Yoga Is Not One Thing

Being a yoga teacher and with many friends involved with yoga as a practice, business, and philosophical system, I often encounter rants about the dumbing down of yoga within our culture. “This McYoga is not real yoga!” they seem to say. The implied message is that we should round up a posse and ride them out of town. While they make some good points and I admire their earnestness, I shudder to think that there would be some sort of yoga police running around enforcing a yogic orthodoxy. Whose orthodoxy should be enforced?

If there is one thing that has become clear in my yoga philosophy studies, it’s that yoga is not one thing. It is perhaps the longest running philosophical conversation on the planet, and spans thousands of years from at least the Vedic period into current times. Within it there is monotheism, dualism, pantheism, panentheism, and atheism, and perhaps other ism’s as well (Fanaticism? Narcissism? Perish the thought!). As I understand it, Buddhism was formed in part as a reaction to yogic thought, so one could argue that it’s part of the conversation as well.

Yet most of those I know, including most yoga teachers, seem to regard yoga as some type of monolith, like it’s one thing and we should all agree on what that one thing is. Any serious academic study will reveal that it is simply not the case.

Do we really need to decide between McYoga and the Yoga Police? If we choose either, we end the conversation. Now that yoga has become so popular in the western world, it behooves us to educate ourselves about the conversation so far, and then engage deeply with our own educated minds and experienced hearts to further the conversation. The first step in my view is to subvert the idea that yoga is one thing. It’s not, and if it ever is one thing, the conversation is over.

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Wild Things

We come out of the womb as Wild Things, with a diverse set of untamed energies, some of which are contradictory, and all of which are part of our life force. Through the socialization process, these energies get tamed, inhibited, or locked up, so that we can appear consistent in our presentation of self; i.e. so we can be an adult. This type of consistency shrivels our vitality, giving free reign to only a small fraction of our life force. Since life force is what animates the body, I think these socialized inhibitions might make us age faster than we otherwise would.

We spend the first part of our lives getting socialized to damp down the Wild Things, and then spend the rest of our lives wandering in the dark trying to find them again. Authentic spiritual practice can help us to find and reclaim them. If your practice is inhibiting your life force, it’s not really spiritual, even if it is religious.

The greatest spiritual practice for me has been dance. It bypasses the mind, and in the right environment, can allow all these suppressed facets of who I am to emerge and be reclaimed. Our essential nature is not one thing, it is many things: we are multifaceted beings. There is no need to be consistent, and no need to be entertaining, the only need is to be authentic to what is; to embrace our Wild Things. To be truly whole, we must embrace our contradictions.

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The Disease of Niceness

Act 1, Scene 1:

Mother: “Sally, give that toy back to your younger sister, she was playing with it first” .

Sally: “But I want to play with it!”

Mother: “Sally, don’t be selfish, no one will like you if you’re selfish. Give the toy back right now.”

This is an example of how we socialize our children. We shame them for their self interested desires and teach them to seek approval from others. This is well intentioned, but has negative unintended consequences. When the strategy is successful, it produces adults that have trouble acting in their own self interest. When the strategy fails, it produces the bad boys and bad girls of the world.

Consider the position Sally is in. She is presented with a choice of suppressing her desire and gaining her mothers approval, or continuing with her desire and facing rejection. If she keeps choosing her own desires first, she will be considered a bad girl. It’s a heart wrenching choice: loose the vitality that comes with embracing her desires or loose the love and support of those around her. It’s a lose/lose proposition.

I’m a recovering nice guy. Like most people, I choose to go the nice route and learned to stuff my desires and seek approval. To be nice means to conform to others expectations and to consider our own desires last, if at all. The desires don’t go away though, they stay there hidden or sheepishly expressed. This is what I call the disease of niceness. It’s a disease because we’ve socialized people to suppress acting in their own interest; what other animal does that? Desire is where our vitality comes from, and suppressing our desires greatly limits our ability to be happy and successful.

The pressure to be nice is applied to girls and boys, but especially to girls. They are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice; to not be nice is to not be feminine, or so society wants us to believe.

