One of my favorite yoga sutras is number 12 from Chapter One: “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah”—the fluctuations of the mind are stilled through practice and non-attachment. The single most important thing about yoga practice (abhyasa) is doing it. This past weekend I taught a workshop in that great spiritual vortex known as Las Vegas. Sunday’s asana class was an introduction to the second series and some of the students were a bit over their heads. At the end of the class I congratulated every one for their heroic effort and reminded them that they would not be graded on their performance. The class was pass/fail and the only way to fail was not to show up. Of course, human nature being what it is, when we do something we want to do it well, and when we don’t do things well we tend to berate ourselves for our imperfections. Typically when we practice something our goal is to get better at it, and, inevitably, if we persist we will. By devoting thousands and thousands of hours to our piano practice, perhaps one day we’ll play Carnegie Hall. In the aforementioned sutra, however, Patanjali suggests that in regards to our yoga practice, we need to cultivate the quality of non-attachment. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put forth our best effort and be as mindful as possible in our practice, but rather, that in spite of our best intentions we don’t have absolute control over the result. Perhaps the greatest challenge of yoga practice is in not being attached to any particular result, or even any firm notion of who we think we are and where we think we are going—to simply do our best, trust the process, and let it go. Otherwise we just end up feeding the acquisitive, ego-based self that always wants more and is never satisfied with what it has and what it is.
The way I see it, becoming proficient at yoga is not about adding to our already considerable list of achievements and abilities. Rather, it is more of a process of subtraction, of simplifying our lives and gradually removing those things that inhibit our perception of a higher self that is already complete. Years ago--back in the old hood on La Veta Ave.--I had an old peach tree in my backyard. In all the time I’d lived in that house, the peach tree had produced only leaves and suckers, and not a single peach. One winter’s day I had the bright idea to prune the peach tree. I snipped off all of the suckers growing out of the trunk and trimmed the tree back to its eight strongest branches—for the eight limbs of yoga, of course! When spring arrived lots of beautiful pink blossoms emerged from these limbs. By the beginning of summer, the tree was loaded with peaches! The peach tree became a symbol for my life, and the pruning process for my yoga practice. Gradually I was learning to divest myself from dysfunctional and energy draining habits (suckers) and pruning away many of the meandering branches of my life that were blocking the light of the shining self (atman). For the first time in my life I was producing some sweet fruit, and over the years there have been many peaches. Not that this process is finished by any means. The suckers are always trying to grow back and the branches are continually in need of pruning. This coming Saturday, December 10th, is the date of the annual conjunction of the Sun and Saturn, an influence we will feel for the next couple of weeks. It’s a great time to do some pruning.
This morning at 4:18am PST the Sun and Moon were conjunct (New Moon) at 13 degrees Scorpio. Significantly, the Sun/Moon conjunction occurred exactly at the midpoint between the nodes of the Moon, with Rahu at 13 degrees Leo and Kethu at 13 degrees Aquarius. In the language of western astrology, the Sun and Moon were exactly “squaring” Rahu and Kethu at this time—squares being the most challenging of all planetary aspects. Adding to the mix, all of the visible planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as the Sun and Moon—were all grouped together on one side of the Zodiac between Rahu and Kethu. This planetary alignment is known as a Kala Sarpa (“serpent of time”), and is associated with a confrontation of dark and intense energy. Rahu and Kethu are known as shadow planets and are related to our deepest subconscious drives and karmas. When all of the planets fall on one side of their axis we can feel overwhelmed by all that is suddenly brought to the surface. To make matters even worse, the Moon in Scorpio is in the sign of its detriment—its most challenging placement—and is also perilously close to Saturn, its bitter enemy, also currently residing in Scorpio. So, if you were feeling a bit heavy last night and this morning, maybe it was more than just the post election blues. The good news is that, at least planet wise, the worst is over. The New Moon this morning was in the Nakshatra called Anuradha, which is symbolized by the lotus and presided over by Mitra, the god of friendship. Scorpio’s journey is to rise out of the mud of our darkness and despair and grow towards the light. Anuradha (“after Radha’) is associated with devotion—modeled after Radha, the most fervent of Krishna’s devotee—and with friendship. Whenever we go through a “dark night of the soul” experience we recognize the vital importance of friends and the power of devotion.
