Philosophy is not a subject for specialists. It is what the mind does when it looks at the world with open eyes and tries to make sense. We are all philosophers at different times. And we all share the impulse to philosophy. We can honor that impulse by allowing our minds to move in large and graceful strokes, without tensing around our ideas. Then we can rediscover philosophy as a contemplative practice, a yoga of ecstatic thinking.


Surya Namaskar

Surya Namaskar means “Salutations to the Sun.” In the context of yoga, the Sun is not only the celestial body that gives us warmth and daylight, but the radiant center of the human body, where our vital forces converge. This center lies along the middle of the spine, at the level of the first lumbar vertebra, in the area that is often referred to as the “solar plexus.” In this area, we find a dense tangle of nerves which has often been regarded as an obvious gathering place for our vital forces.

The center in question lies halfway between the pelvic floor and the heart, which is to say, halfway between the origin points of prana and apana, or the ascending and descending breaths. Hatha Yoga works with these breaths to balance the forces that shape our immediate experience. One of the principal techniques is to press these breaths together at the solar center of the body, allowing their opposing patterns to converge. This mudra creates an internal sensation of heat that radiates outward in all directions, in an experiential pattern that is homologous to the Sun. The experience of this pattern is the beginning of Hatha Yoga.

Surya Namaskar is one of the quintessential practices of Hatha Yoga, and it can take many forms. What is essential is the contemplative focus of our attention on the solar force within us. In Surya Namaskar, we are propitiating to the concentrated center of our vitality, the center of radiant heat that forms in the belly when we press together the ascending and descending breaths. We are showing our adoration for the solar force as it gathers above the base of the spine, and we are inviting that force to rise up from the altar of the pelvis, reach into the depths of our minds, and burn away our delusions, giving us insight.

In Ashtanga Vinyasa, each posture is situated within a unique instance of Surya Namaskar. These instances are then contracted into smaller vinyasa, just as Sanskrit words are contracted by the principles of sandhi, to bring them together into a lyrical flow. This means that Surya Namaskar is not only the opening line, but the backbone of the entire practice, the thread along which the melody of the practice is composed. And when we develop proficiency with this thread, we can string the postures together into beautiful garlands of forms. We can then give these garlands as offerings to the Sun, which is to say, to the solar force that sustains us—the creative force that underlies our vitality.

To practice Surya Namaskar with full depth and potency, we have to develop the myriad ways of working with subtle breath, and with opposing patterns of sensation, that sustain the experience of the Sun throughout the practice. These techniques, which include bandha, mudra, and intelligent movement and postural alignment, allow us to feel the warmth of the Sun gradually rising through the emptiness of the body. With these techniques, we can learn to practice with seductive fluidity. That is, we learn to practice with the kind of precision and grace that lures consciousness, as the lunar principle, deep into the solar radiance of the body. Then the practice becomes what it naturally longs to be, an endless exploration of the intimacy between HA and THA, between Sun and Moon, or between consciousness and the body. This exploration is the esoteric meaning of Surya Namaskar.

What Is Alignment?

Hatha Yoga is a method of opening ourselves to the fullness of sensory experience, and exposing ourselves to the presence of the sublime—not within particular sensory objects, but within the open space of our own consciousness. The method works with opposing forces in the body, symbolized by Sun and Moon, or the syllables HA and THA, and invites these forces to align. As there are many opposing forces in the body, there are many forms of alignment, but Hatha Yoga is premised on the thought that we can balance them all by working with breath. The central technique is to align prana and apana, the ascending and descending forces of the breath, along the central axis of the body. When these forces align, the experience of the body opens up, revealing endless patterns of sensation. The practice is to be present with sensation, allowing it to unfold in the open expanse of our awareness, without being drawn into any particular story about what it means. Through this practice we give ourselves space, and we allow our minds to breathe.

This is the beginning of Hatha Yoga, and there really is no end. For in the philosophy of Hatha Yoga, which is founded on experience and not on speculation of any kind, there is nowhere but here, no time but now, and nothing to do but arrive fully into the present moment. Hatha Yoga teaches that, by giving ourselves space, we can bring the closest and most profound consciousness to the inner movements of sensation, and through that consciousness, we can become more fully aware of everything that is happening within and around us. This the purpose of practicing Hatha Yoga and learning to embody the kind of presence that it teaches—to live each moment with perfect lucidity. That is, to sustain an open and vibrant awareness that is always centered in the present moment, so that each situation, however ordinary or mundane, can graciously reveal itself as the unfolding of something sublime.

To experience the sublime through Hatha Yoga is not to experience some transcendent or otherworldly realm, but to experience this realm, more closely, more vividly, more directly than before, such that our isolating sense of separation from things, our sense of abiding in the world as a separate self, is completely overwhelmed. The experience in question is not unfamiliar. It comes over us rather suddenly in certain aesthetic situations, when we are drawn out of ourselves, for example, by the beauty of the natural world. The experience of being drawn out can be precipitated by the most ordinary events—sunlight slanting over amber plains, or casting shadows over distant mountains, glistening on high peaks, wet with twilight rain. Sometimes, such things catch us without our defenses, and when they do, something unexpectedly moves within us, and we are stunned into attention. Overcome with wonder at the beauty before us, we forget ourselves. We lose ourselves in the unfolding brilliance of the present moment.

Though we lose ourselves, or rather because we do, we feel somehow more lucid, more awake, more in touch with reality. And when the experience fades, and we return to our ourselves, we feel cleansed and renewed, like the cool earth after the summer storm. The experience remains in our memories as a touchstone of clarity. It informs our sense of the real, and gives us some idea of what it would mean to wake up from our delusions and live in continual recognition of the sublime nature of the reality that is unfolding so perfectly around us. This is the point of Hatha Yoga—not only to induce this kind of experience, but to sustain it, so that our appreciation of the sublime begins to saturate the fabric of our daily experience, immersing us in fuller presence to reality. In Hatha Yoga, particularly as seen through the lens of the nectar school, this is what it means to be fully awake.

To practice Hatha Yoga, then, requires nothing more or less than unbroken attention to the patterns of sensation that dance across our sensory fields. These are the material of our experience, and so the very substance of our reality. Beyond them, there is nothing to see and so nothing to miss. There are only objects of conjecture and imagination. Such objects are forever being fabricated and dissolved by our minds, using the same material of sensation. Through the practice of remaining presence with sensation, and giving ourselves space, we can observe this process, and gain insight into the way that our minds construct reality. More pointedly, we gain insight into the way that our minds create our sense of separation from other things by projecting various isolating ideas of things and ideas of who we are, ideas that lay around us overly protective and dense notions of physical and mental form.

In Hatha Yoga, which centers on the exploration of the body, this insight often begins with the dissolution of our bodily images. As we closely follow the currents of our sensation that run through our bodies, we find them running off in defiance of our imagined spatial boundaries. That is, we find them reaching beyond the surfaces of our skin, arcing around the contours of our bodies with serpentine movements, and then fading back into the emptiness that surrounds us. As we soften into this experience, our outlines disappear, revealing the body an open nexus of sensation, an open space for sensation to appear, and so as nothing more or less than precisely what consciousness is. Through this experience, then, we rediscover consciousness as the very essence of the body, even as the body dissolves into consciousness. Instead of losing one to the other (or losing them both to some reductive idea) we allow them to touch each other, to arouse each other, and so to bring other each other awake. And when they awaken, our images of ourselves dissolve, and we lose ourselves in the endless exploration of their intimacy.

Through the explorations of Hatha Yoga, we come to understand with a kind of visceral immediacy that our sense of separation from things is something like an illusion. The edges of things begin to disappear into the open space of our bodies, and we feel a sense of profound intimacy with everything around us. This feeling of intimacy is the nectar of Hatha Yoga, the sweet secretion of that divine union of Sun and Moon, HA and THA, from which the practice takes its name. It comes over us spontaneously when our bodies are completely saturated with an embracing and loving awareness. That is, when the inner contours of our bodies, which contain our memories and hold the archives of our emotional lives, are seen, touched and tasted by an awareness that has lost any separate sense of itself to the wonder of what is there to be found.

This sense of intimacy signals one of the highest forms of alignment to which we might aspire. It is higher, certainly, than having the right view of the world. The right view is about the alignment of our ideas with reality, whereas the experience in question is beyond the constraint of ideas. We might describe it as an alignment of consciousness with the body, but then the very idea of alignment begins to break down. That idea presupposes two separate things, existing in some kind of harmonious balance, whereas the experience in question contains the revelation that these two, consciousness and the body, are not so separate after all.

Rather than compress that revelation into a particular view of reality, where the sensory distinction between the body and consciousness is obscured, for example, by some monistic notion about what there is, Hatha Yoga invites us to explore that revelation on the level of immediate experience, and to do so over and over again—not to reinforce any particular philosophical conviction, but to revel in the continual rediscovery of ourselves as crystallizations of the conscious sublime. Having the right view is not worth much anyway, if the view distracts us from what is actually happening, and prevents us from having a more direct experience of reality. Hatha Yoga therefore disconnects itself from philosophical argumentations and teaches the path of direct experience instead. That is, instead of teaching elaborate Vedantic doctrines about the non-dual nature of the body and consciousness, it teaches a way of experiencing directly what those doctrines describe. It regards the continual rediscovery of the union between consciousness and the body as the defining activity of an awakened life.

Through the conscious exploration of the body, Hatha Yoga exposes us to the illusory nature of the world of appearances, revealing that world as in some sense a projection of our minds. It does not, however, go with a loss of interest in that world. It does not go with a tendency to withdraw from what appears separate and unique, or to discredit such things as mere illusions. On the contrary, it goes with an ever deepening appreciation for such things, for it discloses them as ephemeral reflections of something singular and sublime, something as close and essential to us as our own consciousness. Instead of making an idol of consciousness, or enshrining consciousness in some stilted conception of the divine, Hatha Yoga encourages us to recognize the divine nature of everything that presents itself to our senses within consciousness, and it therefore encourage us to see all things as immediate revelations of the subtle essence of what we are. That is, to see sensations of every kind as immediate revelations of the deathless presence of awareness that spreads itself out through our senses, and holds the phenomenal world in its fold. And when we lose ourselves in gaping wonder at that presence, everything appears suddenly and absolutely sublime.

In Hatha Yoga, wonder is an essential element, and understandably so, for wonder is the psychological foundation of all revelatory experience. To wonder alone, things appear luminous and deep. And when we lose our sense of wonder, the world seems to darken, and to become cold beneath our feet. Without an abiding sense of wonder, we succumb to the kind of impression of the world that makes no room for mystical experience, or or experience that reveals life as the unfoldment of something divine, and gives life the kind of immeasurable worth that transcends all purpose and circumstance. Without wonder, we find ourselves isolated and estranged, standing on an improbable chunk of insentient material, hurling meaninglessly through space, with no possibility of touching the divine elements of reality. Then we have no better option than to cultivate a Stoic acceptance of our existence, one that asserts the basic dignity of human life against the absurdity of creation, but which finds no real cause or occasion to embrace life, to celebrate life as a continual revelation of something divine, and so no provocation to cultivate a deeper intimacy with reality.

