Decolonization and Diversity

On Sunday, I shared what I heard at the talk on Cultural Appropriation and Yoga. First I wanted to share the discussion we had, and I think it is very important for us to recognize discrimination and colonial power structures which create barriers within yoga. That said, I anticipated that this could be read as promoting one type of yoga practice or space. Actually, I feel this discussion about acknowledging the riches of yoga and acknowledging the diversity and complexity of the South Asian wisdom traditions points to creating positive, textured yoga spaces and practices in Western contexts that are accessible to people.

I have long been a proponent of the idea that if we explain why we are bringing sounding and mantra, or some use of Sanskrit, symbolism, that most people understand the very human, welfare-based message of them, and that it is not a barrier to participation, but makes participation deeper and more meaningful. But, as the discussion we had on Saturday implied, this needs to be done skillfully, and explained and explored. If people are truly resistant to any form of yoga symbolism or the mere mention of its incredibly rich development in South Asia, this is likely a barrier caused by a misunderstanding and fear of Hinduism or other traditions in general. Again, gently working with this and trying to address and approach it through information and cultivating awareness is really what the de-colonizing discussion leads is towards.

The yoga tradition is not monolithic – it is diverse, and there are different paths and processes for different stages of life, contexts, purposes etc. Many of the texts are inherently non-dogmatic in that they contain choice and diversity within them. The Bhagavad Gita is a great example of this, and is where we first see the outline of the different paths: bhakti, karma yoga, karma sannyas, and jnana. Acknowledgement of the rich history and diverse technology of yoga should also be freeing rather than constricting, and in that sense is very post-modern.

One of the big issues for some people is anthropomorphic deities. And, as I often stress in training, these are not universal within the broader yoga tradition. Where they are found, there may be an understanding of them as rich representations of energetic pathways, or as the embodiment of divinity. And so, having spaces/classes that use Vedic symbolism like Om or the swasti symbol is also very true to the more niirguna schools. Arya Samaj, for example, which is a Vedic revival organization, does not use anthropomorphic symbolism because in the Vedas God is repeatedly described as vast and formless. This is also true of Sikhism and Kabir(ism). I personally have diverse sacred objects and symbols in my teaching spaces, and I often explain that thi is to give access to the diverse methods and approaches across traditions in the broader Sanatana Dharma. Though I tend more towards niirguna practices myself, I have had rich experience in saguna bhakti practices. So, just very briefly, I want to make clear that this is not the promotion of one monolithic type of space or practice. It is about acknowledging and not denying or obfuscating the depth and heritage of a practice due to continuing colonial ethos.

Is there a role for drama?

In the yoga community we talk a lot about eliminating un-necessary drama in our lives. But today I’ve been thinking about the useful role of drama, and not missing the lesson.

One of the first problems is that we may project the cause of drama on another person. Of course, drama is often created by an intersection of two (or more) people, and events. So the solution is not just about moving away from someone and ‘their’ drama. In fact this may just exacerbate the problem, because it will just inevitably return and even intensify.

Rather, I think we need to move in closer and look at what has happened so that we don’t repeat or recreate the patterns. Sometimes fleeing or trying to move away from situations, we don’t allow ourselves to examine what has really gone on.

The flip side of fleeing drama is stuffing it down, or disallowing it. For me, this is part of not allowing ourselves to fully feel. Again, in the yoga community we talk about evenness and contentment. But do we misunderstand these traits to as the process as opposed to the end result. What I mean is that the process toward clarity in out thoughts, words and actions may at times be turbulent. This is after all a powerful cleansing. A cleansing of the mind, and a cleansing of the body, and a cleansing of the samskaras at our deeper layers of being. Learning to fully feel, and to release patterns requires that we be open to their rising up for processing. At first this disturbs the mind, and often the whole system, and we can use techniques to manage this. We are on the road to witnessing and bearing witness. I wonder if by disallow the turbulence, and the feelings, we may actually be blocking the process to clarity.