Those who go the other way and choose to be bad little girls and bad little boys grow up to become the adult bad girls and bad boys. It’s no accident that we don’t call them bad women and bad men; they are still caught up in that rebellious childhood dynamic. They’ve learned to forgo the approval of others in favor of embracing their own desires.

The appeal of the bad girls and bad boys to some of us “nice” people is that they’ve retained the vitality that comes with self interested desire; we are attracted to that because we want our own vitality back. The downside is that those bad boys and bad girls have turned away from acting with conscience; you’ll feel their desires, but yours will not be considered, except perhaps as a way to manipulate you.

As a recovering nice guy, I know what it means to be too nice. Too nice is too boring. In my niceness I’ve been on the receiving end of rejection from women more times than I can count; and they were right to reject me for that. I’ve also rejected women for being too nice. Who wants nice if it means someone who suppresses their desires? I want to feel a women’s desire!  I think we all want that in a partner.

To have the disease of niceness or to be a bad boy or bad girl means to still be a child. The choice presented in childhood is a false choice. We can keep our self interested desires AND have consideration for how our actions affect others. The golden rule – to treat others as we want to be treated – is sage advice that has been around for thousands of years and is thought to be in some form in almost every ethical tradition. If we can find a way to socialize the next generation to following the golden rule AND retaining self interested desire we will raise a generation more able to live fulfilling lives. It’s no easy task, but our future may depend on it. The first step is to create that for ourselves.

To have genuine self love, we must transcend the good/bad dynamic. When I was in nice guy mode I was seeking approval rather than fulfillment. This is now the key for me to recognize when I’ve been re-infected with the nice guy disease. People seeking self actualization seek fulfillment rather than approval. Approval is good to have, but a self actualized person knows you can’t get approval from all the people all the time. They don’t need it and they don’t seek it because they already approve of themselves; that is self love in action.

When I’m was in approval seeking mode, it’s like I wanted some sky god (or earth mother) to show up and tell me that it’s OK to go for what I want. I wanted an external source of unconditional love so that I could start loving myself. I now know that waiting for external love means waiting forever; it’s never going to happen.

I realized that loving myself was not about meeting some external standard of beauty, intelligence, accomplishment, or any other criteria. I’ve seen plenty of beautiful, intelligent and accomplished people that still need the approval of others. I had to love myself enough to believe I deserved fulfillment, without qualifications. If I wanted it I had to give it to myself. A voice inside began to say:

“YOU ARE THE PERSON YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR!  YOU ARE THE ONE WHO NEEDS TO LOVE YOU ENOUGH FIRST! You are the only one who can decide that you deserve fulfillment in your life. It will NEVER come from the outside because that’s not how it works. It never worked that way and it never will; not for you; not for anyone.’

It’s cliché because it’s true: we can’t completely love another until we first love ourselves. The love that’s shared between two people when neither has self love is all mixed up with insecurity and the need for approval. It’s not that fulfilling, even if it does feel better than being alone. To be fulfilling, love needs to come from someone who already loves themselves. If I don’t love myself, then I don’t embrace my own fulfillment, so how could I fully support my partners fulfillment? Seeking approval for helping someone does not feel quite the same to the partner; more burden than treasure.

Niceness is a thin veneer, a facade that insulates us from genuine intimacy with others. It covers over and hides our true feelings. Niceness and authenticity cannot co-exist at the same time because being nice requires twisting who we are to fit others expectations. Don’t be nice, instead be kind.

When we are afflicted with niceness, we think of our own desires as a burden, and we don’t want to burden others, so we keep them to ourselves.

Act 3, Scene 5:

“What do you want to do for dinner tonight honey?”

“Oh, I don’t care, whatever you want dear.”

Our desires are only a burden if we expect their fulfillment without consideration for other’s desires; the bad boy/girl scenario.

As long as we are acting with conscience, our desires are a gift, not a burden.  Don’t deny the gift of your desires with those you love. Share your desires, for it’s desires that forms the notes of the beautiful music you can make together with others.