So in order to invite the experience of Hatha Yoga, in which the emptiness of things appears not barren and abysmal, but replete with the presence of the sublime, we have to nurture our sense of wonder. We have to care for it with all the labors of our deepest loves. And we begin by seeing the objects of our loves as unique reflections of something more capacious, something which is unconditioned by circumstance, and which is worthy of the most profound love. This is one of the fundamental themes of the Tantric tradition, and the point of approaching yoga, or any other contemplative practice, as a form of bhakti, or devotion to the beloved—it encourages us to see the sublime right before our eyes, in the things that captivate us most, the thing that hold our attention and pull most strongly on the strings of our hearts.

The point is enshrined brilliantly in the mythology of Shiva and Shakti, who can be taken to represent the opposing forces of HA and THA, Sun and Moon, on which Hatha Yoga works. That is, they can be taken to represent the dynamic play between the creative and dissolutive forces through which the mind, the body, and all of reality unfolds. The stories of their ecstatic and often blistering love affair remind us of how difficult it can be to get such forces to align.

2. Shiva and Shakti
In Tantric mythology, Shiva is the embodiment of wonder. He is the embodiment of that open and loving consciousness that recognizes the sacred nature of everything that it perceives. In this connection, Shiva is the friend of shesha, “the remainder.” The word shesha appears in the context of ancient Vedic ritual. It refers to everything that remains after the ritual is done, everything that does not burn cleanly in the sacrificial fire. It refers to what remains smoldering in the coals, charred and obdurate, a disconcerting reminder of the imperfection of our finest attempts to recover our original sense of wholeness, or to heal the wounds of our separation into the realm of embodied form, and to return us to a sense of intimacy with the whole. To the fastidious officiant or priest, shesha is not only unsightly but threatening, because it suggests the imperfection of the ritual. When no one is looking, the priest steps on the shesha, blackening his foot, trying to grind the mess back into the dirt. To him, shesha is intolerable. But to Shiva, who recognizes the impossibility of capturing the whole, each little piece of shesha is lovable and unique, for every little piece is an embodiment of his true beloved, and an irreplaceable reminder of the sublimity of her creation.

As the friend of shesha, Shiva is always accompanied by an entourage of strange beings. These ghanas or “hosts” represent all of the things that are cast out and forgotten, all of the things that do not fit comfortably into the presiding schemes of organization, including, most importantly, the schemes that we identify as our selves. These things, of course, are legion. They include all of the countless thoughts, memories and emotions that lie just beneath the surface of our minds, informing our postures, gestures, habits, expressions, and experiences, but which we do not acknowledge because they do not cohere with our animating ideas of who we are. Simply out, these things offend our adopted sense of identity, and to recognize them would bring shame, confusion or complete existential vertigo. So we quite naturally suppress them, and keep them hidden from ourselves, refusing to admit them as our own. And if they make some flashing appearance, exposing some little corner of themselves, we simply imagine them as marginalia, part of the background noise of our experience, part of the insignificant hum of the inner turnings of our minds.

To keep ourselves safe from these untoward elements of our minds, we continuously perform little rituals to mark off our psychical boundaries, separating the thoughts, memories and emotions that we can integrate from those that we cannot, and thereby seeming to decide for ourselves what we actually think and feel. Through these rituals of psychological organization, we fashion our sense of self. That is, we fashion an animating image of who we are that allows us to cope with the world, and to engage meaningfully with other people.

In the mythology of Shiva and Shakti, there is a figure who represents this natural function of the mind, the function by which the mind marks off its personal boundaries and declares its own solidity. This figure is Daksha, the high priest, who is assigned by Brahma to be the overbearing father of Sati, one of Shakti’s incarnations. As Sati, the Goddess comes into the world to capture the attention of Shiva—to quicken his heart and draw him out of himself, into the unfolding drama of sensual love. Their loving union is essential to the cosmic balance, which is forever being threatened by demonic kings. The rishis, who oversee this balance, have to plead periodically with the Goddess to incarnate, to merge with Shiva, and so to restore, however temporarily, the balance of things.

Daksha is a symbol of religious orthodoxy, and thus of unwavering allegiance to a particular ideological scheme. The story of the tough and tender relationship between Shiva and Sati, comes to its tragic culmination at Daksha’s largest and most elaborate ritual. In planning this ritual, Daksha invites all of the royal families, rishis, gods and celestial beings, but he pointedly excludes Shiva and Sati. That is to say, he pointedly excludes that open and loving consciousness that would remind everyone of things they would much rather keep forgotten. More pointedly, Shiva is not welcome at the ritual because his presence would undermine the very illusion of fullness that the ritual is meant to sustain. Shiva would appear with his entourage of ghosts and other strange beings that do not fit comfortably with the idea of the sacred that Daksha wants to project.

Against Shiva’s sad and prescient warnings, Sati goes to the ritual to protest. She marches into the sacrificial hall as the ceremonies are about to begin, and she sharply demands an explanation from her father. Daksha is emboldened by his audience, and by the grand sacrificial scene, and loudly denounces Shiva as profane. He rudely condemns Shiva as the embodiment of everything that his ritual is meant to transcend, the embodiment of what is disordered, orthogonal, spontaneous, unpredictable and threatens to overflow. In a word that he would not dare to utter before Sati, Daksha castigates Shiva as the embodiment of the feminine.

But the Goddess had warned everyone of what she would do. Before she incarnated as Sati, she made one simple promise. She said that if gods and men failed to recognize her, failed to honor her as the sublime essence of all sentient beings, she would withdraw from the world. She would pull her luminous essence from the husk, leaving the world cold, hollow, disenchanted, and dark. And the goddess keeps her promises. So before Daksha and all his guests, Sati throws herself on the sacrificial fire. And as Daksha wails in disbelief, the body of the Goddess, of Shiva’s beloved, turns to ashes.

The symbolic meaning of this act, of the sudden and violent departure of the Goddess, is about the sacrifice of wonder in the name of knowledge. When we stop looking at the world with wonder—with open and loving attention—and instead we impose upon our perceptions of the world all of epistemic conceits, with their false dualities and immense conceptual schemes, the world suddenly seems to lose its radiance. And the more our sense of wonder wanes, the more we replace wonder with the scaffolding of knowledge, the colder and darker the world of our experience seems to become. Our opportunities for experiencing the sublime gradually turn to dust. And so it happens that when the body of Sati begins to burn, the Sun falls below the horizon. The land is covered by the untimely darkness of night.

According to Tantric mythology, the cosmic role of Shiva is to recognize and continually admire the sublime beauty of Shakti, his beloved. His purpose is to see her, and all that she does, as the revelation of the sublime. This is the singular role of consciousness—to marvel at the unfolding of the natural world. And there is nothing more to it than that. The cosmic role of Shakti, on the other hand, is to draw Shiva out of himself, which is to say, to draw him out of the stupor of his reflective enclosure, and awaken him to the sheer bliss of experiencing the world. And that is to say, of experiencing himself inside of her, within the fold of creation, through the senses of all embodied beings. This is the purpose of nature, the purpose of embodiment—to give consciousness the opportunity to touch and taste itself, to see and hear itself, and thus to revel in continuous awareness of its own sublimity.

Shiva and Shakti, or consciousness and nature, are therefore inseparable. They need one another to play their cosmic roles. Shiva needs Shakti to see, and Shakti needs Shiva to be seen. Without each other, there is no experience, no illumination. But when they come together in their moments of intimacy, there is the highest bliss. They revel in the ecstatic wonder of continually realizing and rediscovering themselves through intimacy. However, these two lovers do not always align. They do not always come together gracefully, nor merge with amorous delight. Their love is replete with longing, intrigue and ecstasy, but also with forgetting, loss and grief. Such is the drama of embodied consciousness, trying to realize itself, and liberate itself from the darkness of delusion and isolation. The stories of Shiva and Shakti reflect this drama well. They remind us that the life of the spiritual seeker, the life of the yogi, is a blistering travail of touching, losing, longing, seeking, and then rediscovering once again that enigmatic sense of wonder that opens us to the sacredness of all things.

Wonder is not only the condition of alignment, but the condensation as well. Slowly it comes to saturate our hearts when we surrender our defenses, open our bodies, and allow ourselves to be taken by the sheer brilliance and profundity of what is unfolding right before our eyes. Wonder is what Shiva feels when he is drawn out of his meditative absorption, only to find himself stunned, riveted, emptied by the matchless beauty of his beloved. And wonder is what Shakti feels when she opens herself up to Shiva, allowing him to see her and touch her in places that she ordinarily keeps hidden, places that she would expose to no other. Finally, wonder is what overwhelms Shiva and Shakti both when they consummate their love by melting sweetly and softly into one another, losing themselves in adoration. Their sensual union has no trace of selfish longing for pleasure, but is moved by complete wonder at the reality of the other. This union is the highest expression of the love between Shiva and Shakti, and the perhaps the richest and most revealing symbol of what we are calling alignment—the revelry of the senses when they are totally open to reality.

3. Alignment Through Breath
In Hatha Yoga, we invite alignment by working with breath. More than an ethereal medium of vitalization, breath is said to be the vehicle of consciousness, the vehicle by which consciousness moves in the world of embodied form. The Hatha technique, which is so simple and so profound, is to move breath slowly and gracefully through the open expanse of the body, drawing sensation into long arcing lines that converge at the base of the spine and then rise upward through the hollow core of the body, only to spread across the palette and then fall back down to the root. This technique creates an open flow of sensation through the body, and the attention naturally follows. Just as the gaze of Shiva moves slowly over Shakti, so the attention moves slowly over the inner landscape of our minds, tracing every contour, following every ephemeral line, and deepening its appreciation, its wonder, for embodied form.

There is nothing that consciousness wants out of this. It does long for any culminating experience or state of transcendence. On the contrary, it longs for nothing because it feels the whole nexus of its beloved, as creative energy, spreading out before it, revealing sublimity at every turn. The opened mind, or pure consciousness, wants only to behold that sublimity, and to contemplate its infinite beauty, so it naturally and effortlessly remains in open contemplation of everything that is immediately arising.

In this contemplation, the balance of prana and apana, or the ascending and descending breaths, keeps the mind from losing itself to projections, and so from being distracted away from what is actually happening. These two movements of the breath correspond to the forces of creativity and dissolution that continually shape our experience, the forces that underlie the narrative voices with which we identify. When these forces are balanced, the mind releases its thoughts and images just as soon as they arise, allowing them to dissolve into an open and easeful flow of consciousness. This is the beginning of the kind of meditation that opens itself up to everything that appears in the inner space of the mind. Instead of focusing on just one or another mental current, and being caught up in whatever story it presents, we remain open to the whole swarming nexus of sensation that lies just beneath the surface of our consciousness.

