Yoga’s relevance

When I worked as a poetry teacher in a maximum security prison, one of the inmates pointedly asked me, “What’s the responsibility of a poet?”

While mulling a response over the next few months, I admitted to myself that as compelled as one feels to write poems, no one is obligated to read them. In an increasingly time-pressed world, it is a bit of an imposition to expect them to.

Jane Hirshfield has said that poetry is not practical. This is true.

A man approached me one night after a poetry reading and said my poems were nice enough, but I should acquire a real skill, like being auto mechanic. I’d been a school teacher so I knew about practical jobs: teaching children to add and subtract and to read and write is very practical. So, though it stung, I saw his point.

As a former teaching artist, traveling to bring poetry to students of all ages, I can also gin up a convincing argument on the value of poetry. Through reading, writing and speaking poems, one learns about rhythm and rhetoric, language and longing, sound and self.

These days, though, I teach yoga and meditation. I’m lately asking a version of the inmate’s question,

What’s the point of yoga in 21st-century America?

In Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga, Richard Rosen clarifies the question without providing an answer.

Yoga was born, nurtured, and cultivated in India, but it’s been passed along to the West like a baton in a relay race. For all intents and purposes, over the last six decades, we’ve refined the original foundation practice–asana–far beyond the wildest imaginings of the old yogis. But although we are asana adults, the rest of our practice is still in its infancy. So now it’s time to turn our attention to other matters, using the traditional practice as our model but shaping the practice to suit Western needs.

After pondering all this for some time, I think I have an answer.

It’s yoga as a return to a process-oriented approach to life. A right view that acknowledges that the fact of change and the truth of interconnection mean that the only end game is the one we investigate at the conclusion of a yoga class — death — in corpse pose, savasana.

In a U.S.-centric version of this illustration, the asana leaf would be enormous.

Our yoga teachers come primarily from performance backgrounds — athletes, gymnasts and dancers — who gravitate to yoga as full-time employment or part-time hobby. The emphasis in their teaching subsequently falls on “peak poses” as well as long inversions, vigorous flows, arm balances and “deep” anything: forward bend, backbend, twists.

Nuance is lost.

So much energy goes into production of a giant asana leaf that the flower of American yoga can’t bloom.

I’ve seen yoga teachers take and post selfies while taking and teaching classes and during meditation. Performance and presentation in the form of picture or a post tips a person into the future, away from self-study, concentration, steadying of the mind.

Yoga’s physical component of asana is to prepare the body for sitting on the ground in sustained meditation, I have heard. In the Zen tradition that I practice, fidgeting is frowned upon. We sit. Still. Crisp posture and physical strength support this.

Karen Armstrong writes in Buddha:

Yoga can be described as the systematic dismantling of the egotism which distorts our view of the world and impedes our spiritual progress….Those who practice yoga in America and Europe do not always have that objective. They often use the disciplines of yoga to improve their health….Certainly, the yogic exercises can enhance our control and induce a serenity if properly practiced, but the original yogins did not embark on this path in order to feel better and to live a more normal life. They wanted to abolish normality and wipe out their mundane selves.

Scrap the power yoga, the peak poses, the pressure to do this or that.

Move gently and notice what you feel. Build strength through attention to alignment, detail, fluid movement and longer holds. Practice right effort, bringing enthusiasm, maybe joy.

Taking action without expectation of result: This is what yoga contributes to modern America.

Yoga offers a model for the trinity of mind, body and breath. Mind, body, breath — three sturdy legs for the seat of the stool of a contented life.

Says Patanjali’s 19th sutra as translated by T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga:

There will be some who are born into a state of Yoga. They need not practice or discipline themselves.

Does that sound like you? It’s not me either.

In our vernacular, “discipline” is loaded, no matter how much we remind ourselves the word derives from disciple, related to knowledge. Most of us modern Americans — especially those of us with the freedom (time, money, health) to practice yoga — benefit from discipline. This might be the discipline to refrain from eating a second slice of carrot cake or to bite the tongue against gossip.