Don’t love your neighbor more than yourself. Don’t love yourself and trash your neighbor. Love thy neighbor as thyself.

Posted in Elephant Journal, Humanity, Psychology, Relationships | 2 Comments

Parvritti

Believe it or not, the universe doesn’t care how you or I think life should be. Expecting life or other people to conform to our “shoulds” is a formula for creating our own private hell. Judge (discern, evaluate) how life is, but never reject how life is; that’s not judgment, it’s condemnation. When we condemn life for not conforming to our ideals we are rejecting a part of this wonderful universe and we make our own world a little smaller. I believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said “Condemn not that ye not be condemned.”

We all make the choice a thousand times a day: We can turn away from how things are and make our world a little smaller, or we can turn toward how things are and step deeper into the mystery.

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You are the person you’ve been waiting for

Self love is something we all understand in our bones, yet few grasp consciously. We gravitate to people who love themselves because we want to learn to love ourselves too; they regard themselves with love and we want to learn to regard ourselves with love. Yet for many of us, myself included, that self love has been elusive; somewhere in childhood I got the notion that I did not deserve to be loved for who I am; love was conditional and I had to earn it.

A lot of us are still trying to earn it, looking for approval in the things we do and the things we are. We think if someone else loves us enough, then we can turn things around and start to live fulfilled lives. The lack of such a person in my life only seemed to reinforce the notion that I didn’t deserve fulfillment. Oh I had relationships, but their presence in my life did not heal the wound; I was still seeking an approval that never quite satisfied.

The desire to feel loved is such a strong emotion that we will seek to fulfill that desire first, before other needs. It feels desperate and it is, so many of us try to hide it like I did. While we are busy hiding our desire for approval, those with genuine self love are actively seeking the fulfillment of their desires; they seem to be unabashed in asking: “What’s in this for me?” They ask that because they know in their bones that they deserve fulfillment; they see life as an adventure and want to make the most of it. If you love yourself, you will seek fulfillment, if you don’t love yourself, you will seek approval . We sense this so easily in others, yet find it so hard to address in ourselves. We are all hyperaware of this dynamic in others and sense intuitively the level of self love in another person. Can you sense this in other people even when they try to hide it? Of course you can! Everyone can, but we are generally too polite to say anything. The act of trying to hide it is not only ineffective, it keeps us stuck in the pattern.

It’s cliché because it’s true: you can’t completely love another until you first love yourself. The love that’s shared between two people when neither has self love is all mixed up with insecurity and the need for approval. It’s not that fulfilling, even if it does feel better than being alone. To be fulfilling, love needs to come from someone who already loves themselves. If you don’t love yourself, then you don’t embrace your own fulfillment, so how could you fully support your partner seeking fulfillment? Seeking approval for helping someone does not feel quite the same; more burden than treasure.

Guess what? We all deserve fulfillment! The only difference is that people with self love have decided that they deserve fulfillment and seeks it without reservation. They believe they deserve as much fulfillment as they can create for themselves. They deserve fulfillment, and even if they don’t get what they want in some situation they love themselves enough to try again. People without self love see the failure to find fulfillment as confirmation that they don’t deserve fulfillment it and maybe should not even be seeking it.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: We don’t actually need anyone’s approval in order to seek fulfillment our lives. In order to change from being a person who lacks self love into a person who embodies self love, you just have to decide you deserve fulfillment, then act like it by seeking to fill yourself up with all the wonderful things that life has to offer. That doesn’t mean you no longer enjoy having the approval of others, but you don’t need it and you don’t bend yourself out of shape in order to get it; you deserve fulfillment whether you have the approval of others or not. Bending yourself out of shape is not very fulfilling. It’s not even possible to always get the approval of others, so let that go.

Asking “What’s in this for me?” can seem like a selfish question. I believe that this is because we are taught not to be selfish as children. But as adults our happiness is also reflected in the happiness of others around us. Would you rather be around happy fulfilled people who love themselves? Or stressed out people needing approval? Sometimes you may ask the question “What’s in this for me?”, and the answer will be: ” I get to support someone I care about as they pursue their happiness”. Helping other people find fulfillment is one of the most fulfilling things we can do. Fulfilled people want to be around other fulfilled people, and will help create that whenever they can. Selfish self absorbed people are never fulfilled; that’s just not how the human heart works.