In this practice, we are exposed to the countless currents of mentality that do not fit comfortably into our abiding sense of who we are, and which we would normally keep hidden from our view. Through the balance of prana and apana, we suspend the mental mechanisms of their suppression. Our usual projections no longer interpose themselves between our consciousness and our bodily sensations, so there is no disruption in the natural exploration of intimacy between them. The images projected by the mind keep dissolving, so awareness is allowed to touch the body directly, without the mediation of our ideas.

The balance of prana and apana is therefore crucial, within Hatha Yoga, to what we might usefully think of as proper alignment. This balance allows awareness to saturate the body, dissolving our limiting projections about who we are, and dispelling our illusions about the difference between the body and consciousness, or what amounts to the same, the difference between what we see and what we are. When prana and apana are in balance, the mind can open naturally to the fullness of sensory experience, so that the the boundaries of the body simply disappear. In this balance, the body no longer appears as another object for consciousness, but it shows itself as the very essence of consciousness, and more specifically, as the open space in which sensation appears. Everything that appears within this space begins to shimmer with an otherworldly light, which is simply a reflection of our own wonder. And that light, in being reflected back to consciousness, allows consciousness to become gradually aware of itself, and so to recognize its own sublimity.

It is therefore through the exploration of the body, and through the exploration of the inner movements of the breath, that consciousness becomes aware of itself. In other words, it is through Shakti, and the divine dance of the senses, that Shiva awakens and realizes his own divinity. Without the exploration of the inner movement of the breath, there would be no revelation of sensation, and nothing to awaken consciousness to its own presence. As Shiva without Shakti, consciousness would remain dark and contracted, and its powers would not unfold. But in the presence of the Goddess, which is the presence of the body, consciousness comes alive. It begins to taste, touch, hear, see, and above all, to breathe, in the most intimate exchange with everything that surrounds it.

Through the expansion and contraction of the breath, consciousness becomes aware of itself as the luminous presence behind every experience, the presence that lights up sensation from within, and provides sensation with the open space in which to unfold, which of course is the space of the body itself. And when consciousness recognizes itself in this way, through the movements of sensation, it realizes a perfect intimacy with the body, a kind of loving union, and it beings to revel in the body as an ephemeral reflection of absolute divinity. This is the union of Shiva and Shakti, the union of Sun and Moon, or HA and THA that we might usefully refer to as alignment. And what sustains this union, as we have seen, is a kind of wonder, a kind of riveted attention to what is immediately present to experience, an attention that wants nothing for itself, is completely free from all projections, and which is therefore ready to lose itself in the ecstatic exploration of the present moment.

Notes From Mysore: Lessons In The Seventh Series

India is a swarming mass of revelry and confusion. The streets teem with wild dogs, sacred cows, and crippled mendicants. Motorcycles brush past you at dangerous speeds, swerving around merchants and monkeys, then shooting into traffic circles whose rules you can’t comprehend. Trucks growl, women sing, and prayers rise in sudden discord, as children without shoes kick dust into the heat. You try to breath, but your throat shrinks. The air hangs heavy with the improbable stench of death, masala and burning tires.

To survive in India, you have to drop your agenda. Your have to relinquish your ideas about reason, order, and even basic sanity. They have no place here. Unless you surrender them, you risk melting down completely. So you throw off your ideas and you step you into the abyss, allowing yourself to fall. The truly wonderful thing is that you never hit bottom. You just keep falling, gracefully. After a few days, you feel your whole body relax.

Things that appeared threatening when you first arrived now begin to appear benign, and the whole place takes on an unexpected charm. The beggar that stalks you each morning as you step into the street now appears as a friend, welcoming you to give generously. The incessant honking that once grated your nerves now sounds like a kind courtesy, and the layer of dung that made you recoil from the broken sidewalk now gives a certain softness under your feet.

These changes teach you something about how you process your experience, and how tightly you carry your fears, disgusts and anxieties. It also teaches you how simple it can be to let go, to relax, and allow yourself to be free.

So when you come to India, there is a process of making peace with the noise, chaos and grit, and that process can be cathartic and liberating. But when you come to India with your baby girl, who means more to you than anything in the world, and she wants only to leap from your arms, toddle in the streets, and put every discarded curiosity in her mouth, your karma suddenly ripens. The grit with which you formerly made peace suddenly gathers, rises, and mounts a full scale assault on your nerves.

You might have learned on previous trips to step comfortably through dried patches of shit, over mounds of rotting trash, and around huge corpses of rats that look like they have been shot by hunting rifles. But now the streets reveal their darker side.

As the morning light slants over the broken concrete, the streets glisten with puddles of spit. The lumpy green spit of the rickshaw driver who spends his days huffing exhaust, and coughing up the muck off his chronic upper respiratory infection. Or the pulpy orange spit of the old woman who lives at the dump under the mahogany tree, who burns plastic and rubber all day for opaque reasons, sneezes profusely, and may or may not have TB. Or maybe the clear spit of the schoolgirl, who got a live virus polio vaccine from her school, and will be carrying the disease quietly for the next few weeks.

Here in India, there are no rules about spitting to the wayside. You can do it straight out, so it lands in the middle of the street. And like the public performance of other bodily functions, it makes no difference how close you stand to anyone else.

Here’s the thing. Polio is alive and well in India. So are diphtheria and TB. And all three can be communicated by spit. So when your baby girl toddles through puddles of spit on an Indian street, then reacts to your gasping by dropping to her knees, wiping her feet, and rubbing her hands across her face, you lose two weeks from the span of your life.

In the vast majority of cases, polio, diphtheria and TB present as a common cold – a few sniffles, some mild body aches, and the whole thing disappears in a couple of days. The immune system builds resistance to further exposures, and there are no lasting consequences. But in a small percentage of cases, the consequences are severe, and unless they kill you, they stay with you for the rest of your life. You can go down to the Devaraj market to see people who demonstrate the consequences of polio quite clearly. They lope through the streets like monkeys, with sloping spines and curved limbs, begging for change because their crippled bodies make them outcastes, unable to get any stable work.

Sniffles and body aches, of just the kind that go with exposure to polio and diptheria, are simply unavoidable here. The air is so polluted that it burns your sinuses, and you get a sore throat, with a cough, in a matter of days. Your baby girl gets that cough too, and those watery eyes look up at you helplessly, and you can’t say for sure what the cause is. Until it subsides, you quietly hate yourself for bringing her here. And your spouse probably hates you too.

So you try to go on a walk to convince yourself that everything is fine, but the streets of India are no place for toddlers. Indian women know this, and they keep their babies at home. So when they see you with your baby, toddling precariously along, they light up. They come over and squeeze her cheeks, sweetly enough. But then they put their fingers on their lips, make a kiss, then stick it back on to your baby’s half open mouth. At the same time, a street dog whose fur is falling out, quite possibly from rabies, is slinking up in your blind spot, to take a nip at your baby’s backside. A truck rumbles around the corner at astonishing speed, and lays on the horn without slowing down. As you all leap from the path, narrowly escaping death, the driver salutes you by hacking a green monster out of the window, which lands within inches of your baby girl. Now here comes that meltdown.

To all young parents who are curious about bringing their small children to Mysore, I say YES, my friends, IT IS HARD. And if you want to practice yoga here, the presence of your children will give an untold depth and substance to the endeavor. The kind of surrender that you have to cultivate to get through the day will make your backbending feel like a soothing respite from the sacrificial fires that are burning for you all day and night outside the shala.

Yoga requires that we surrender our attachments. And coming to India forces the issue. It takes us out of our element, and shows us our attachments quite vividly, by depriving us, in unexpected ways, of things that we take for granted. Things like espresso, spring water, clean air, garbage bags, hot showers, change, crosswalks, and straight answers are quite rare here. Silence, solitude and serenity are simply not to be had. We learn to surrender our attachments to these things, mostly, and to feel lighter in return. But India is a stern teacher. And when she sees that you got the lesson on those little things that you can give up rather easily, she goes after thing that you love the most.

Our attachments to our children are among the strongest that we will ever form. And when they are threatened, the ego protests, using every resource it has at its disposal. “No one should have to attenuate their attachments to their children. The world belongs to them,” you start to say. “It is our sacred duty to protect them. And our attachments give that duty its inexorable force.” But here, as elsewhere, the ego mistakes attachment for love.

Attachment is controlling and possessive. It seizes upon a particular object or image and will not relent. It makes us rigid, anxious, and dogmatic. And where our children are concerned, we become righteous and moralistic as well. Love, on the other hand, is open, receptive and endlessly forgiving. It wants nothing for itself, does not judge or moralize, and goes along with surrender effortlessly. It moves us to care for our children, to nurture them, to attend to them closely, but also to give them space for their lives to unfold.

However careful we are to protect our children, we cannot shield them from the dangers of the world. Nor should we. They are here, like us, to experience life in full, and that includes sickness and injury. Their life is not ours. It does not belong to us, and we cannot control it. The best we can do is support our children on their unpredictable sojourn in this world. To this end, we can practice being more open, more receptive, more present to our children, through whatever life throws at them. Then we can truly support them, and help their lives be joyful, and filled with light, without obstructing the natural flow of things.

This is the lesson that Mysore held for me this year. I cannot say that I have totally learned it, but I have been contemplating it deeply, and in the process, I have learned much about my own frailty. Among other things, I have seen the shadow side of my concerns for her wellbeing. I have seen how my fears and anxieties over her safety can interfere with her happiness. Thanks to the grit of India, I leave with a little more clarity. I know that I cannot spare my daughter from suffering, and I cannot control the course of her life. But I can give her endless love, and I can be present to her suffering when it comes.

Moreover, I can do my best to teach her the only true answer to suffering in this world, which is to love openly, freely, without fear. My wish for her is resilience, so she can have her heart broken a thousand times, and still have the strength to stand up, dust herself off, and fall in love all over again, with complete abandon.

Thank you, India. Thank you for teaching us so richly and gently, while sparing our little girl from sickness and harm. To our astonishment, she returns with us unscathed. And as for us, we go home licking our wounds, with wonder and gratitude, contemplating this profound lesson that you have given us.

Oh yes, and the yoga at KPJAYI? That happened too. And more then ever, it was exactly what it should be – a support for life on the outside.

Seeing Through Yoga

Sometimes, to see the beauty of things, you have to squint. You have to contort your face until your sight blurs. Things that appeared ugly or rude then fade into the background, and become part of a larger pattern, with its own kind of beauty. And once you have that pattern in outline, you can soften your face and open your eyes, and the beauty of the whole jumps out at you.

The practice of yoga is like that. It helps you suspend your concepts, suspend your habit of naming things in your sensory field. Then your mental images begin to blur and fade. If you continue to look with a steady gaze, you can see right through them, into the abyss of your subconscious experience.

As you move and breathe, you can feel the underlying currents of your psyche, the currents that support your animating sense of who you are, even before they congeal into definite thoughts and emotions. Instead of tensing around them, or channeling them into familiar expressions, you simply give them space. You allow them to course through you unbound, breaking and swirling into intricate patterns, and dissolving back into the emptiness from which they arose.

