains, or dive in the sea after you.

Whitman doesn’t even conceive of a universe in which nontruth exists. After all, how could it? How could something be – and not be truthful? A lying politician is still, by nature and by definition, a politician. He is still alive, still human, still practicing politics; his words and actions cannot change the true fundamentality of what he is. It’s on this point that nineteenth century American poet and 2,000-year-old Indian sage intersect.

For Patanjali and Whitman, language doesn’t represent an act separate from existing; that is, saying and being are the same thing. I may be spouting a lie with my lips, but I – as a human being, as an object on this planet – still exist as me in my most fundamental state. I’m saying words that don’t represent the temporal reality of things, but the collection of cells and molecules and atoms that form my (lying) being still represent the reality of me. The “truth” of Simon at the moment during which I lie is that I’m a person who happens to be lying. In other words, the fact that I am a liar is just that – a fact, regardless of what I happen to actually be lying about.

Satya, then, is inescapable. You can’t lie your way out of truth. Short of suicide, it’s impossible to choose to not exist. And since one’s existence is inherently truthful, then the only effort one should ever expend while existing occurs when one is not being truthful to himself, or to his fundamental nature. Work, or effort, enters the equation not when we tell lies, then, but when we stray from our true identities.

So if you believe the yogic teaching, then, that divinity comprises all beings, then you’re only untruthful when you’re not divine. Since yoga teaches that the identities of all things are interwoven together into one divine essence, then it is only when one turns his back on this essence that one actually expends any effort in his existence. The pursuit of yoga – union – is thus a divine, effortless existence; and when one reaches samadhi, of course, everything – the fruits of existence — becomes available. You find your truth within your practice.

Your sadhana will, as Patanjali promises, bear you fruit without effort.

How can I enjoy kirtan? August 11, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’m trying. I’m really, really trying—to like kirtan. Because honestly, I find myself lapsing on the whole ahimsa/vegetarian policy far more frequently than I do the “attend kirtan” policy. That is, you’ve got a better chance of seeing me at Gray’s Papaya than you do at Wednesday night chanting at Jivamukti.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama/ Rama Rama Hare Hare

It’s not that I dislike the call-and-respond style of kirtan. To wit, I find the part of a Pearl Jam show at which Ed Vedder cuts the vocals and entreats the crowd to chant the chorus of “Alive” to be the most stirring moment of a concert. I don’t even mind—and actually look forward to—an eighteen-minute version of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane,” which I’ll admit is really not that far removed from a half-hour puja from Krishna Das or Jai Uttal. And on Live At Carnegie Hall (1973), by Bill Withers, I really enjoy that, upon finishing “Use Me,” he asks the audience, One more time?, and then proceeds to do just that, as if the spur-of-the-moment reprise is built right into the song.

So what is it, then, with me and kirtan? Does my extreme agnosticism prevent me from invoking the name of god? The problem with this explanation is that I gladly sing Christian spirituals and gospel tunes along with Mavis Staples (Check out “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Billy Corgan), and I’ll never forget the time I was blown away by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals’ rendition of “Power of the Gospel” at a 2001 show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The explicit religiosity of much of Fiddler on the Roof does more than most to make me proud of having been born a Jew, and when Mick Jagger repeatedly invokes “the good lord” in the chorus of “Shine a Light,” I’m reminded of why it’s my second-favorite Stones song (“Gimme Shelter” is #1). So I have no trouble, it would seem, with invoking the lord’s name to music.

Now, I don’t discount the spiritual weight that fans of kirtan place upon their Sanskrit syllables. If anything, studying the melodic ins and outs of chanting has allowed me to find more divinity in the secular music I’ve enjoyed my entire life. And, really, if one believes the teachings of bhakti yoga—that chanting the name of god brings one closer to it—then the ecstasy engendered by such devotional music should naturally be seen as proof that there is indeed something special about it. Who am I, after all, to impugn the exultation of a puja-enraptured soul simply because I don’t experience it myself? I aim to be aggressively open-minded, and my practice advises me to steadfastly refuse to be skeptical of ecstatic chant — but try as I might, I simply cannot let myself get completely swept up by it.

As yogis, we’re taught to practice non-attachment, yet paradoxically, we’re also taught the primacy of Sanskrit, the language of our practice. But monolingual enlightenment feels alien to my understanding of bliss. And karma doesn’t care about the language used to inflict good — or harm.