The most important test you will ever take has only one question: Do you love yourself enough to think you deserve a fulfilled life? Yes? No? Unsure? The fortunate few say yes easily. The most unfortunate among us say no, and many of us are unsure. It’s the unsure ones who are constantly seeking approval. They want to live a fulfilled life, but they just need some confirmation; they want someone to love them enough that they can start loving themselves. Whatever your answer to the above question, only you can answer it; only your answer counts. It’s what YOU think that matters, not what anyone else thinks. The answer to this question will have a profound effect on you life, so you better get it right. If you habitually get this wrong, as I did, it’s not a problem, your can retake the test as many times as you like.

Loving yourself is not about meeting some external standard of beauty, intelligence, accomplishment, or any other criteria. I’ve seen plenty of beautiful, intelligent and accomplished people that still need the approval of others. If you love yourself then you believe you deserve fulfillment, without reservations. If you don’t love yourself then you may be waiting for someone to love you enough first. YOU ARE THE PERSON YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR!  YOU ARE THE ONE WHO NEEDS TO LOVE YOU ENOUGH FIRST! You are the only one who can decide that you deserve fulfillment in your life. It will NEVER come from the outside because that’s not how it works. It never worked that way and it never will; not for you; not for anyone. Quit waiting for it and decide right now to have the most fulfilled life you can possibly muster; only you can make that decision.

It doesn’t have to be marching bands and standing ovations. Seek the experiences that fulfill you. What fills you up? What gives you joy? What makes your heart sing? If it’s curling up in front of a fire and reading a book then do that. If it’s performing in front of an audience, then do that. If it’s helping others live fulfilled lives then do that. Only you know what fills you up, and only you can make the decision to that you deserve it.  This is not a limited time offer, but act now anyway! You deserve it!

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Heart Scars

The scars of the heart are a source of wisdom if we let in the pain, and a source of anger if we do not.

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The Window of Soul

The window of the soul can be obscured by many things: our fears and worries, the stories we tell ourselves, and our cherished beliefs. When our window is dirty, it is harder for us to see out, and harder for others to see in. The goal of a spiritual life is not to build up grand theories that insulate us from life, but to clear away the dross that clouds the window of soul. When my window is clear and your window is clear, then finally we can see each other, and that is beautiful.

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The road of success

The road of success is littered with failures. Don’t let failure stop you; learn, change direction if needed, and keep going.

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The Case for Magical Thinking

I believe life is magical. Not the new age magic that sprinkles rainbows and fairy dust on everything in a vain attempt to paper over the uncertainties of life, but a more mature view that sees magic in the alchemy by which the very uncontrollableness of life leads to greater wisdom and insight.

What we believe about life is important. We will experience life very differently if we think “Life’s a bitch, then you die”, than if we believe something more positive. The central question here concerns whether we believe that life is benevolent, indifferent or malevolent.

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”. – Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin, the naturalist who wrote the seminal work “The Origin of Species”, seems to believe that life is indifferent. I don’t think this view is really supported by the facts of evolution, as I will try to show.

The age of the earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years. Fossil evidence suggests that single celled life arrived about 3.9billion years ago.

Miracle1

It was only around 610 – 750 million years ago that cells learned to cooperate with each other and formed communities; cells specialized to meet certain needs of the community and began to function as a unit. Thus multi-celled life was formed, and the Cambrian explosion soon followed around 540 million years ago; lasting about 80 million years, it resulted in a large diversity of life forms.miracle2

The first transition from inorganic chemicals to single celled life is not well understood, and people have tried to replicate it in a lab. If life has evolved according to some underlying order, then that underlying order must have supported the emergence of life. During the time when only single celled life existed on this planet, there was competition between the cells.