And when the practice is over, and you return to the space of thought, everything seems changed. The very sensations that once darkened your experience, and made it seem ugly or rude, now adorn it, and make it shimmer with detail. They accentuate the unspeakable beauty of something sublime.

Instead of crippling the experience with names, you allow the scene to be just as it. You allow yourself to be part of it. You take in the whole experience, of having squinted and released, and you feel yourself dissolving into something stupendous, an infinite nexus of relationship that holds things together in an exquisite balance. This is the ecstatic edge of the yogic experience.

The Art of Vinyasa: A Slanted Review

The day before we left to spend the winter in Mysore, we visited Mary and Richard at their home. They gave us a pre-release copy of their new book, The Art of Vinyasa, to bring to Sharath. We were honored to carry with us this beautiful token of appreciation, which is dedicated to the Jois family:

“To Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and his wife, Ammaji. And with deep gratitude to Sarasvathi, Manju, and Sharat, who continue to inspire us all in this practice.”

They gave us a copy of the book too, and once we got to Mysore, we could not put it down. Not that the book has any surprising content – this is a condensation of teachings that Mary and Richard have been offering for years. But part of the brilliance of Mary and Richard’s teachings is that they have a way of telling you something that you think you already know as if you are hearing it for the first time.

Instead of weighing you down with new practices or ideas, Mary and Richard teach more by inviting you to look again – and again and again – at what is immediately in front of you, until it suddenly begins to deepen and unfold. In this way, they continually edge your flailing attention back to the thread of the practice, inviting it to flow inward, into the open nexus of experience.

The Art of Vinyasa deploys this teaching method in full. The book is organized around the idea of “vinyasa” as a continuous rediscovery of balance between opposing patterns of tension and sensation. It offers generous descriptions of the “internal forms” of breath, gaze, bandha and mudra that we use to discover and refine this balance, and it details some of the brilliant metaphors that Mary and Richard commonly use to help us visualize the patterns of tension and sensation that emerge through the practice. Finally, the book uses these elements to present some potent descriptions of how to embody the key postures of the Ashtanga system.

In comparison with other books on the theory and practice of Ashtanga, The Art of Vinyasa is unique for its unbroken focus on contemplative exploration, and for its continuous reminder that the kind of experience we hope to cultivate through yoga is beyond the reach of theory and technique. There is no magical sequence of movements, gestures or syllables that will induce that experience by force, but it may arise spontaneously whenever we lose ourselves in the unfolding of the present moment.

As Mary and Richard explain, this is the importance of approaching yoga as a form of art, whose meaning is discovered and expressed in the process of engaging in the practice itself, as opposed to something that is defined by an intended result. When yoga is practiced as an art, there is no particular goal or destination, and so no pressure to perform, and no judgment about what is unfolding. There is just an appreciation for the experience of movement and breath itself, an appreciation that opens naturally into kindness and gratitude.

And at this point the ego says “Yes I know about all that. But I want more. Tell me something new and exciting.” And this is a reflection of the kind of grasping that is so natural to the mind, and which is the source of the ongoing distraction that keeps us from having an unadulterated experience of the present moment. The teaching is that we have to surrender our knowledge, surrender our ideas, and look again, with open eyes, at what is actually happening. Only then might we stumble into an unadulterated view of things, a view that is not distorted by our mental constructs.

Mary and Richard continue to offer this teaching with incredible patience and generosity. They meet us where we are, enticing us with their beautiful words and spirits, and then circling us back to the beginning, back to the foundations, where we once started.

This offering is often misunderstood. Many of us who study with Mary and Richard have been drawn to them by Richard’s beautiful recorded talks and lectures, which display his astonishing breadth of knowledge, not only in Hatha Yoga, but in Vedantic philosophy, Buddhism, Sufism, and Tantra as well. So we come to sit at Richard’s feet and listen to his mesmerizing retellings of the philosophies and myths of yoga, hoping to go on a journey to exotic places.

But then we find that he just keeps taking us back – though in ever renewed and brilliant metaphors – to simple and foundational truths that we have visited before. And we find ourselves back where we began, usually with all the same delusions and anxieties.

Some students become frustrated with this, thinking that he is withholding his knowledge, and so keeping us from “advancing.” And in a sense, he is. Instead of teaching us more mantras, more sequences, or more philosophies, he is using his illuminated speech to tell us the simple things that really matter, and these are usually things that the ego has already decided that it “knows.” So when we hear these things, the ego rushes in to say “yes, yes, I already have that one,” and that strips the offering of its potency.

When the ego puts the offering in a conceptual box, and makes it familiar and unthreatening, we are not able to hear what Richard is really teaching us, or to be impacted in the right way. We are not able to receive the living insights that he is offering, because our minds are papering over them with preconceptions, and obscuring their radiant light.

The same goes for the experience of taking an asana class with Mary and Richard. Instead of teaching us lots of tricks to get into ever more challenging poses, they invite us to go back to the beginning and look again, so that we keep undergoing the process of relearning the fundamentals for the first time. Through this process, we hopefully learn to peel back the layers of preconception that have deadened our experience of the practice so that we can rediscover the practice, and our embodiment, anew.

This way of working gives a new meaning to the term “advanced.” To be an “advanced” practitioner of asana is not to do physically demanding postures, but to do simple postures with alignment, integrity, and an unbroken flow of attention one that reflects an unwavering appreciation for the sublime center of ordinary experience.

In a beginner’s workshop, Mary and Richard might spend 15 minutes on Samasthitihi. In an advanced intensive, they might spend 90. Instead of teaching “advanced” poses, they are taking you deeper into to the empty center of the experience of standing at attention, and asking you to look closer, to lift the overlay of your experience and allow it to breath.

If they refrain from teaching you the sophisticated rituals, mantras and visualizations that they no doubt could teach, that is because they will not teach us anything that they think will distract us from that core experience until we actually get it – and this could take lifetimes.

The integrity of Mary and Richard’s teachings lies partly in the fact that they always refrain from adding to our distractions by teaching us elaborate and superfluous thing, or by encouraging the false impression that we need to get somewhere with our yoga – that we will not succeed until we climb higher up some false hierarchy. And that is all to say that they do not encourage our grasping habits of mind. Instead, they encourage us to slow down, drop in, and connect with the sublime center of ordinary experience. This is what The Art of Vinyasa is all about.

Mary and Richard tell us in the book that the exploration of this art, or of any other contemplative form, helps to bring about a “right view” of the world. And instead of describing that view in the high-minded language of philosophy, they tell is that a “right view” is one that is saturated with kindness and generosity. We cultivate this view by coming out of ourselves into an animating appreciation for the interconnectedness of things.

When practiced as a form of contemplative art, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga encourages us to do precisely that. It encourages us to admire whatever is immediately arising so that we have a purely aesthetic experience of our own bodies and minds. That is, an experience that is detached from the drama of our usual stories, but fully immersed in the wonder of the present moment.

To illustrate the profundity of this teaching style, I remind myself of the advice that Mary gave me some years ago, when I first began practicing in her Mysore class. I was pushing through some unforgiving stretch of the Third Series, pouring sweat and exuding waves of useless intensity. Mary walked by and whispered, “You just need to soften into it” and my heart melted on the spot. I knew she wasn’t just talking about the pose, or the practice, but my whole orientation to my life, which tends to be fraught with extraneous striving. My knees went weak and I quietly spiraled to the ground, into the consolation of the child’s pose.

A week later, having internalized Mary’s advice, I proposed to the remarkable woman who is now my wife, and I sent a letter to my alma matter, declining an invitation to teach in their Philosophy department, so that I could stay at the Yoga Workshop and learn about living the yoga from these remarkable people. I had no idea where these decisions would lead, but they turned out to be among the finest decisions I have ever made.

And this is what I admire so much about Mary and Richard’s teaching – they never take you on a trip. Unlike so many other teachers, they never pretend that they have all the answers or that they are going to “fix” all the problems that they would ascribe to you. When they give advice, its just like in my story – simple, gentle, generous and abstract enough that you have to work through the meaning for yourself. Usually, they are pointing out something that is really rather obvious, so they are simply reminding you of something that you know in your heart. And it changes everything.

In The Art of Vinyasa, the teaching is much like that. It is organized around simple, generous reminders to reign in our attention, to come back to the internal forms, to find and follow the contemplative thread of the practice, and to avail ourselves of the precious opportunity that the practice affords to explore the unfolding wonder of our embodiment, and to connect to the inherent bliss of embodied experience.

And when we hear that reminder, we suddenly find ourselves humbled, having seen once again that we have been carried off, for much too long, by our projections and fantasies about the practice, and by our longing to advance and achieve. And then we can allow our hearts to be flooded with gratitude for the compassionate voices of our insightful and skilled teachers, who stay by our sides, guiding us, with gentle whispers, back to the reality of the present moment.

Serpent Imagery

The Ashtanga Invocation contains an homage to Patanjali, the mythic author of the Yoga Sutra. The second verse takes the form of a dhyana sloka, a support for meditation that describes an image upon which to focus the mind. To work with this kind of verse, we are not only to visualize, but to imagine ourselves as fully embodying what the verse describes. The idea is to impress the subtle contours of the image into the supple medium of our minds, allowing the image to reshape our experience. Through this practice, we arrange ourselves into mental postures that are conducive to meditation.

The Invocation describes Patanjali as an amalgam of serpent and human forms. He has a human form from the waist to the head, the verse tell us, but his torso is suspended by the coiled tail of a serpent, and his human face, which holds an expression of silent equanimity, is hooded by a thousand serpent’s heads, all singing in different tongues. In his hands, of which there are four, he holds a conch, a discuss and a sword.

The name Patanjali can literally mean “fallen from the hands.” According to one explanation, he acquired this name at birth when his mother, on seeing his serpentine form for the first time, dropped him from her hands in astonishment. Her reaction is understandable, and we might suppose that we would do something similar were the serpentine contours of Patanjali suddenly installed in our consciousness, such that we felt ourselves assuming the same phantasmagoric form. But the possibility of embodying that form begins to seem rather provocative when we understand the esoteric meaning of the serpent imagery.

Symbols of Support

Serpents have a liminal existence. They move in silence, mostly unseen, in the spaces between things. They live above and below the earth, between darkness and light. In primitive cultures, serpents are often regarded simultaneously, and paradoxically, as symbols of both life and death. They symbolize life because of their fascinating ability to multiply and renew themselves by shedding their skin, and they symbolize death because they can kill with a single bite. So they represent the liminal space between creativity and dissolution.

In Indian mythology, serpents often play the role of support. High in evidence is the image of Vishnu, the sustainer of worlds. He is commonly depicted as floating on the cosmic ocean while reclining on a couch, which rests on the back of Adishesha, the primordial serpent. The tail of the serpent supports Vishnu’s couch, while his thousand serpent heads spread over Vishnu like a canopy, giving him shade. This imagery is striking because it suggests that even Vishnu himself, the divine sustainer, who is worshipped by millions as the ultimate support, has something less exalted, less celebrated, supporting him as well. He is pictured just so, resting on the back of the serpent.