We are now three weeks post election and I still keep thinking I’ll wake up and realize it was all just a bad dream, but every morning I wake up and the bad dream persists. To distract ourselves from the current unpleasant reality facing us, my wife, my daughter, and I spent last week in New York City. It was my wife’s birthday on Thanksgiving and it was her choice to spend the holiday week in the Big Apple. She got to choose all the activities and each day was a whirlwind of museums, restaurants, theater, long walks, and subway rides. We saw “Hamilton”--which totally lived up to all the hype—and “The Humans”--a play about an angst ridden middle class family on Thanksgiving—a bit dark, but very good. Every day we walked miles and miles, which saved me from gaining ten pounds as we sampled Indian, Chinese, Italian, French, Malaysian, and gourmet vegan cuisine. My wife did extensive research to find great restaurants and figure out the subway system so we could see many of the iconic parts of the city—Times Square, Madison Avenue, Central Park, Greenwich Village, China Town, etc. I also got a chance to teach a yoga workshop at The Shala, on Broadway between 11th and 12th, to help pay for it all. It was a great week, action packed and exhausting--my wife was very happy. We all need a change of pace from time to time, but I can honestly say there’s no place like home.
Last week, after the devastating results of the election were in and I was trying to wrap my head around the prospect of a four-year Trump administration, I got into my car I looked for a CD that would provide an appropriate soundtrack for the occasion. My selection was Leonard Cohen’s “Live in London” double CD. Recorded seven years ago when Leonard returned to performing after a fifteen-year hiatus, including time spent in a Zen monastery as a monk. I had the privilege to see and hear Leonard in Cohen concert in San Diego during this tour. It was an unforgettable night—perhaps the greatest live musical performance that I’ve ever experienced. The band, the three female backup vocalists, and Leonard himself were all phenomenal. At the tender age of seventy-five, Leonard exuded humility, gratitude, humor, charm, intelligence, and energy for three hours filled with many of his most famous and beloved songs. Ironically, for a man who has been called the “Godfather of Gloom’, Leonard seemed to be having a good time, reveling in the delight of his audience and seemingly surprised that his songs were more popular than ever, even after his long absence from the scene. Admittedly, some of Leonard’s songs are dark, but to my mind, they are some of the most eloquent, ironic, haunting and beautiful songs ever written. I’ve been a Leonard Cohen fan since the 60’s and was deeply saddened to hear of his death in Los Angeles last Thursday at the age of eighty-two.
Born in Montreal in a prominent Jewish family, Leonard began his musical career at sixteen in a country music combo called the Buckskin Boys. Leonard studied literature at McGill and Columbia and showed enough promise as a writer to receive a three thousand dollar grant from the Canada Council of the Arts. He moved to London to write and later to Greece, and had some moderate success as a novelist and poet. At the age of thirty-two, Leonard decided that it was too hard to make a living as a writer and turned to songwriting. He was “discovered” in New York City in 1966 by John Hammond, the same man who recognized Bob Dylan’s talents five years earlier. A few months later Hammond produced Leonard’s first album. Leonard was never a natural performer, and when Judy Collins asked him to perform at Town Hall in New York in 1967 at an anti-Vietnam War benefit he told her, “I can’t do it, Judy, I’ll die of embarrassment.” When Judy insisted, Leonard walked onstage and started singing “Suzanne”, but his legs were shaking so badly that he walked offstage half way through the song. The crowd shouted for him to return and Judy gently coaxed him back on stage, where he finished the song. Leonard claimed that he was never really comfortable on stage until he was in his seventies, saying, “It stems from the fact that you are not as good as you want to be—that’s really what nervousness is.” In a recent interview Leonard said, “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. At this stage of the game I hear it saying, “Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.” It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, “You’re fucking up.” That’s a tremendous blessing, really.
I settled on the couch at 5pm and turned on CNN to watch the election returns, thinking that I would be seeing history in the making as Hillary Clinton became the first woman president of the U.S.—after all, that’s what all the polls were telling us. Donald Trump had an early lead in electoral votes, having already secured a few of the eastern “Red” states like South Carolina and West Virginia. Things were just starting to heat up in some of the key “battleground” states—Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio—which were all very closely contested. There was a lot of back and forth, lead changes, and speculations about how the uncounted votes would play out as CNN milked the drama for all it was worth, like some great sporting event with the highest possible stakes. Meanwhile, Hillary had begun to win some other states and to pull ahead a bit in electoral votes. No Republican candidate had ever been elected president without winning Ohio, so when Trump pulled ahead and eventually was declared the winner there it seemed to signal a big momentum shift. The races in North Carolina and Florida remained extremely close, but both were ultimately claimed by Trump. At this point I began to get nervous. Hillary still had a chance but would need to win all of the remaining “battleground” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Iowa. By about 10pm it became apparent that it wasn’t going to happen for Hillary. A Trump victory was inevitable unless something miraculous happened. The Republicans also held a majority in both the House and the Senate. In a state of shock, I decided to go to bed. As I tossed and turned in bed, I imagined what a Trump administration might be like. Would a combination of a Republican President, Senate, and House of Representatives, along with a soon to be conservative majority Supreme Court repeal everything progressive that has been legislated in this country in the past 50 years? Would Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric create tense relations internationally and domestically? Would we end up living in a fascist state? Would we need to move to Canada? Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well. When I woke up this morning I switched on the TV to see if some kind of last minute miracle had happened, only to be greeted by the news that Trump had pulled off one of the great upsets in American political history.