The transition from single celled life to multi-celled life seems equally as miraculous. What would cause single cells which are in competition with each other to cooperate? Again, there must have been something about the underlying order that supported this change. Instead of competition, cooperation was the foundation of this change. We humans can be considered a cooperative organization of cells; cells separated from our bodies can be cultured and grown independently.

What we can observe in the process of evolution is that life forms have grown in awareness and complexity. The increase in awareness took a big leap when multi-celled life appeared, and has continued this march toward greater awareness ever since. Though there is certainly competition between different life forms, there is also a lot of cooperation. Fish swim in schools, and lions live in a pride. Birds flock together, and humans have formed tribes which support each others survival. There is cooperation between the cells of our bodies and between people and groups of people. We live in a world in which there is both cooperation and caring, as well as competition and indifference.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Charles Darwin

So how can this understanding of evolution help us understand whether life is benevolent, malefic or indifferent? In my own experience, it seems that life is indifferent to whether I succeed or fail. I will thrive based on my own efforts, luck, and the help of those people who do care about me. But I have also observed that the growth of my consciousness proceeds in both success and failure. Life may be indifferent to my success and failure, but it seems like it has a bias toward greater and greater consciousness.

Could it be that consciousness is part of the order of existence, and uses us as vessels for increasing itself? Something must explain the two great evolutionary leaps that occurred. Is there some greater intelligence within the order of existence that is proceeding to create greater and greater vessels for consciousness? Although I cannot prove that this is the case, the path that evolution has taken seems to support this view. It does not seem to care whether an individual survives or thrives, or even a species. It does seem to have an inherent bias toward success and an increase in consciousness.

If this is true, then the things that happen to us will tend to support the growth of our consciousness, even if they interfere with us thriving on a physical level. It is absolutely magical that life exists at all, and the direction that evolution has taken is also quite magical. In my own life I am always astonished how just the right thing happens to encourage, shock or bludgeon me into greater awareness. I’ve come to believe in this kind of magic, and I don’t see how I have suffered for this belief in the least. Believing that everything that happens to me supports the growth of my consciousness is a great comfort, and also helps me to engage directly with the challenges that come my way.

Everyone needs a little magic, even Darwin:

“If I had my life to live over again, I would make it a rule to read some poetry, listen to some music, and see some painting or drawing at least once a week, for perhaps the part of my brain now atrophied would then have been kept alive through life. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness.” Charles Darwin

If there is such an intelligence within the order of existence, can we get in touch with it? Feel it in our bodies? Can we align ourselves with it’s direction? Maybe the collective unconscious that Carl Jung spoke about is not just human consciousness, the intelligence inherent within the order of things. Who are we to say?

Our understanding of the organizing principles of life is very incomplete, and we would do well to keep an open mind. Life exists and continues to evolve toward greater awareness and complexity; that’s magic enough for me. Let us celebrate the beauty and uncertainty that comes with being alive, loving life with all it’s challenges and confusions, knowing that engaging directly with the way things are has it’s own magic.

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Sahaja: The Wordless Wisdom of the Body

I enjoy watching people. My new favorite place to do this is the grocery store, especially the lines at the front. Despite the forced intimacy of strangers crowded together into lines, it’s so common in most of our lives as to be boring. We mostly don’t talk to our fellow customers, but only to the checkout person. That makes the interaction at the front of the line the focus of attention, and I’m fascinated by how an irritated customer there can put the customers behind them in an irritable mood. In the same way, a joyful interaction can put the people in line into a joyful mood. Consciousness is contagious!

As a yoga teacher, I also notice how people carry their bodies, their posture and the way they move. Most of us adults move very little, and only with a specific purpose: to put our groceries on the belt, to get our wallet out or to pick up a magazine. Young children on the other hand are in constant motion; almost like they are dancing. What they feel inside is expressed outwardly.

The life force energy goes by different names: prana, chi, and shakti to name a few. Whatever you call it, in a tree it expresses as reaching up for sunlight and air while rooting down into the earth for nutrients and water. In humans, this life force energy often expresses as sound and movement. Young children express their shakti in a spontaneous and uninhibited way, while adults have been socialized to inhibit their expressions. If you have any doubt about this, try dancing in the grocery store line and see what kind of looks you get.