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Another example is Vasuki, the serpent king who allows his body to be used like a rope for the “churning of the cosmic ocean.” This is the mythical incident from the Mahabharata in which the gods and demons work together to distill out the soma, the vital essence of creation, which gives mystical insight. They wrap Vasuki around an enormous mountain and they begin to pull and release in turns, churning the cosmic waters down to the depths. When the soma arises, Vasuki does not ask for a single drop. He simply slithers back beneath the ocean, allowing himself to be forgotten.

The use of serpents as symbols of support enshrine a simple but profound truth, that all schemes of organization depend for their existence on something that stands outside of them, something which they cannot recognize without risking their own collapse.

Our own existence is like that. The schemes of organization with which we most closely identify, the schemes that we call our selves, depend upon an intelligence that we rarely acknowledge. This intelligence is always here supporting us from beneath. It underlies the creative processes of thought, feeling and action by which we hold ourselves together, the processes that give us our identities, and make us the particular people that we are. Still, we have no common name for this intelligence, for to name it would be threatening to our sense of control.

Awakening the Serpent

In Hatha Yoga, there is a name for this intelligence, borrowed from the older Tantric traditions out of which Hatha practice arose. Her name is Kundalini, and she is imagined as a serpent, sleeping in a coil on the pelvic floor. In this form, she is said to possess our tremendous but mostly unrealized potential for spiritual insight. Her coiled, sleeping body represents our slumbering intelligence, our dormant capacity for seeing through the projections of our minds.

Hatha Yoga invites us to become directly aware of her presence within us, and even to immerse ourselves in the experience of her intelligence, until we can feel that intelligence working on the subtle levels of our bodies and minds, turning our thoughts, moving our sensations, and animating our vital processes. The idea is that, with continual immersion in this sensual experience, over extended periods of time, we can slowly dissolve our delusions of control and isolation.

The process of Hatha Yoga is said to begin when Kundalini rouses from her slumber and stands up hissing, “like a snake beaten with a stick.” As the serpent rises, she burns through the tangles of our conditioning. She exposes us to the ephemeral nature of our self images and opens our minds to insight. This process, which can take many inchoate forms, and only rarely unfolds to completion, is the rousing of our natural intelligence. It dissolves our delusions of control and exposes us to the open radiance of our true nature, which is the blissful pulse of life that is moving so lovingly within us.

Subtle Breath

In the subtle anatomy of Hatha Yoga, the coiled body of Kundalini is said to obstruct the lower entrance to the central axis of the body. In fact, she is often depicted as sleeping with her mouth sealed around the entrance, preventing the subtle breath from entering. When she awakens and uncoils, the obstruction is removed, and the internal breath can suddenly rise up through Sushumna Nadi.

This most important nadi lies between Ida and Pingala, the lunar and solar channels through which the subtle breath normally oscillates, animating the creative and dissolutive movements of our minds. Meditative insight is said to emerge when these movements come into balance, allowing Prana to slip into the liminal space between them. This is the beginning of the meditative experience.

Most of the Hatha practices in currency today were originally designed to arouse Kundalini by balancing prana and apana, the two complementary forms of our vital force that rule over the opposing movements of creativity and dissolution in our bodies and minds.

As an aspect of subtle breath, prana can be experienced viscerally as having an upward and outward movement that radiates from the plane of the heart, most obviously during the inhale phase of respiration, when the rib cage lifts and expands, straightening the spine and elevating the head and shoulders. And prana takes the same upward and outward pattern in the space of the mind. Here, prana is responsible for the branching movement of our thoughts, and so for the diversification of single thought form into others, whether through imagination, memory or rational inference, which is often experienced as an upward movement that reaches indefinitely over the head. In this connection, prana is responsible for our receptivity, our openness and our ability to see things from diverse points of view.

The opposing force of apana, on the other hand, can be experienced viscerally as having a downward and contractive movement that spirals toward the pelvic floor. This force, which predominates on exhalation, is responsible not only for pushing things out of the body, but for the ongoing dissolution of our thought constructs. Its dissolving force clears the inner space of the mind on a moment to moment basis, making room for other thought forms to arise. So apana is the force that allows us to focus on some things to the exclusion others, to make decisions, or simply to let things go. It underlies certainty and stability of mind.

When prana and apana oscillate, they create our inner voices, the voices by which we continually narrate our experience and silently converse with ourselves about what is happening. These voices are essential to our sanity, but they also obscure the true nature of reality, by imposing their stories onto our experiences, so that we can never simply take things as they are.

Hatha practices teach us to bring prana and apana into balance, and then to press them together at the center of the body. This mudra creates an intense internal heat that encourages kundalini to awaken. The heat at issue here is just the metaphorical heat of concentration, the heat of holding the mind steady in the present moment, which is to say, in the liminal space between the opposing movements of creation and dissolution. When the mind is held there, the heat builds, and Kundalini begins to awaken.

Meditating with Support

Returning to the imagery of the Ashtanga Invocation, we find the sage Patanjali, or what is truly human in him, sitting quietly in the center between two serpentine forms. And these now appear to symbolize the subtle experiential patterns of prana and apana. The upward and outward pattern of prana is reflected in the rising and spreading of his cobra hood, while the downward and contractive pattern of apana is reflected in the dropping and coiling pattern of his serpent tail.

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Patanjail is listening, we can imagine, with silent adoration, to the thousand singing heads of his serpentine hood. These represent the countless ways in which his prana can unfold, and so the endless diversity of possible perspectives that he might take on any situation. But his steady and empty gaze, which is depicted in traditional statuary as utterly serene, reveals that he does not allow those voices to seduce his attention. That is, he does not allow any of them to distract him from what is happening, and lead him wandering down some narrative path.

With the support of his serpentine tail, which represents his apana, he stays grounded, embodied, connected to the earthly plane, so he can listen to the voices of the serpent heads that rise above him without being swept off in their currents. Therefore, he can appreciate them for their pure musicality. That is, he can admire the formal beauty of their unfoldment without being drawn into the drama of their narrative meaning, and mistaking it for his own reality. His experience of their unfoldment can be direct, detached and purely aesthetic.

The meditative practice of sitting in the center between the movements of prana and apana, and appreciating them as they unfold, is noted in the Bhaghavad Gita as one of the sacred paths to awakening. Krishna describes the method in felicitous terms as “pouring prana into apana and apana into prana.” This lovely description captures the richness and smoothness of the kind of mediative experience in question. When prana and apana are balanced, the material of our thoughts becomes like warm oil or ghee. It glistens over the sacrificial fire of our awareness, changing fluidly from one thought form into another as we pour it back and forth in silent reverence and wonder.

Meditation, as described, is not a practice of destroying or suppressing our thoughts, but of giving space to them, and admiring their sublime beauty as they unfold. Once we have appreciated the esoteric meaning of serpent imagery, this can involve seeing our thoughts as ephemeral formations of the serpentine goddess herself, glistening like embers from her blissful effulgence, and revealing herself as the subtle essence of who we are.

The Ashtanga Invocation invites us to cultivate this profound meditative experience from the beginning, by tuning in to the subtle experiential patterns of prana and apana, and appreciating them as manifestations of the creative intelligence that sustains us. And as we draw the internal breath into the long, flowing lines of the Ashtanga sequencing, we begin to feel the serpentine goddess moving within us.

The Music of Yoga

Ashtanga Vinyasa is a musical form. The postures are strung together like the notes of a melody, over a constant drone of breath. When we move through the postures with a steady cadence, the music of the practice begins to emerge. It comes from some unseen place inside us, whistling through our backbones, and bowing the strings of our hearts. And like any moving piece of music, it gives us a feeling of intimacy with something much larger than ourselves.

The Ashtanga sequences build posture upon posture in ever expanding patterns. These patterns, like musical compositions, play with our inherent sense of form. They create internal tensions that rise up, reach crescendos, and fall back down to the root. Our bodies are the instruments that play them. And we have to keep ourselves tuned, from the pelvic floor to the soft palette, so the breath can reverberate through the central channel at just the right pitch.

The experience of music is the experience of relationship. And the experience of relationship is the essence of yoga. Yoga is a linking together, and so a revelation of the interconnection of things. And so with music as well.

Music has no substance, no material, and only an ephemeral from. It is not a temporal pattern of notes, but the way the notes hangs together in our consciousness, arousing our emotions, exciting our expectations, and reminding us that we are sustained, in every breath, by something unseen. When the notes fade, the music continues on, like a thought passing through our minds.

There is something within us, a kind of sensitivity, that is inspired by music. It allows us to appreciate geometry, mathematics, poetry, painting, and every other form of fine art. In Ashtanga Vinyasa, we explore this sensitivity viscerally, with the full sensory potential of our bodies.

Each posture has a resonance that we can feel for some time after it has dissolved. And as we move through the sequencing, we experience each posture in relation to those that came before, just as we might experience notes through their various relations in chords.

In time, as we listen closely, we become aware of a common vibration, a root note, that runs through them all. And in focusing on that vibration, that silent nada, we can feel the unity of the postures. And if we become truly absorbed in the experience, we can even feel the unity of the various forms of consciousness that they represent. Through this experience, we can awaken within ourselves a profound sense of intimacy with other beings, a sense that stays with us long after practice is done. That sense of intimacy is the music of yoga.

photo and video by Agathe Padovani

Ashtanga and the Feminine

In the Siva Puranas, we read of how Parvati undergoes intense tapas to attract the attention of Siva, her consort from a previous life. Siva is devastated by the loss of Sati, his true beloved, who immolated herself when her father denounced Siva at a fire sacrifice. Siva is stricken with grief and slumps mournfully around his sunken heart. Parvati, who is Sati’s reincarnation, tries to get Siva’s attention, but he avoids looking into her eyes.

So Parvati retreats into the mountains and begins an unprecedented penance. She takes a yogic posture and focuses her mind, allowing nothing to distract her from the singular thought of Siva. She chants his name until it consumes her consciousness, and flames begin to burn inside of her heart.

Parvati’s tapas is blistering. It shakes the earth, rattles the heavens, and threatens to tear apart the fabric of the universe. The rishis and celestial beings protest in fear, but nothing can stop her. She is the original force of nature, terrible and sublime. And only Siva’s attention can soothe her wild heart.

At the height of Parvati’s tapas, which lasts for thousands of years, Siva is rattled out of his reflective absorption. He is forced to acknowledge what some part of him already knows, that this young girl, Parvati, is the present incarnation of his lost love. She is the embodiment of sakti, the creative, feminine principle, and she draws him into creative involvement with the world.

This story reminds us of the awesome power of the feminine principle, its potency, resilience and monumental force. In tantric mythology, the feminine principle is the principle of creation out of which the entire world takes form. It holds the incomprehensible secret of life within its fold. It is loving and nurturing but also uncompromising and uncontrollable. And when its fury is aroused, nothing can placate it or hold it back.

