Ayurveda takes the philosophical outline of Sankhya and applies it to the art of living, stretching its reaches beyond the confines of ascetic practice to the real world of relationship, career, conflict and even technology. The gunas (tamas, rajas and sattwa) and the five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether) converge to explain doshas, or individual constitutions. This provides a basic categorization process to everything from body type to spiritual practice, disease, human cravings and proclivities.
In her latest book, The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, Michelle Goldberg, author and journalist, draws a complex picture of Indra Devi, a bold figure on the yoga landscape. Devi was woman who reinvented herself numerous times over the course of her life, who was present at many of history’s most important moments and who studied with some of the spiritual world’s most important teachers. Yet until now, no book has told her full story objectively. Five years in the making, including an FBI file and a field trip to Panama, this book has it all – yoga, history and intrigue.
To feel foolish can be a little scary. To some, following choices of the heart, or pursuing one’s dream, can seem impossible and therefore silly to chase. Instead of doing something, we sit on a rock, put our fist under our chin Winnie-the-Pooh-style, and ask, “Why bother?”
There are many fears that block any activity that requires foolish behavior. The fear of failure is a big one. So is the fear of rejection or criticism. Taking a crazy chance, whether within a relationship, hobby, or career, is often met with negativity, from both internal and external forces. Maybe your parents, or society doesn’t agree with your choice. Maybe your biggest critic is you.
Music is the most primal human activity, common to all people across time and across the planet. Music is the thing that connects us to our humanity. When we listen to or play music, we are literally activating the most ancient part of our brains as well as the most evolved. The cerebellum, which is involved with baseline regulatory systems like breathing and heart beating and basic emotional responses, is just as affected as the frontal lobe, which is associated with sophisticated thought, intuition, and planning. The activity of music has a twofold purpose. First, music is a socializing force, meant to connect people and communities. Second, music is a means by which to uplift ourselves towards a greater understanding of ourselves and the universe. Music is the most primal thing we do and is also the most exalted.
The whole body works as a lightning rod for stimuli; its systems combined are actually seven times more responsive than the brain alone when it comes to perceived danger. We can feel a threat before we physically see it. This is the amygdala bypassing the prefrontal cortex, the "gut reaction." When aroused, the Sympathetic Nervous System responds by preparing to defend itself: the heart rate increases, digestion slows, and the body braces for action. If those tension patterns go unnoticed, so does the sympathetic activation. Chances are, the stress cycle never gets completed and the residual “stress” lives on in the body as chronic back pain, TMJ, or severely stiff shoulders. The fight-or-flight-freeze gets hard-wired into our animal body, and as such requires sensation-based inquiry in order to organize. The body may get one story from the breath pattern adopted during rush hour, but when the narrative does not change, it continues to function as though in danger. The amygdala retains the memory of the threat and replays it over and over in a loop which keeps the body locked up.
In an increasingly media-based industry, yoga teachers have come to represent the physical elite. Instagram, Facebook, websites, newsletters thrive on images of impressive physical feats and physiques. Yoga pants sell, more often than not, because of who’s in them. With all of this focus moving out toward the still image of the yogi, I’m wondering if anybody notices that the still point is actually a state of being and not a static posture or singular moment in time? Certainly the body is a visible, tangible expression of self, but everything we see is literally a trick of the eye. In order to know the embodied self we cannot merely look at it from the outside, slicing and dissecting, comparing and contrasting. Furthermore, none of the asanas on their own has any sustaining power. It is the way in which we inhabit each posture that gives them power. From this conscious embodiment we as practitioners draw resilience, patience and autonomy into our mundane lives.
The way of the fox isn’t charging straight through the problem, like the bull, but to find a way around the difficulty and then come back to the initial spot you were getting frustrated. Sometimes we have to identify opportunities to work on something a different way before re-approaching with new experience, information, strength, etc. I remember, Jivamukti co-founder David Life saying once, “Sometimes to make something easier, you have to make it harder first.”
Rather than allowing you to check out, an oft-repeated sequence offers you the opportunity to really check in with your physical practice. You can let go of wondering (or trying to predict) where the teacher is headed with this sequence and thereby get out of your head and into your body. You can feel when your hips or hamstrings are tighter than usual because you have worked at the edge of this pose already several times this week or month. On the other end of that spectrum, you can notice “progress” in a pose, that elusive pay-off that we are not supposed to seek, but are more than pleased when it lands on our mat.
The other day, my fellow yogis and I were standing in virabhadrasana one, and our teacher encouraged us (as many will do) to hold our arms in whatever shape felt best. Some yogis took hands to prayer, and others interlaced their fingers and stretched their knitted hands up to the sky. In those seconds, instinct took over, and I pulled my arms into a cactus shape. I felt the stretch in the webbing between my fingers and inhaled, the breath flowing into my shoulders. Marvelous.
As a recent graduate of college, I’ve been faced with a plethora of decisions that feel like they demand my immediate attention. When I was leaving for college, adults would wink, clap me on the shoulder and say “these are going to be the best years of your life.” When I graduated college, I got the same clap on the shoulder, but this time it was firmer and accompanied with “these are going to be the most important years of your life.” Woof.
About two or so years ago, there was a lot of talk in the yoga community about injuries stemming from asana practice. Interest in the topic seems to have decreased somewhat, but as a teacher and regular practitioner, I know that injuries are still very much present. Sometimes yoga is the cause, other times it is viewed as the cure. That is, we can both hurt and heal ourselves by getting on our mats.
Despite our best attempts at perfecting our bodies and attitudes, we remain uneven, imbalanced, and a-symmetrical. As we mature, we tend to get comfortable with the fact that nothing is ever perfectly balanced, and - if we're lucky - maybe even begin to find a bit of beauty in this fact. There is always an injury somewhere, a misalignment, an overdeveloped side of the body - just as there is always a chip in the glass, a scratch on the finish... if you look closely enough to spot it. Yes, a-symmetry is perfectly normal; not a single one of us can claim perfect evenness on his or her talent card. Bummer?