So, I come back to my common refrain: yoga is a textured balance and a sophisticated process of coming towards clarity. Simple maxims and pat phrases can often be interpreted in ways they are not intended. Through mindfulness we can get clarity on un-necessary drama in our lives and how it is created and co-created. But, it is also through paying close attention, and giving ourselves a chance to notice and track feelings and patterns that we can unpack and learn the message that drama is there to teach us.

Motherhood and the Practice of Abiding in Yoga

While I was in Rishikesh this year I had the lovely opportunity to speak to Madhuri Phillips in the context of an interview for Drishti Point Radio out of Vancouver. We had discussed an interview about motherhood and yoga and the more yin, contemplative practice that I feel is very natural to mothers. I had a wonderful time with Madhuri sussing out my thoughts on moment-to-moment awareness practice as the other face of the contemporarily popular practice-practice aspect of the yoga tradition.

During the interview we speak about savouring the moment, spending time with small children and recovering the awe-inspiring mystery of nature. I remember many wonderful teachings and teachers – like Dr. David Frawley’s descriptions of pratyahara in nature such as gazing at the clear blue sky above our heads. Which incidentally also reminds me of EM Forster’s nod to Emerson in A Room with a View in which his character George Emerson reports, “My father says the only perfect view is that of the pure blue sky above our heads”. I could hear in the back of my mind, but don’t have a chance to mention Candace O’Denver’s beautiful description of the “small effort that it takes to rest as awareness”. Ah, that tangential description gives you a bit of an idea of the lyrical nature of the conversation.

I’d love to transcribe the interview here, if I’m able, but for now, here is the link to the live streaming:

Monday April the 9th 5-6pm PST on Vancouver’s Drishti Point Yoga Radio. You can also live stream this from anywhere in the world!
http://www.coopradio.org/

The Enveloping Approach

Virginia Woolf’s narration is cyclical, looping between past and present, in and out of the minds of various characters. It is feminine in its enveloping nature.

Reject nothing. This Tantric maxim comes alive for me in this way. Perhaps in Tantra the worship of the goddess, the Divine Feminine, of the Mother, exists to honour that ability to channel everything and anything into the quest for wholeness. A masculine approach may be more focussed, direct and intense, but launches toward a perceived goal, and later falters when the trickiness of ‘no path, no goal’ dawns. The archetypal feminine is more at home in multiplicity, with perceived incoherence, and can get beyond the duality of light and dark that axes off so much of our lived experience.

The path is not progressive, a knight’s tale of triumph over evil. It is a soothing expansion in all directions, that claims everything as its very own.

Leading Transformational Experiences

I have not written a blog post in a while, and I have been missing it.  But as many of you know, I was in India for two months teaching philosophy and methodology for the World Conscious Yoga Family Yoga Teacher Training course.  I truly savoured the experience of teaching my 9-10:30AM class and the getting the opportunity to share our philosophy teaching experiences with my Japanese counterpart on the program, Eesha.  So many days we talked about fresh ways of looking at this or that sutra that just emerged crystaline during one particular session.  So many times I said to myself, “I should blog about this”, but just savoured the moments on my balcony or in my room chatting with Eesha and occasionally taking notes right on the syllabus or in the manual text.  Heavenly!  At some point I will get to unpacking those notes, or finalizing my manual edits and may get the chance to post some thoughts here…

But tonight I wanted to share the amazing experience of leading a group of yoga teachers in a two-hour workshop at the Toronto Yoga Conference about the art of teaching.  What a wonderful opportunity to be in a group of teachers for a period of time with the subject of experiential teaching and learning.  Ah!!  At the outset, I passed around a hat of slips of paper and we mingled to meet the other people with the same word or phrase on their slip.  Words like: holistic, safety, experiential, non-sectarian, process-oriented, and integration.  What did these words have to do with educational methodology.  From this point we centred and Om’d, and flowed into a visualization and journaling/sharing sequence about powerful teaching experiences we had been involved in, and what we hope students of our yoga philosophy or yoga experiences classes would take away.  From this mind-map of teaching intentions we realized that what people often take away from powerful teaching/learning experiences is often not necessarily about the content, but about the process, the sharing/group think experience, the windows into new ways of thinking or seeing that opened up for them and the resources to follow that up at their own pace in future sessions or on their own.