The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga invites this feminine principle to course through us as our own prana, revealing its awesome power, showing us that our creative involvement in the world, our life and mind, depends at every turn on the inner movement of something within us unknowable and sublime. This enigmatic something, which is really no thing at all, is the primal impulse that animates all of creation. As such, it compels our love, respect, admiration and gratitude.

As prana, the feminine principle is our vital force. When we feel it move through us, and we feel our complete dependence on it, we are temporarily disabused of our conceits of control, our vain notions that we possess the sources of our agency within ourselves. We are exposed to the fact that our egos are not the true loci of our thoughts and feelings. Rather, they are ephemeral reflections of thoughts and feelings that have no intrinsic form.

As we contemplate these movements, we eventually come to see that the true sources of our agency are all around us, in biological and psychosocial processes that are completely beyond our control. And so the contemplation of our prana, the contemplation of the feminine principle, exposes us to our emptiness. It exposes us to our delusions of abiding in the world as isolated and self-possessed beings. Just as Siva remains absorbed in the wilderness of his consciousness until Parvati draws him out, so we remain absorbed in our delusions of isolation until we begin to grasp the movement of the feminine principle inside of us.

The feminine principle is the original inducement to action, the animating force behind everything the unfolds. And when we begin to feel its awesome power, there is nothing we can do but acknowledge and surrender – just as Siva, finally, can do nothing more than acknowledge and surrender to Parvati.

In yoga, this is called isvara pranidhana, or surrender to the beloved. And the beloved, whatever we hold in our heart, is unavoidably a formation of prana, a formation of sakti, and so an expression of the feminine principle. Surrender to this principle is what draws us out of our self-absorption. It dissolves the primitive conceit of the ego, which is the conceit of control. And this dissolution is a crucial moment in our psychological unfolding. Only when our delusions of control are completely given up, only when we fully accept that the movements of our bodies and minds are sustained by a creative principle that is so completely beyond anything that we might pretend to understand or control, can we begin to see the open radiance of our true nature.

Siva needs Sakti as Sakti needs Siva. The effulgence of the feminine needs to be seen and heard and felt or its creative activity is pointless and vain. The emptiness of the awareness needs the effulgence of creativity to draw it out, to make it reflective, or it remains dark, dense and impotent. When these two principles are united, they form a conscious whole. And that whole, the union of the masculine and feminine, of creativity and awareness, abides in loving contemplation of its true nature.

In many ways, the Ashtanga practice embodies the romance of Siva and Sakti. It embodies the sacred and sometimes explosive dance between the masculine and feminine, or between creativity and awareness. However masculine the practice can seem, with its straight lines and unforgiving progressions, the practice is steeped in worship of the feminine. It is a practice of feeling the myriad forms that sakti can take within us, and embracing them all as sacred. It is a practice of recognizing our dependence on that selfless and nurturing creative force that pulses through us and sustains the movements of our bodies and minds throughout the entire arc of our lives. Finally, it is a practice of coming out of ourselves, and allowing our defenses to dissolve, so that we can recognize our total dependence on the creative force within us, and make ourselves better conduits for its currents, with the result that we feel more alive than ever before.

The Ashtanga practice throws light on the nature of the feminine by exposing us to its creative potential, and showing us its supple but inexhaustible strength, as the inner movement of our own prana. It dispels the confused notion of the feminine that circulates so widely in our culture. It reminds us that the feminine is not, as we are sometimes supposed to believe, passive, feeble, breakable and exhaustible, but, on the contrary, the feminine is radiant, unwavering, generous, abundant and unstoppable.

Most pointedly, however, the practice reminds us that the feminine principle is the animating force behind all of our thoughts, feelings, words and actions. It is the source of our tapas, the source of the inner strength that compels us down the hard path of yoga.

Through the practice of Ashtanga, we give expression to the feminine principle, and through those expressions, we are drawn out of ourselves, into creative involvement with the world. In the relationships that emerge, we awaken an unconditional love for this sublime reality that is continually unfolding around us.

Notes From Mysore

I never liked cliques. They bring out the worst in people. They discourage critical thinking, and they demand allegiance to simplistic ideas. In a word, cliques promote fundamentalism. And for that reason, I never wanted any part of them.

Mysore, I was told, is overrun by a clique. That is, a clique of people who want to align themselves with the presiding power structure to be on the “inside.” They support their leader with an almost religious fervor, and they refuse to learn from anyone else, including the senior teachers of our discipline.

Having heard this story told a hundred times, I had a strained impression of Mysore. But I could see the clique forming on the other side, among the “outsiders” who often called themselves “old-school” and professed to know what Ashtanga Vinyasa was “originally” all about. With my distaste for cliques, I was sure that I did not want to be on either side.

But having never been to Mysore, I tried to keep an open mind. The truth is always richer than what people say. But I was in no hurry to go. It sounded too fraught to be a good place for practice. And I was content to practice in the peace and quiet of the Rocky Mountains, under the guidance of Richard Freeman.

After taking over the Yoga Workshop in 2015, however, I found myself with a new reason to come to Mysore, a reason that was not about me. The reason is solidarity. And by that I mean a sense of togetherness.

Naturally, those who have the anti-Mysore sentiment tend to gather around senior teachers like Richard. So that sentiment can sometimes be strong in Boulder. And as the new director and heir of the Yoga Workshop, I feel some responsibility to stamp out cliquish attitudes whenever they arise. They are no good for yoga.

So I came to Mysore. I came to see what is happening, and be part of it. I came because I believe that, like it or not, these are my people and I am connected to them. I came with an open mind, but I was expecting to encounter the cliquish attitudes that have aroused the anti-Mysore sentiment. Now, having been here for a month, I am pleased to report that all my expectations have been trampled.

The terrible people that I heard about, who throw elbows and scorn people who are working on the Primary Series, never showed their faces. I was never aware of any hierarchy, based on levels of “advancement,” and nobody ever asked me what pose or series I was on. I also somehow missed the notorious aggression with which people are said to practice here. And I never saw any crude or injurious assists.

Instead, I was surrounded by kind, gentle, and sincere people who are here for the love of yoga, and who support and respect one another, without a care for what the other can do. There is a sense of equality that comes from the top down, and shows itself in the way that we all sit on the stairs, waiting to practice together. I also found an inexhaustible spirit of inquiry, which made for some of the best conversations about yoga that I have ever had. People are here to learn, and learning requires critical thought, so everywhere you look, on the street, at the coconut stand, in the cafes, people are critically engaged, and they are talking about yoga.

As for the practice, it could not be better. Yes its hot, crowded, and you have to wait for a long time to get in. But none of this matters at all. There is so much tapas here, so much focus and energy. You can lose yourself in it. No matter which series you are practicing, it stirs you down to the depths. And Sharath’s teaching style is quite hands-off. The emphasis is on allowing the process to unfold naturally, in good time, without unnecessary intervention . . . just like back home.

I will always be a student of Richard Freeman. He has taught me things that have changed me forever, and I know that I have only been given a taste of what he has to offer. I strive endlessly to make myself worthy of the further things that he might teach. But Richard is not my only teacher, nor does he want to be. He encourages all of his students to go out and learn from others. Yoga is vast, he tells us, and you will only limit yourself if you try to learn from one person alone.

Sharath, on the other hand, often insists on the importance of studying with just one teacher, and for that reason, I was almost expecting there to be some tension about my background. Sharath acknowledged when I arrived that he knows who I am. “Oh you’re the one” he said, “taking over Richard’s shala.” But he smiled and there was no tension at all. On the contrary, he made it clear that he respects Richard, and he is glad to have me practicing here under him. It warmed my heart.

So I have come to understand that when Sharath insists on studying with only one teacher, he does not mean that literally. He does not mean that we should avoid learning from others. That would be absurd. Instead, he means that we should avoid mixing methods. If we mix methods, we deprive ourselves of their potency. That is the point. And it makes good sense to me.

Though Richard and Sharath have very different approaches to teaching, I don’t see any substantive differences of the method they teach. What they are teaching is the same, Ashtanga Vinyasa as they learned it from their teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. I have practiced my asanas here as I learned them from Richard – same wide stance, same reaching arms, same slow pace, same attention to alignment, and Sharath’s response has been nothing but affirmative. Maybe some of the postures and movements do not look exactly like those of Sharath’s other students, but the essence is there. And that seems to be what Sharath cares about.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to be a student to both Richard and Sharath. Arguably, these are the two best teachers in the Ashtanga world. And I am sure that I did nothing to deserve their attention. Second, I am impressed by the sense of community here in Mysore. It reinforces my conviction in the potency of this practice.

My concerns about cliquish attitudes have all been washed away, and I smile gently at myself for having born them at all. Instead of finding cliquish attitudes, I have found attitudes of humility, contentment, kindness and compassion, all signs that the practice is working.

My wish for the Ashtanga community is that we can continue to practice together, learn together, and grow wiser together, without imposing on ourselves any further delusions of division. There is no need to pretend that we are divided into “insiders” and “outsiders,” or into “old school” and “new school.” There is no inside or outside. There is only truth. Whatever our diverse backgrounds might be, we are all looking for the same truth, and if we sustain an abiding sense of our togetherness, we will be that much closer to its realization.

For the Sake of Others

Most of us practice because of what it does for our minds. With practice, we feel lighter and more awake. We feel more comfortable in our skin. We accept ourselves, and we face the day with gratitude.

These are all lovely reasons to practice. Without them, most of us would not be doing Ashtanga at all. And for many of us, including myself, these reasons have been a source of light in dark times. They lifted us up when nothing else could. But these reasons are all self-concerned. And there comes a point when we have to give them up.

Somewhere along the path of yoga, the ground starts moving beneath our feet, and our concerns for ourselves, for our own development, are pitched high into the air. As they fall around us, showing us their true shapes and colors, they appear much less important than before. What we see in these moments of clarity is that the concerns that drive our practice, however fine, beautiful, and spiritually oriented, are egocentric. They are reflections of our deep desire to perfect ourselves.

When we come to this realization, we see that, in the larger scheme of things, our own progress in the practice hardly matters at all. It will not tip the balance of suffering in the world. And more importantly, we realize that our obsessive concerns for our own state of mind, even our concerns to have an open and radiant mind that attracts divine forces, are actually somewhat selfish and vain.

At this point, we begin to experience a shift in our motives for practice, a shift that may seem relatively small on the register of our thoughts, but a shift that has cascading consequences. We find ourselves less concerned with our own process, and more concerned with taking part in the ritual, not because of something that we might receive, but because of something that we might give.

In particular, we see ourselves as participating in a larger process of unfoldment that involves countless other minds, each of which is just as important as our own. And we realize that we can better support this process by giving ourselves to it, rather than by seeing what we can take. So we offer ourselves into the fire of the practice, allowing it to burn our samskaras, not so much for our own benefit, but for the sake of the sacrifice itself. That is, we throw ourselves into the fire to tend it, stoke it, let it burn hot, for the benefit of everyone involved.

The practice becomes a channel through which we give, and so a channel through which we express our awakening sense of connection with other beings. And by acting from that sense of connection, by acting from love, we participate more fully in the process of yoga.