This is yoga as a structured system, one way to think about being in the world.  That does not mean co-opting religious underpinnings from the earliest yogis millennia ago, but considering the notion of integration as an ongoing coming into wholeness.

A process is a progression. “Progress” derives from the Latin for walking forward.

Patanjali’s second sutra reads,

Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.

Sustain. Direct. Focus.  Yoga helps us with that. And helps us prepare for other forms of concentration, mindfulness and meditation.

Says computer coder Jonathan Harris in the Washington Post’How the Internet’s most earnest evangelist became its fiercest critic:

We’re losing agency over our own minds while big companies make money….It’s not all bad, but there are different ways of seeing,

He concludes,

We have become slaves to devices that addict us. But everyone is the custodian of his own mind. We all have the potential to be the steward of our own consciousness.

Simply discovering one’s own sense of internal organization through aligned posture shifts one’s perspective on the world. Using the body as a personal 24/7 laboratory of inquiry, a yoga student embodies change and interconnection; his or her relationship to the body changes and the parts of the body change in relationship. Morphing.

The yoga student who practices meditation and identifies some sort of ethical guidelines, with the resources of Patanjali, Buddha or another teacher, transforms intellectually and emotionally, too. Compassion unfolds, for oneself and others. Interest in the world develops. Curiosity leads to more curiosity. And ultimately to contentment as one learns, as Rilke says, to love questions.

Thinking about garbage, Energy Department science and technology policy fellow Darshan Karwat reduced his waste stream to a trickle one year. In writing about the project in the Washington Post, he says,

The hardest part was figuring out the best way to talk about what I was doing. It is important to speak to people in a language they understand — a language that respects where they come from, their motivations, their upbringings…..Also, big issues such as trash and recycling are intimately tied to other big issues such as economic growth, globalization and climate change. So, as I wrote about the experiment on my blog, what began as a discussion of trash and consumption quickly became a discussion of governance, economy, peace and pillage of the Earth, poverty, the limits of human knowledge, complexity and simplicity.

Karwat says the overarching issue is how to live more gently on Earth. How can we practice ahimsa, non-injury, that little leaflet of self-restraint on the flower of wholehearted living?

Karwat suggests,

We need to talk more about how collective change is possible by experimentation in individual lives.

By broadening beyond performance, yoga can give us know-how in being with life. I tell my students that I do the work I do — teaching yoga — so they can do the work they do — lawyers, doctors, mechanics, teachers, lobbyists, drivers, CEOs, journalists, parent, painter, or what have you.

The Latin origin of the word “perfect” means completed.

There’s no perfect in yoga, no gold medal, no checklist of poses to tick.

After years and years of meditation practice, off and on, mostly on, I sat on the cushion in the zendo recently and discovered that for a moment I’d had no thoughts. I’d been walking in meditation, then sat down, and briefly felt amazed to be in my body as I simultaneously recognized I was an “I.” Sounds weird? It was a little, but I’d studied enough to know what was going on. And it was but a moment.

In meditation instructions in The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, scholar-yogi Sayadaw U Silananda writes:

Do not have any expectations at this time of practice, do not expect to experience anything strange or to see visions or whatever. Expectation is a mild form of greed or attachment that is a hindrance to concentration and has to be eliminated.

That samadhi, the bliss gracing the flower-top of the diagram? It’s unlikely for most of us living as ordinary householders.

But that ongoing unfolding of leaves and petals? Oh, yeah! That’s available.

In grade school, I learned squash, climbing beans, and corn were the three sisters of traditional intercropping agriculture. The mind, breath and body are the intercrops of yoga. They’re cultivated by, among other means, ongoing study, investigation, observation, being helped and helping.

Yoga in 21st-century America can offer a practical approach to healthy interdependence, to being in process with other people and the environment.

The language is cumbersome, the practice is not.

Try it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be considerate

Yoga’s ethical guidelines support and expand the practice of the postures.

How do they apply to 21st-century American life?