The mood in the yoga studio this morning was pretty somber—most people were extremely disappointed, some people were angry. I was too tired and depressed to practice so I came home and watched Hillary’s concession speech and then President Obama’s address to the union. Hillary was very gracious in defeat and the President, as always, was eloquent, conciliatory, and philosophical, reminding us that in a democracy sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but the important thing is to keep fighting for what you believe in. I also listened to Trump’s acceptance speech, in which he vowed to unite the country at a time when we seem more divided than ever. I have my doubts, but for the past 18 months we have consistently underestimated Trump. At first, no one took his campaign seriously, then no one thought he’d win the nomination, much less the presidency. Maybe it will be one of those situations where the job makes the man. We can only hope.
On this day twenty-five years ago I had a life changing experience in India. It was a Friday, and some friends had arranged for a car to take us on an overnight outing. We left Mysore around 11am and drove a couple of hours to our first stop—Sravana Belagola, site of a Jain temple dating back to the tenth century and the world’s largest monolithic carving. This famous carving depicts the naked ascetic Gommateshvara Bahubali, who stands 57 feet tall on top of Vindyagiri Hill, naked in samasthitil. It is one of the most important Jain pilgrimage sites in the world. Bahubali is clearly visible on top of the hill, miles away. To reach the temple you must park at the base of the hill, remove your shoes, and climb up about a thousand steps. It is a beautiful temple that evokes a great sense of peace. After we descended from the temple, we stopped at a small chai stand to caffeinate ourselves before beginning the second stage of our journey. My friends all had chai, and I had coffee. This is an important distinction in light of subsequent events. Our next scheduled stop was in Hassan, where we planned to spend the night. About half an hour into our journey I began to experience some severe gastrointestinal distress and asked the driver to pull over at the first public restroom we passed. My insides were absolutely on fire. It was a great relief to finally make it to Hassan. After another urgent trip to the restroom I checked into the hotel along with my friends, Ed and Rosemarie Baker, an Austrian named Walter, and a young woman from Santa Monica, Carol Hogan. The Bakers booked a room together and I asked Carol jokingly, “Would you like to share a room with Walter?” She looked at me boldly and said, “Maybe with you.” At that moment all my bravado evaporated and I quickly booked a room with Walter.
Carol and I had been getting to know each other for a few weeks, practicing together, having breakfast together, and hanging out at the Southern Star pool. She was pretty, intelligent, bohemian and slightly intimidating. I had been separated from my first wife for four years and doing my best to stay out of any serious relationship. As usual, I was fairly oblivious as far as picking up cues indicating that Carol was interested in anything other than just friendship. There had been a couple of times—once on a bicycle and another time in an auto rickshaw—when we had been in very close physical contact and there was some kind of chemistry happening, but I tried to ignore it. We all had dinner together at the hotel and I was jumping up every five minutes to run to the restroom. After dinner Carol said to me, “I’ve got some acidophilus and golden seal in my room. Maybe they would help.” A few minutes later I knocked on her door and she opened it with medicine in hand. “I’m really sorry you’re feeling so bad, would you like a little massage?” Carol was a professional masseuse and I gladly accepted her offer. For the next three hours all of my symptoms disappeared as Carol channeled some kind of healing magic through her hands. After the massage things got a little more intimate. At about 3am I reluctantly decided to return to my room, and as soon as I did, all of my symptoms returned. I spent the rest of the night in my bathroom. Obviously there was some kind of magic happening with Carol. Four and a half years later I had the good sense to marry her and after twenty-five years we are still going strong.