We adults find a physical expression of our shakti mostly through specific purposeful activities: playing tennis, skiing, our exercise routine, asana practice. When we do this, we are conditioning ourselves to flow within certain boundaries. For example, in asana practice, we learn the correct positioning of the body. This correct positioning of the body is not the end goal. We condition ourselves into correct alignment not so we can focus on alignment, but so we can forget about it. When we let go in this way, we can find the beauty and pleasure of having a body and expanding it’s boundaries.

While I was in a teacher training with Shiva Rae, I learned a new word: Sahaja, which is the spontaneous intuitive expression of our shakti. Most of us do this a little bit when we stretch  – not the stretches of asana, but those freeform movements that you might see BEFORE asana class starts, or maybe just when you get up in the morning.

I say I learned a new word instead of saying I learned a new way to practice because Sahaja is inborn and innate to all of us. We don’t have to learn to move with Sahaja, we instead have to unlearn our conditioning. It’s is the wordless pre-verbal wisdom of the body that we all have; it just get’s covered by the socialization process. Children move with Sahaja until they get conditioned not to. Shiva Rae gave us adults permission to step outside our conditioning and move freely again.

When we train for a specific sport, we develop our ability to move within well defined boundaries. It can take a lot of practice before we have the correct form in, for example, the swing of a tennis racket. But the correct form is not the end goal; in order for us to reach our peak capability, we need to move with Sahaja. Athletes call this being in the zone. We turn control over to our cellular wisdom; it’s no longer the mind in control. We can’t control from our conscious mind – that’s not Sahaja – and it’s just too slow. The conscious mind is good for conditioning or training us to move within certain boundaries, but once we are trained, the next step is to turn control over from the conscious mind to the innate wisdom of the body.

In order to be great at any activity, we must become adept at Sahaja. The pianist who is technically proficient and plays with great feeling has learned to trust their cellular wisdom.  What’s true in music is also true in sports, in yoga, in making love, and just about everything else.

All of us can practice stepping into our cellular wisdom; being the best in the world is not required. Remember, Sahaja is innate, and we have learned to inhibit this primal aspect of ourselves. To step into Sahaja we have to let go of conscious control and trust our primitive pre-verbal self. When I do this, I find it refreshing, energizing and grounding at the same time. Accessing our cellular wisdom is healing, and most of us do not have enough of this expression in our lives.

The practice of asana illustrates how we progress. Beginners are looking for external guidance; their attention is primarily outside of themselves. Intermediate practitioners are mindful; their attention is more internal with the conscious mind directing the practice. Advanced practitioners are also mindful, but the mind is more in the role of watching; it may step in from time to time, but the control of the practice has been turned over to the body. Please notice that hard postures are not required.

When I teach yoga, I always allow for some Sahaja time. I create a boundary within which I allow the students to move. The practice is one of relinquishing control to the body. We learn to trust our bodies, and it feels good. It connects us with the primitive, the earth and our wordless wisdom.

There are many ways to access Sahaja in our lives. It lives within us always, and just needs to be uncovered. You can access Sahaja while walking the dog, sitting in your car at a red light, or while singing a song. The practice of Kirtan is a Sahaja practice; more heart-full then mindful.

Having boundaries around our physical expression is a wonderful way to refine our ability within that boundary – that’s what training is all about after all. However the area’s of physical expression that are outside of the boundary never get explored. That’s why one of my favorite way to access Sahaja is through freestyle dance, where most of these boundaries are removed. The body is allowed to move freely, expressing outwardly what is felt inwardly. This can be extremely challenging for us adults who have spent years building up the boundaries, but that’s exactly why freestyle dance is so valuable, healing, and fun! Moving with Sahaja is inherently beautiful to watch too.

Whatever your daily life is like, I encourage you to find some Sahaja time. The body never lies, and it’s not confused by the arguments of the mind. It’s the universal religion, connecting us back to our roots and back to ourselves. It can help us feel at home in the body, which is the doorway to peace.

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