This shift of motive can make a difference to our routines. It can pull us out of that narrow rut of thinking by which we choose to practice only when and where we think it would be best for us. It can inspire us to go to the local shala, and practice alongside others, rather than hiding out at home to “work on” ourselves. It can inspire us to show up reliably, so that we reinforce that sense of communal dependability that deepens everyone’s commitment to the practice, and adds vibrance to the community. Finally, it can inspire us to visit the epicenters of our tradition, not just to collect teachings and improve our own practice, but to be an integral part of the community.

Yoga is about waking up to the reality of other beings. So if yoga is what we want, we should stop practicing just to improve ourselves, and we should start practicing more consciously for the sake of others. We are so fortunate to have been born at this time, when Ashtanga Vinyasa has spread its tendrils all over world, and blossomed into so many little shalas. And we can only begin to express our gratitude by remembering what the practice has done for us, and the trying to give back at least as much as we have received. For those of us whose have been saved by this practice from spiraling downward into the abyss, this might take many lifetimes of giving.

Tasting the Poison

photo by Barbara Suss

Truth is simple, but ignorance takes many forms.
– Socrates

In the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, practice is said to be the antidote for the poison of conditioned existence. According to the teachings of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, this poison can take six forms: desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and pride (kama, krodha, moha, lobha, matsarya and mada). These are six forms of ignorance that derange our senses and deform our perceptions of the world.

These poisons are familiar to all Ashtanga practitioners. They appear in the most inopportune moments, twisting our sensation patterns, breaking our focus, and casting us down into lower states of mind. The practice makes these poisons obvious because we are prone to tense around them, and in that tension, we find it difficult to settle into the postures.

Many of us regard these poisons as obstacles to the practice, as things that we would rather practice without. This is certainly understandable. Since we come to the practice seeking respite from the anguish of the mind, quiet naturally becomes one of the standards by which we assess the practice. As Pattabhi used to say “When the mind is quiet, the asana is correct.” So when poisonous thoughts or feelings rise to the surface of our conscious minds, we often become discouraged, impatient, provoked, ashamed or humiliated, and we lose the delicate thread of the breath. Then we scold ourselves for having a “bad practice.”

These poisons, however, are not mere distractions. On the contrary, they provide something essential to the practice, without which the practice would not be as revealing, as fascinating, or as potent as it is.

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In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that the two elements of yoga are abhyasa and vairagya, or practice and dispassion. These elements are mutually supportive and depend upon one another. The eight limbs of Ashtanga fall under abhyasa, but they must be done with vairagya or dispassion to work. That is, they must be done with coolness and equanimity, without attachment to results, and with an open acceptance of whatever arises.

The practice of Ashtanga is a particularly potent opportunity for cultivating dispassion, precisely because it brings the six poisons to the surface, exposing all of the poisonous thoughts and feelings that swarm around in our minds. Dispassion allows us to bear these thoughts and feelings calmly, cooly and without emotional reaction. The premise of Ashtanga is that, if we can allow these poisons to arise, and we can hold them in our awareness without either resisting them or acting them out, they will slowly lose their potency. That is, they will lose some of their power to influence in our minds, and our minds will become lighter in the process.

So according to the Ashtanga approach, we can neutralize the six poisons, but not without tasting them first. This idea is enshrined in the mythical story of how the gods and demons once worked together to churn the cosmic ocean in order to extract the amrita, or the nectar of immortality. As they began to churn, the first thing to arise on the surface of the ocean was a thick, black and putrid sludge, with all kinds of ugly and deformed creatures inside.

The gods and demons writhed and moaned in disgust. They were all so repulsed that they could not carry on with their work, and everyone was at a loss about what to do. Then down came Śiva, the patron of yoga, to the shore. He gathered the sludge into his hand, raised it to his mouth, and slowly sipped it up. But rather than swallow, he let the sludge slide down into his throat, where it then began to neutralize, turning his throat a radiant blue.

This story is a metaphor for practice. When we start to practice, we start to churn our minds, and the first thing to arise is the poison of our conditioning. This is a crucial and unavoidable moment in the process of inquiry, and everything depends on how we respond. Just as Śiva took the sludge from the cosmic ocean and held it in his throat, so we have to draw the six poisons from our minds down into our mouths, and then hold it there, without swallowing or spitting out. In other words, we have to hold an open space of compassionate awareness for the various manifestations of the six poisons to appear, change form and dissolve, without indulging or suppressing them.

This is the inner practice of Ashtanga Yoga. It is a practice of compassion, or complete openness to what is. It demands the improbable collaboration of both divine and demonic forces within us, which is to say, of the most beautiful and repulsive parts of our minds, which, contrary to our conceptions of ourselves, are closely allied. These forces must work together to expose us to ourselves as we are. And once they make themselves apparent, the practice demands a caring but dispassionate acceptance of their interdependence, so that we can face ourselves as we actually are, without attachment or aversion to any part of ourselves.

This practice creates a positive tendency to recognize and suspend our cascading reactions to our own poisonous thoughts and feelings. And the more we suspend these reactions, the more the poisons lose their potency. The structures of ego to which they give rise gradually begin to break down, leaving a clearing in our minds for insight. In this clearing, we can see ourselves, and other beings, as we actually are, and we can appreciate the intimate nature of our relations to them, feeling closer and more connected to them than ever before. Then the amrita, or the nectar of yoga, flows spontaneously from within us, saturating our minds and senses with compassion, or complete openness to reality.

So the practice, in a way, is supposed to hurt. It is supposed to wound our pride and offend our vanity. It is supposed to sting us with the thorns of our own jealousies and resentments, while exposing us to our fears and anxieties. In the context of practice, none of these things are a distraction. On the contrary, they are the very material on which the practice works. When we contemplate the presence of these things within ourselves, and we trace their influence over our thoughts, feelings and actions, we begin an authentic inquiry into the state of our minds, an inquiry that can slowly unravel the threads of our conditioning.

So instead of a hoping for a “good practice” in which we encounter no resistance, we should embrace resistance as part of the material of yoga practice itself. And when the poison comes into our mouths, we should feel gratitude for the opportunity of tasting our humanness, and meeting ourselves with compassion.

Guruji Lives Here

The film “Guruji Lives Here” was released on the blue moon of July to commemorate the teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The film is a montage of practice scenes from around the world, and it offers a breathtaking view of the global Ashtanga community.

The film goes inside some of the finest Ashtanga studios and shows some of the most revered faces, but it graciously refrains from identifying any of them. By threading together so many unique and iconic images, the film manages to make a profound statement on the organization of our tradition. It quietly suggests that, like the serpentine hood of Patanjali, the Ashtanga community has not one but one thousand heads, all singing in harmony.

This is a brilliant tribute to the richness and depth of Guruji’s teachings. It reminds us that Guruji’s teachings are too full to be captured in any single interpretation, and we cannot begin to appreciate their fullness unless we contemplate them through a multiplicity of forms. With its procession of familiar faces, the film invites us to contemplate Guruji’s teachings where it matters, in the diverse personalities of the people who have absorbed them.

Most of the people who are featured in the film studied directly with Guruji for a very long time. These people, the senior teachers of our discipline, all learned something from Guruji that changed their lives. What they learned was not some formula or technique, but something infinitely finer, which became personal as soon as they absorbed it.

After decades of practice, our senior teachers have come to embody the intelligence of Guruji’s teachings in their own unique ways. That intelligence has flowered within them and colored their personalities. Far from obscuring the essence of what they learned, their personalities give substance to the teachings and provide a moral foundation for our community.

The beauty of prakriti lies partly in the fact that while she produces an overabundance of similar forms, each one is irreducibly unique. To appreciate her beauty is to appreciate how her singular intelligence expresses itself through each of her individual gestures and forms. This kind of appreciation, which is essential to classical Ashtanga, requires viveka or discrimination, the double-edged sword that cuts through the tendrils of ordinary consciousness to expose the brilliance beneath.

The film invites us to use viveka to contemplate the personalities of our senior teachers, and so to appreciate the singular brilliance that they all share. It invites us to look directly into their myriad differences of concept, method and style, and to see how those differences reflect the intelligence of Guruji’s teachings in uniquely revealing ways.

If the Ashtanga community has a subtle body, the senior teachers are the nadis or channels through which the intelligence of Guruji’s teaching flows. And when we open ourselves to receive that intelligence, we become part of the same nexus. Then we can taste the sweet nectar of Guruji’s teachings dripping down into our hearts. The means of receiving this nectar is love, and more specifically, the loving contemplation of the singular brilliance that is reflected in the personalities of our senior teachers.

When we contemplate these personalities, it might help us to remember that Siva, of whom Pattabhi Jois was a devotee, is not only the divine patron of yoga, but a loving friend to all misfits, to all who find themselves outside of the dominant order. As the embodiment of absolute consciousness, Siva rejects nothing. He embraces everything whatsoever, including everything that lies outside of the presiding schemes of organization. He represents the sacredness of sesa, or the remainder.

The practice of yoga demands that we embrace sesa. It demands that we embrace everything that falls outside the boundaries of our ideas. Then we can expand our awareness beyond our limiting preconceptions and open our eyes to the way things actually are. In a sense, we Ashtanga practitioners are all trying to become sesa. That is, we are all trying to escape from the confines of our conditioned minds, so that we can rediscover ourselves, as it were, in our fullness.

However differently we might all approach the practice, we are all searching for the same thing. And part of Guruji’s non-dual teaching is that, once we find it, we will realize that we were together all along. The reality that we are looking for does not exclude any of us but, on the contrary, connects us all together in perfect intimacy. And the inner movement that awakens us to that reality is love.

Here then is the inspired message of the film: Though Guruji has departed, the intelligence of his teaching lives on. It lives in the nexus of loving relationships that have formed around the senior teachers of our discipline, who spend their lives sharing the brilliance of what they learned with us. Through these relationships, the intelligence of Guruji’s teachings flows down into our minds and bodies, quickening our senses and nourishing our community.

Our love for one another, and for the ecstatic promise of Ashtanga yoga, is the true substance of our tradition. Within this love, Guruji lives.

Crying in Yoga

Sometimes we have to cry. The music of our emotions rises to a crescendo and the tears come pouring out. The touch of saltwater running down the face is one of the sweetest consolations of the body. In moments of despair, there is nothing more soothing to the senses.

Tears belong to a number of distinct emotions. These include sorrow, remorse, fury and grief, but also adoration, exultation and devotional longing. All of these emotions carry an intense psychical current, and the release of that current is exhilarating.

When we practice yoga, these emotions can arise rather quickly and bring us to tears. But yoga invites us not to cry. There is nothing wrong with crying, and the suppression of the impulse to cry would be anathema to the practice. But yoga provides us with tools to release the psychical currents that underlie these emotions more completely than we could with crying.

The act of crying always reinforces some pattern of emotional expression, and yoga teaches us to disrupt such patterns before they take shape. Through the disruption of those patterns, we can slowly liberate ourselves from the subconscious forces that underlie them. That is, we can release the psychical energy behind those patterns, and make our minds a little lighter than before.