(If this sounds familiar, I originally posted it 5 years ago)
Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, gave us all some great advice when he said, “Follow your bliss.” He encouraged his students to first discover what really fed their souls and then to delve deeply into that. It’s a pretty simple formula for living a fulfilling life. When I first discovered Ashtanga Yoga I had reached a point in my life where I was only very dimly aware that I had a soul at all. At the time neither my job nor my lifestyle was providing me with any bliss—I was definitely on a road to nowhere. That all changed with that first class, when all of a sudden I was reintroduced to an old friend—my own immortal soul. Miraculously, my life began to open in many wonderful ways and I was filled with a sense of unlimited possibilities. My health and self-esteem improved dramatically, I had a whole new group of interesting friends, and I was voraciously reading spiritual books that were expanding my horizons in wonderful ways. A couple of years into my yoga practice I had the opportunity to begin teaching when my teachers, Brad and Gary, took an extended trip to India and left me in charge of the yoga studio. I was humbled at the depth of my ignorance when I first began to teach, but I enjoyed the on-the-job training that came with it. I began to teach yoga full-time in 1981, when it was still very much a fringe activity. As a consequence, I didn’t have many students and was living in poverty. Still, I continued to follow my bliss, managing to scrape together enough money to make my first trip to Mysore to study with Guruji for three months in 1982. At the end of that time, Guruji was gracious enough to give me his official blessing to teach.
Over the next ten years I continued to struggle financially, but I began to feel some sense of confidence as a teacher and I started receiving invitations to teach in various places. In the beginning it was terrifying to teach workshops to strangers in unfamiliar places, but, at the same time, it felt like a soul expanding experience once I got beyond my initial terror. As the popularity of yoga has soared over the years, more and more opportunities have become available to me. Teaching workshops is not quite as terrifying as it once was. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive an invitation to teach in some interesting and exotic place, but as I get older I’m finding the thought of long plane trips a little less appealing. My good friend, David Swenson, estimates that he’s on the road about 300 days per year. What seems to work for me is to be home for 300 and on the road for 65. I still love to practice and to teach but I’m finding a need to pace myself these days so exhaustion doesn’t suck the joy out of it. About this time of year, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I begin the countdown—just three more workshops in 2016 before that week in Maui! For those of you planning to see me in Pittsburgh, New York, or Las Vegas this year, don’t worry, I promise to take really good care of myself in the next six weeks so when I see you I’ll still be following my bliss.
Wanting to keep their son protected from the harsh realities of the outside world, the king and queen kept their young son prince Siddhartha sequestered within the peaceful and comfortable confines of the palace. One day, overcome with curiosity, Siddhartha ventured outside the palace walls to get a glimpse of the outside world. What he saw—disease, poverty, hunger, cruelty, etc.—left a lasting impression that changed the course of Siddhartha’s life. Eventually he became the Buddha, the “Awakened One”, and taught the doctrines of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The first noble truth of the Buddha affirms the undeniable reality of Duhkha, a Sanskrit word usually translated as suffering which literally means “bad space.” Duhkha is particularly associated with a constricted feeling around the heart caused by physical, mental, or emotional pain. In sutra I.30 Patanjali says: Vyadhi styana samsaya pramada alasya avirati branthi darsana alabdhabhumikatva anavasthitvani citta viksepa antarayahah—“The obstacles that scatter the mind are illness, stagnation, doubt, carelessness, laziness, intemperance, illusions about one’s self, lack of perseverance, and instability.” Patanjali goes on to say in sutra I.31: Duhkha daurmanasya angamejayatva svasa prasvasa viksepa saha bhuvah—“These obstacles are accompanied by suffering, dejection, anxiety, and scattered inhalations and exhalations.” This is an interesting sutra because it implies an intrinsic connection between Psyche (mind) and Soma (body). When we are experiencing “bad space”, depression or anxiety one of the ways it shows up is in the scattering of the breath—the inhalations and exhalations are shallow and unsteady. If the Psyche affects the Soma, it seems logical that the Soma can also influence the Psyche, particularly through the vehicle of the breath. If we can make the breath less scattered, it seems to follow that this will have an indirect effect on our state of mind.
Krishnamacharya once said, “Thank God for duhkha, it is the unavoidable incentive for practice.” For myself, it was this feeling of “bad space” that first led me to yoga and continues to keep me coming back to practice. As the Buddha observed 2,500 years ago, duhkha is inherent in the human condition. There are ways of dispelling it, but it keeps trying to creep back in. The Ashtanga Yoga method, a breath-based system, seems particularly effective at dispersing duhkha. To bring our attention fully into the act of breathing, we breathe with sound (ujjayi) and link breath with movement (vinyasa). In the process we begin to breathe with more length (dirgha) and subtlety (suksma) and begin to dispel that feeling of constriction around the heart. In the practice of pranayama we take the practice of mindfulness of breath to a deeper level. Regarding the breath, Krishnamacharya had this to say, “Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.”