But Sanskrit is a tongue, we’re told, that simply is. Halasana, for example, is not regarded as equivalent to the two words and ten letters that make up the English term plough pose. Rather, halasana represents the actual vibratory structure of the pose itself. With legs stretched back behind my head, feet pressed into the floor, each cell in my body is vibrating—singing—“halasana” at the top of its “lungs.” By contrast, in English, the letters in the written term “plough pose” are symbolic abstractions of the phonetic sounds they represent; those sounds are themselves abstractions of the concept of plough pose—that is, what we envision when we hear those sounds—and that concept is, again, an abstract way of aurally categorizing the actual pose itself. So when one says “god” in English, he’s actually discussing an abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction. Conversely, when one chants “Hare Krishna,” the deity himself is actually thought to be pouring out of the singer’s mouth.

As a writer, I find the notion of holding one language as better than any other to be somewhat parochial and immature, and I don’t like the idea that a particular type of music’s choice of idiom defines its relative legitimacy as a spirit-moving instrument. After all, if one is entranced, then do the lingual logistics of the sensations really matter? I’ve come to the conclusion that, whether divinely inspired or not, my affinity for English-language rock ‘n’ roll and soul music is no less holy than another’s for devotional Sanskrit melodies. And no more holy, either. Can’t they both simply rock? And might my “devotional” music be just as mighty, just as inspired, as any other agglomeration of audio vibrations? I hope so, because, like I said, I’m trying. I’m really, really, trying.

I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive

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.

Can samadhi be reconciled with reality? July 12, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Samadhi is a frightening concept. To the uninitiated, it hovers somewhere in the distance, tantalizing and seductive, a state of bliss and harmony so unattainable as to be cast aside and ignored. It feels trillions of miles away from jobs and paychecks, MetroCards and express trains, and even rubbery Jade Yoga mats and slick bamboo floors. In the middle of a sweaty, frustrating day, the super-consciousness promised by samadhi can seem completely alien to modern life. Moreover, as it is described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, samadhi can even seem undesirable–something, perhaps, to store away in the “maybe later” section of one’s mind. I mean, do they still stage the World Cup in samadhi? Can I still read Vanity Fair?

Volkswagen

I'm not so sure about this...

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.50 states, “The perception gained in nirvicara samadhi through rtam-bhara prajna or intuitive knowledge transcends all normal perception,  both in intensity and extent.” Worldy pettiness, then, and the trivial comings, goings, and fixations of life are subsumed by samadhi; they are overwhelmed by the contentment and bliss of super-consciousness and their pettiness and triviality become manifest.  Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati comments, “Experience born from the higher state, samadhi, due to intuitive knowledge, effects personality changes. These personality changes check all other habits, experiences, and impressions which lead to lower states. Impressions of samadhi stand in the way of other impressions.”

Now, for one struggling mightily to surmount the klesha of raga, attachment, the notion of destroying his attraction to worldly things can potentially seem like a contraindication of samadhi! Though a man who derives pleasure from, say, obsessively collecting antique firearms would benefit terrifically from ascending to a state of samadhi (and therefore ridding himself of his obsession with guns), he might view the loss of such a pleasure-bringing activity with fear and loathing (Much as I fear a blissful future that exists without the World Cup). He might not be able to conceive of a world in which he’s not an avid collector of Colts and Winchesters and Smith & Wessons.

How often, after all, does one hear another dreamily posit that he absolutely can’t–and won’t–live in a world in which he can’t enjoy, say, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Or autumn Sundays with the NFL? Or even daily asana practice? We can even perceive the potential loss of those activities and objects that distract us from the drudgery of everyday life as something to be avoided at all costs. If we don’t trust Patanjali–that is, if we value our own, perceptions and interpretations of the world over those that yoga teaches us are real and true–we won’t see the bliss of samadhi as an improvement over the “bliss” we get from material things.

Since beginning my yoga practice in 2008, I’ve struggled with the notion of super-consciousness. When I practice yoga, I don’t like to see myself as a workhorse who’s merely following the dangling carrot held by his master. And during my teacher training especially, through eighteen-hour days and interminable Sanskrit lessons, I struggled even more. If this were something I really wanted, I would think, then why am I looking forward to my day off? What if the samadhi I’m being sold isn’t the samadhi that I want to buy?

La Furia Roja

These guys seem pretty blissed out to me.

Ultimately, I’ve come to understand that the potential of super-consciousness is irrelevant to my life and to my practice. My yogic alchemy, I think, is to transform me from a driver to a passenger on the road of life (Apologies to Volkswagen, who once stressed, “Drivers Wanted.” I think the notion of “driving” one’s life is bullshit.) When I’m not so concerned with explicitly conducting the course of my life–to Whole Foods, to Rima’s 3:00 Wednesday class at Jivamukti–or to the state of samadhi–then I can appreciate the world around me. I can see others as fellow passengers and not fly into a road rage when they jostle and distract me from what I think I’m supposed to be doing.

Consciousness is as real or imagined as super-consciousness. There is fulfillment to be found in both, as long as you determine not to fixate on either. And who knows–maybe the United States has a chance of actually winning a samadhi-staged World Cup.

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