To avail ourselves of this opportunity, we have to suspend ordinary habits of thought. In particular, we have to suspend our habit of imposing our concepts upon the psychical forces that underlie crying. As soon as we place these forces under concepts, they take a particular sensational or emotional form in our minds. This form is then reflected immediately in the body, and the physiological signs of the relevant emotion begin to appear.

Instead of giving emotional form to these forces, we can allow them to arise in their nascent state. That is, we can allow these forces to course through our bodies without placing them under a concept, and so without channeling them into the distinctive pathways that are involved in crying.

This means allowing ourselves to experience something quite intense and unfamiliar, without knowing what will happen in turn. It means holding the doors of our subconscious minds wide open, so that unseen forces can come welling to the surface as pure psychical energy.

When we allow these forces to come to awareness in their nascent state, without imposing upon them any particular emotional form, they move through channels of sensation that would otherwise remain closed. They quicken our senses and heighten our awareness of our own embodiment. This experience is one of the fine exhilarations of Hatha Yoga. It takes us outside of ourselves, outside of the space in which our stories reign, allowing us to experience ourselves more directly.

When we progress in this practice, we open channels for psychical release, not only for ourselves, but for the people around us. The forces of our collective consciousness can move more openly through us, without catching us up in their currents. And the more openly those forces can move, the more quickly their tensions resolve. So by holding ourselves open, we can allow those forces to dissipate in the expanse of our bodies before they take any particular emotional form.

As we learn to accept the movements of larger psychical force through our bodies, we can begin to shift the tenor of the situations in which we find ourselves. We can redirect the forces that underlie emotions like anger, resentment, attachment, fear, jealousy and greed before they take their destructive forms. We can leverage these forces toward something more positive, thus promoting kindness, forgiveness, and mutuality, without having to suppress or deceive ourselves about our true feelings.

This is not some supernatural ability, just true openness to the vital forces that course through us and connect us all. Through the assiduous practice of yoga, we can learn to move those forces through every cell of our bodies, and resolve the tensions that gather within them without shedding a tear.

Listening to the Body

Ashtanga Vinyasa is an inquiry into the nature of embodiment. It allows us to look into the depths of the body, and see what we are experiencing, beneath the projections of the mind. There are many things in the depths of the body from which we would rather hide, things that quietly shape our thoughts and feelings. Through the practice of uncovering these things, and accepting them precisely as they are, we learn the art of compassion, or complete openness to reality.

The practice of Ashtanga begins with listening, with giving space to what is, not only in our surroundings, but in the inner recesses of our own bodies. This kind of listening requires the suspension of ordinary thought, which is to say, the suspension of our tendency to impose ideas upon our experiences. When we suspend this tendency, we allow things to stand forth as they are, so that we can relate to them with simplicity.

In the practice of Ashtanga, the body becomes a templum, an open space for the contemplation of experience. In this space, we can observe the visceral traces of our thoughts and feelings. They streak across our sensory fields, leaving sensations that do not fit within the conceptual structures that make the body familiar to us. Rather than estrange us from the body, these sensations allow us to settle deeper into the body than ever before. They attune us to what we are experiencing on a visceral level.

As we give space to experience what is inside our bodies, we give space for psychical release. That is, we give space for the psychical forces that underlie our thoughts and feelings to come welling to the surface, without taking their usual form. These forces are then allowed to move openly, and we feel them coursing through our bodies in exhilaration.

This kind of release is ecstatic. It quickens our senses and takes us outside of ourselves, outside of the space in which our stories reign. It allows us to experience ourselves directly, without the mediation of our ideas. In the immediacy of these experiences, we feel more present to ourselves than ever before. And as we make a practice of these experiences, we slowly release ourselves from our subconscious patterns of conditioning. Such is the process of yoga.

The mind is quick to intervene. It likes to place our experiences in narrative context, so that it “knows” what we are experiencing from one moment to the next. It throws concepts over our experiences, and casts the psychical forces that move inside of them into a familiar emotional form. Rather than allowing us to experience those forces directly, the mind casts them as familiar emotions like anger, shame, resentment, anxiety or grief. The confrontation of these emotions is where most of us spend the better part of our struggle in yoga.

The mind has a profound fear of letting go into the unknown. It wants to make sense of everything, to control everything, and to predict the recurrence of destabilizing experiences before they happen again. So in yoga, the mind attempts to narrate the experience of opening as quickly as it unfolds. And this tends to disrupt the process. Rather than admitting its disruptions, it pretends to be in control. It sees its narrative activity as part of the process of mindfulness.

Oftentimes, the mind pretends to speak for the body, to give an account of what is happening from the body’s point of view. The mind tells us that the strange sensations that we experience when we practice are signs of danger, that it would violent or disrespectful to the body to continue. This creates a powerful diversion from the process of release. It leads us away from subconscious forces that we would rather not confront, and it strengthens our emotional density in the process.

The body, however, has an intelligence of its own, which is awakened by the process of yoga. The tensions that we experience in the body are largely tensions of the mind, without which the body would be more open, more at ease, and more able to relate to the hidden forces that shape its surroundings. The practice of yoga helps release these tensions, so that the body can adapt, but the mind holds on. It creates all kinds of diversions to keep the body from opening, and we fall for these by accepting the stories that go with them.

So for all our talk about listening to the body in yoga practice, we tend not to listen at all. Instead, we tend to listen to our projections about what we are experiencing, and to the stories that our minds tell about what our bodies need. In this way, even as we practice yoga, we hold ourselves in confinement.

To listen to the body, we have to set our ideas aside. That is, we have to set aside our tendencies to engage indirectly with the body through the projections of our minds. And this is not an easy thing to do. Our projections of the body are so thick and settled that we hardly know how to recognize them.

In the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa, we begin by listening to the breath. That is, we begin by listening to the movements of the breath resonating throughout the body. And as our attention is drawn inward by these movements, we find ourselves listening to the psychical currents beneath our thoughts and feelings, the currents that run through our subconscious minds. As we give space to these currents, they begin to run outside our patterns of conditioning.

This kind of listening requires the suspension of thought, not the projection of thought onto something more fundamental. The mind resists this suspension, however, with all the force of its impulse for control. And learning to undercut that impulse is the secret of release. To realize that secret, we have to stop working on our yoga practices, and allow our yoga practices to work on us. And we begin that process by listening.

The Intelligence of Movement

Hatha Yoga is premised on the thought that mind and breath, citta and prana, move together like two birds, flying in formation. As one moves, so does the other, with the same cadence and rhythm. When the breath is tense, labored and constricted, the mind is tense, labored and constricted as well. When the breath is open, easeful and deep, the mind slides naturally into an open and quiescent state.

On this premise, Hatha techniques focus on liberating the breath. They encourage the breath to move without obstruction through the body, and to come into a natural fullness. As the breath expands, it breaks patterns of mental conditioning, and opens the inner space of the mind. The mind then becomes a templum, an open space for the contemplation of reality.

Hatha Yoga is the art of forming and sustaining that space – by working with breath. The practice uses breath to create the kind of opening through which meditative states can arise. In that opening, thoughts and feelings can change form and dissolve, without catching us up in their drama.

The Ashtanga Vinyasa method is one of the most brilliant of the Hatha techniques to emerge in the twentieth century. In Ashtanga Vinyasa, the Hatha practices of asana (posture), pranayama (breath expansion) and mudra (internal gesture or hold) are combined with precision into an elaborate ritual of movement and form. This ritual, which resembles sacred dance, entices the breath to move openly and rhythmically throughout the body. The body becomes a delicate wind instrument, which makes quiet harmonies with notes of sensation.

The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa is an unbroken sequence of gestures from beginning to end. Each breath, movement and posture is assigned a unique place in the ritual. When these elements are arranged in a continuous flow, the distractive patterns of the mind begin to dissolve. The internal breath begins to move with focus and clarity, and the mind immediately follows.

The contemplative essence of the Ashtanga method is elusive. And the mind never stops trying to claim it for its own. As soon as the mind experiences the elation of opening, it covers over the experience with conceptual clutter. It forms an idea of what the experience is like, and how to recreate the experience again. When these ideas are given too much scope, the practice can lose its potency.

Under the influence of these ideas, we may find ourselves slowing down, looking for some elusive feeling of opening. As long as we are looking for that feeling, however, the movements of the breath cannot be open and clear. They are obstructed by our projections. And we have fallen for one of the mind’s brilliant diversions once again.

The mind can take refuge in a practice it has learned to control. So it will give us a thousand reasons to slow down, to analyze our experience, to form theories about our bodies, and to narrate everything that is happening. The mind wants us to practice with a continuous intercession of thought, for that allows the mind to remain in control.

To practice Ashtanga with intelligence, we must be aware of such diversions, and pull ourselves out before we lose ourselves in them. When the mind comes up with some reason to break the rhythm, or to pass over some part of the sequencing, that is usually a defensive stratagem to undermine the process of opening. These stratagems objectify the experience of practicing yoga, and that makes the mind feel safe. But breaking the habit of objectification is an essential part of the practice.

The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa is about openness to what is happening now, not about making us into something that we are not. The potency of the practice depends upon the continual release of our thoughts and feelings. These include our notions about what the practice is supposed to do for us, or what the practice is supposed to achieve. So to retain the potency of the practice, we must suspend these notions. We must be open to rediscovering the practice every time.

The Ashtanga Vinyasa method is to follow the inner movement of the breath, no matter what kind of resistance we brook with our stories. And it is only when we release these stories that we can experience the opening and elation of yoga.

The Meaning of Nirodha

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali offers several formulations of yoga. Each reveals the discipline from another angle and provides some unique perspective on the whole. The most poignant, however, belongs to the second verse: Yogas chitta vritti nirodha (I.2). “Yoga is the nirodha of the activity of the mind.” The term nirodha is polysemous, with over forty different meanings, but these meanings hang together in a cohesive family of uses.

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Asana as Yoga

Modern yoga is obsessed with asana, the practice of postural forms. Other practices are studied in modern yoga, but asana eclipses them all. Many critics have lamented this fact. In the spectrum of classical practice, they say, asana is merely a support. The purpose is to prepare the body for seated meditation, and the practice is empty when undertaken by itself.

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The Practice is the Teacher

There is a saying in Zen monasteries, regarding their concern for keeping time, “the schedule is the teacher.” The idea is that, by keeping the schedule, we can better observe the workings of our minds. That is, we can see how distracted we are, and how our impulses drag us about with their impetuous schemes. In keeping the schedule, we learn to defuse our impulses and develop a posture of dispassion toward our minds.

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Ashtanga and Pain

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is notorious for inducing pain. The postures provoke patterns of tension in our bodies, and when we pull against them, they scour our tissues and nerves. With its linear progression of sequences, the practice leaves no route of escape. It exposes our tension patterns every time. Most people promptly quit Ashtanga for this reason. They go find another, more forgiving form.

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