Ahimsa, the first of the guidelines, yamas, translates as non-harming and, by extension, kindness. Another way to think of ahimsa is through the English word “consideration.” “Consider” means “to examine” and may derive from the Latin word for “star.” To be considerate means to show careful thought, to not inconvenience or hurt others unthinkingly.  When we’re up for the challenge, we can attempt to go through the day considering each person, in fact every other living thing, as precious as star dust. We can breathe and pause, wonder a bit at the complexity of this world, and pull back from hasty judgements and cruel thoughts.

Best part? This, like all yoga, is a process. We’re all mean sometimes. We all hurt ourselves and others with words, thoughts and deeds. As a wise teacher told me long ago, everyone makes mistakes. They’re a problem when we make the same ones again and again. Breathe. Forgive. Let go. Be kind.

 

 

Here are  poems for thinking about thinking about kindness.

James Wrights’s beautiful A Blessing where human and animal meet.

“And the eyes of those two Indian ponies/Darken with kindness./They have come gladly out of the willows/To welcome my friend and me.”

Not harming another creature in David Wagoner’s Meeting a Bear.

“Meanwhile, move off, yielding the forest floor/As carefully as your honor.”

Kindness to oneself, practiced with the help of a friend, in Perie Longo’s Learning to Walk.

“Starts with sitting still, listening/to how time lengthens in silence./A friend moves off the horizon, her words/of comfort a hook to grasp, to cling to/like the steel traps I sometimes throw down/in disgust.”

On the Island of Recollection, my own poem about receiving kindness where you can.

“You learn to fish for kindness among/gentler creatures, agree to praise a god//on Sundays when offered a seat in the pew.”

 

 

 

Ahimsa

In a recent review of a book on genocide, Stephen Budiansky writes that genocidal murder is an act of extreme social and psychological compartmentalization. The killers perceive their actions as outside of their “normal” lives and are able to return to their regular affairs without remorse. They treat murder as a job that occurs during a set time in a separate space with little to do with their everyday home and family lives.

Compartmentalization desensitizes a person to the whole. Genocide is extreme atrocity. Less extreme, also damaging, are the minor abuses that occur through daily fragmentation, the ones that erode our shared landscape. For example, whenever we think of “home” as bound by property lines, we exclude what’s beyond that perimeter. Every time we think, “That’s not my job,” we narrow ourselves to rigid and artificial functions. Watch a driver speeding through an unfamiliar neighborhood: the street’s viewed not as someone’s address but a thoroughfare. Think of the act of littering, discarding what’s unwanted, marring another’s space, leaving clean up for someone else.

Compartmentalization is fragmentation. And a fragmented world is in shards. One thing yoga does is provide a path to potential wholeness.

Willful destruction and mess-making? Okay for the kiddies. On grown-ups, not so cute.

(But realize that, just like following the many steps to bake a scratch coconut cake, you don’t know how the investment turns out until the timer rings.)

Whole. Cake. Good.

Ahimsa is the first step toward wholeness. One of five practices to guide ethical action in a person’s life, ahimsa is a rational choice in favor of non-violence, non-injury, kindness; it’s taking the course of least harm. Ahimsa is cultivating love and compassion. It’s friendliness, caring, affection, understanding. It’s large-, not small-heartedness.

Every choice involves a loss. In ahimsa the loss is of the negative, the no. Not destruction, but construction. Not desecration, but consecration. It’s not hurting, maybe helping.

Not a great place to spend all your time.

Ahimsa, the heart of yoga, is about de-compartmentalizing, leaving pigeon-holes, not characterizing, stereotyping, branding. Asana–the poses–support the practice of yoga, movement with breath, I with Thou, this with that, internalizing the truth that my world is your world.

A challenge for Americans, who have the luxury of cherry picking from the art and science and philosophy of yoga’s tree, is to employ enough self-control that their physical practice on the mat is not an end in-and-of-itself and instead a rehearsal for ethical practice in the world. Outside of athletics, “fitness” implies eligibility, competence, readiness.