One of the great lessons to be learned from yoga is how to live in the world of duality without being unduly disturbed by it—to recognize that it is all the Divine Lila (Play/Drama). To create a great play you need a good dose of duality—good guys and bad guys and plenty of conflict. That was certainly in evidence during the last presidential debate on Sunday evening. With Donald Trump’s campaign reeling from the disclosure of the most offensive remarks yet from this scumbag and the Republican Party in tatters as many of its leaders were distancing themselves from the wreckage as quickly as possible, I was very curious to see how the candidate presented himself. True to form, Donald came out swinging, adhering to the old adage that “The best defense is a good offense.” He wasted no time dismissing his profoundly disturbing and offensive remarks as “locker room talk”, and quickly going straight for Hillary’s throat. From my observation, he managed to avoid answering any of the actual questions asked of him, using each as an opportunity to launch another vicious attack on Hillary, while stalking the stage like a caged beast and incessantly sniffing like he’d just snorted an enormous amount of cocaine. To Hillary’s credit she really tried to take the high road and act like an adult amid the withering storm of insults, half-truths, hyperbole, and downright bold-faced lies heaped on her by the Donald. Ever true to his nature as a total sociopath, Donald refused to accept any responsibility for his own reprehensible behavior and blamed all of our country’s problems on Hillary and the Obama administration. The 90 minutes of the debate were painful to watch, but, at the same time, I couldn’t stop watching. I have some advice for Donald Trump: if he wants to save his campaign he needs to immediately convert to Judaism in time for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement that begins at sunset this evening and lasts until sunset tomorrow. If Donald could spend the next 24 hours fasting and praying for forgiveness for his sins against humanity and against God, he might be able to revive his campaign. Somehow, though, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
A welcome diversion from politics this time of year is the Major League Baseball playoffs. I spent the past weekend in Chicago and got swept up in Cub mania. The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, but Chicagoans are convinced that this is their year. The Cubs had the best record in all of baseball this year and, on paper, seem to have the strongest team. In a short series, however, anything can happen. The Cubs are currently playing the Giants in a best-of-five series. The Cubs won the first two games in Chicago, and the Giants managed to stay alive last night in San Francisco in a 13-inning thriller. The Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014—it’s another even year—and have won 10 straight elimination games. Cub fans are getting nervous. This is duality at its best! Gotta go—the game’s on.
Throughout the Christian world the Feast of Saint Francis is celebrated on October 4th to honor the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and ecology. When St. Francis was born in 1182, his father, a wealthy cloth merchant, was traveling in France. In his father’s absence, Francis’ mother took the liberty of naming her son Giovanni, after John the Baptist. When Pietro Bernardone returned to Assisi he immediately changed his son’s name to Francesco (Frenchman) because he didn’t want his son to be a man of God, but a man of business who would share his love of France. Francis grew up in a life of ease and wealth. He was happy and charming and everyone loved him. He became the leader of a group wealthy young people, who spent the majority of their time enjoying wild and lavish parties. Francis fulfilled his father’s hope by falling in love with all things French, especially the songs and romantic literature. He also became a very good businessman, but longed to distinguish himself in another way, as a knight. Francis got his chance when Assisi declared war on the nearby town of Perugia. Assisi lost the war and most of its soldiers were killed. Francis was spared because his father was wealthy enough to eventually pay a ransom for him. After spending a year shackled in a dungeon, his father did pay a ransom and Francis returned to Assisi, remarkably unchanged by the experience. He resumed his partying ways and continued to dream of distinguishing himself as a knight. He got his chance when there was a call for knights to take up the Fourth Crusade, but Francis was only one day’s ride from Assisi when he had a dream in which God spoke to him, telling him to go home to begin a new life. When Francis returned he was laughed at and called a coward. His father was furious that he had wasted an extravagant amount of money on a fine suit of armor.
Thus began Francis’ conversion to the spiritual life. He began to spend time in prayer and seclusion until one day he came across a leper. Moved by the leper’s suffering, Francis jumped off his horse and kissed his hand. When the leper returned his kiss, Francis was filled with peace and joy. As he rode off he turned to wave goodbye, but the leper had disappeared. Francis decided it was a test from God that he had passed. One day Francis was praying in an ancient church in San Damiano. As he prayed he heard Christ’s voice from the crucifix say to him, “Francis, repair my church.” Thinking he was meant to repair the crumbling building he was in, Francis sold fabric from his father’s shop to restore the church. His father accused him of theft and demanded that Francis return his money. At that point Francis said, “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.” From that day forward Francis embraced a life of simplicity and poverty, emulating, to the best of his ability, the life of Jesus. Eventually he realized that the church he was asked to rebuild was the church of the Christian faith, in which corruption and hypocrisy had become commonplace. For the next twenty years Francis traveled and taught through his example of unconditional love for human beings, animals, and the natural world until he passed away at the age of 45 on October 3, 1226.