Yoga, without ever getting out of a chair, can make one fit for the label “human being,” a label that comes with a whole lot of responsibility to others: a broad awareness, an encompassing sympathy. Ahimsa.

Yoga works for jerks

During the weeks of December, I spent time with a couple of self-described jerks: Neal Pollack and Nick Rosen.

In Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, Neal Pollack, a Gen-X writer whose snarkiness derails him from the fast-track of authorial fame, applies self-deprecating humor to describe his discovery of yoga at a Texas gym and how continued study — in small in-home studios and at retreats — transforms him from being a self-pitying pothead to a thoughtful and employed dad and husband. Well, by the book’s end, his stoner status is unclear, but he’s definitely tamed his misplaced pride.

In Enlighten Up!, another self-important cynic tells his yoga tale. Nick Rosen starts Seeking Something, anything, the way bored teenagers skulked through indoor malls in the 90s heydays of chain-store shopping. His travels take him to India where he meets with B K S Iyengar. (My favorite scene is when Iyengar, realizing the neediness of his interviewer, calls over his shoulder for a cup of coffee.) By the documentary’s end, Rosen has left New York to pick up his journalism career in Colorado, writing about rock climbing. He’s learned to talk less and listen more. To be less ostensibly ambitious and more introspective.

Though it was unpleasant, these fellas’ stories refracted bits of my more unlikable and distant, long ago, past self. As for Rosen and Pollack, my jerkiness presented in the past (did I mention the past? I hope, we hope in the past!) as arrogance. Being a gossip girl was not my problem. That would require a clique. My ego liked to drive the course alone, windows rolled down, howling the ballad of the lone wolf. Well, you know what? Yoga does not require a car or even much of an ego. And wolves thrive in packs.

Once upon a time…the ideal after-school snack.

A paradox of Yoga, is that the more time one spends practicing, the less one actually thinks about oneself. I think this is because of the moment-by-moment awareness that accompanies attention to breathing, and because of the engagement in movement without performance or competition, purely for the sake of it. When I kept a journal, and when writing poems, essays and stories was the primary focus of my days, I dwelled mostly in the past or future. I recalled an experience to write about. Or anticipated a reply after submitting for publication.

Tolstoy traveling light.

Over the holidays, I also read about how Tolstoy came to realize that his writing life was overly self-serving. He stopped creating spectacular novels and turned to the complex simplicity of belief, belief in the potential of human beings to be kind with a little help from faith in something beyond their own minds. Or, even, as in the instances of Pollack and Rosen, faith in the potential of a person to choose, in Oprah-speak, to be his (or her!) best self. And in Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich describes how paddling a kayak among untamed animals in the Florida Keys softens her resistance to the possibility of the existence of something more than what humans’ tools measure.

De-jerking is a slow road. Like turkey, spicy sausage, snowball cupcakes, beer, gossip, (4 cups in a row of) coffee, jealousy, greed, salty language and anger, acting like a twit and a twerp, has not been easy to give up. The “I” of the ego is a giant LED billboard on personality’s divided highway of fear and ambition. It’s impossible to not see the billboard; it blights the landscape; it takes discipline to glean the relevant information then look away. 

In this extended analogy, the body is a vehicle, a trusted car. It may be dinged up, but you know its quirks and therefore can travel safely. Moving through a few yoga poses helps keep that ride in tune. The yamas and niyamas of yoga, referred to as ethical guidelines, help, too. They’re like practical reflective green signs pointing out rest areas. These two lanes of the physical practice of asana and the mental practice of reflection provide us with information. Knowing onself is a prerequisite to being genial. And who wouldn’t want to be sympathetic and good-natured?

I learned to shift gears in a Capri. I see possibility here among the weeds.

Rosen finds peace among desert rocks, Pollack in parenthood; I find that, as much as I love to be outside walking alone or at home puzzling over a poem, I feel the greatest clarity and contentment when teaching. My favorite time to practice on the mat is when planning a class. It’s like preparing a hike for others, taking into account the situation, weather conditions, terrain, time of day, and the needs and desires of the people involved. My favorite time to write is composing these thoughts to cast into the Net. Thanks again for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Leper’s Song

The Fourth of July is a frightfully noisy time for animals, especially dogs and cats. Fire terrifies wild creatures. (Look no further than Bambi or Smokey Bear). I wish adults would refrain from purchasing and setting off fireworks. They scare and spark.

“Animals I’ll try not to frighten,” the speaker, who has leprosy, says in Rainer Maria Rilke‘s poem “The Leper’s Song.” Edward Snow renders the English from “Tiere will ich nicht shrecken.” A literal translation of the German is, “I do not want to frighten animals.” From what I know of animals, the leper’s appearance would not scare a non-human creature. The domesticated animals people associate most closely with see with their hearts, not their expectations.

Human-caused fear in animals most often results from a misuse of power. Power is a child’s game, a boy chasing chickens, a girl dragging a puppy through a garden sprinkler. Children learn what they are able to do by testing their limits. Adults learn what they are able to do by refraining from doing everything they could.

Ahimsa would start this Independence Day by limiting fireworks to sponsored gatherings at community parks, where people enjoy one spectacularly noisy, colorful pyrotechnic display together, then go home to their pets.

Like Rilke’s leper, I don’t want to frighten animals. Who does?

(The New York Times ran a story Tuesday about leprosy and its treatment.)

Our Yards

Ahmisa, not harming, is the first yama of the Yoga Sutras. Judith Lasater writes, “Practicing ahimsa means we take responsibility for our own harmful behavior and attempt to stop the harm caused by others. Being neutral is not the point. Practicing true ahimsa springs from the clear intention to act with clarity and love.”

In Sunday’s New York Times, physician Diane Lewis writes, “The United States Fish and Wildlife Service says homeowners use up to 10 times more chemicals per acre than farmers do.” Refraining from applying synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and weedkillers containing glyphosate, carbaryl, malathion and 2,4-D is a less harmful, more responsible approach to growing our gardens.

 

Start Planting

have pleasant environments, together, our

water quality, drinking water, every

stream, drinking water, bodies, cleaner water:

my Annabelle hydrangeas, echinacea,

bee balm, nectar for bees and butterflies,

elderberry, the Carolina rose, bayberry, bats

under loose bark of shagbark hickory, oaks,

woodpeckers, deer, mice, and birds: appreciate

clover and dandelions, butterflies:

surprisingly–

 

A found poem from words encountered sequentially  in Lewis’s article, “The Toxic Brew in Our Yards.”

 

Love is All

 

Teacher Mary Paffard writes that the principle of ahimsa, essential to the practice of yoga, “is the conscious act of not acting or moving out of violence that allows us to be what we intrinsically are–love.” I have found in recent months that love is all.

This is not a simplification: choosing love again and again requires attention and fearlessness.  I wobble, teeter and stumble. But possibilities inherent in love encourage me to try again and again. The word “love” comes from Old English, “lief” which is related to “permission” as in “with your leave.”

There’s a great line in the movie “Adaptation” about how it’s more important to love than to be loved. That ties in with the old notion that giving is a greater gift than receiving. Couldn’t all life be intrinsically love? Observe unselfconscious interactions of mammals, including children, at noncompetitive play. The separation between one and the other recedes.

Perhaps, we all want in some way to be permeable, to blur false edges of our being and to come through (the prefix per–) to one another, to the world. I know poetry allows for that permeability.

Clarity

The moon wakes me,

shining in my face.

Sleep follows from the sheets,

rumpled and sweaty

from a night of unanswerable questions.

At the backdoor I reach for the lock,

to turn it and release

two dogs to the dark morning.

Before my fingers move the chamber

I look up

and through the screened window see

the shadow of a hawk

glide to rest on a bare elm

branch and the moon

there

shining on the bird’s face.

– Alexa Mergen

from Late Peaches: Poems by Sacramento Poets (Sacramento Poetry Center, 2012)