So, you don’t need a PhD in Sanskrit to lead transformational, experiential yoga workshops.  In fact, it may even be to your advantage if you don’t.  I find the moment I get the slightest bit ‘scholarly’ in my presentations on yoga history or philosophy, a certain number of participants just check out immediately.

I indulged and took some time to talk about teaching models, and how different types of activities or yoga experiences could be strung together with a talking/teaching piece to create a satisfying session full of inner inquiry and that left participants feeling like they were taking insights from their own experiences out the door into their lives.   I get so inspired by educational models, and how experiences and talk pieces can be skillfully strung together to this effect, that I wanted to post my hand out here (below).  After reflecting on the slip from the beginning of the class, and how they fit into the educational models, we got back into experiential learning mode and chewed a raisin for five minutes, and then debriefed with a partner.

Are we talking about yoga yet?

This was a demonstration of how an experience (like mindfully chewing a raisin) can be a leaping off point to yoga philosophy discussions surrounding Raga and Dwesha (craving and aversion), aparigraha (non-grasping) and generally, mindful eating and savouring the now.  The group brought up the fabulous point that directing the senses toward the now allows us to savour our experience the first time with total satisfaction, rather than shying away from pleasure, or total attention to what we are doing, with the result that we are unsatisfied and crave more.  Savouring the now!!  Allowing the senses to fully absorb and appreciate everything the world has to offer in the now, in the appropriate moment, and then moving, unclinging, into the next moment.  I would like to put forward that yoga is not so much about shutting down the unruly senses (including the mind), but about directing them skillfully, and utilizing them to savour and appreciate through presence.  For example, gazing into the centre of a flower, laying down on a bed of grass or sand to look up at limitlessness of a clear blue sky, seeing the veins of a freshly opened leaf (there will be much opportunity for this as the leaves in my part of the world pop from their buds in the next few days).Thank you Stephen Cope, for making the concept of savouring so resoundingly clear in your book The Wisdom of Yoga.

We closed by placing our hands on each other backs in a circle and breathing in synchronicity, tuning in to the energy and vibration of breath and of OM in and around the circle.  I feel an immense amount of gratitude to share in circles like this.

Hari Om!!

Following is the handout from today’s workshop.

Leading Transformational Workshops

With Chetana Panwar at the Toronto Yoga Show

http://www.akhandayoga.com

 

How to Facilitate Transformational Experiences:

 As a part of our Yoga Teacher Training programs I have spent many years developing an experiential philosophy and methodology curriculum that weaves together diverse aspects of yoga and ties them to philosophical discussions.  We learn about yoga both intellectually through discussion, and experientially through journaling, mind-mapping, visualization, mantra, energy work, meditation et cetera.  I wanted to offer students a sacred space open to scriptural study, inner work, profound group bonding, and devotional experiences.  I hoped to provide techniques that would help them to integrate these experiences into their understanding of yoga and into their perception of what the teaching and learning community represented for them.

In teaching this type of session, I use a blend of two models.  One is a common post-modern educational model, and the other a model for experiential learning.

Model for a participatory learning class

The flow of such a class is actually very intuitive.  I often use the terms:

Elicitation

Teacher’s input

Students’ exploration

Closing – review of the insights of the class

Elicitation:  The class begins with a mining of what the students are already bringing to the class.  You may begin with a group brainstorming about the topic, a visualization and brief pair sharing that connects the group to the topic, a related mantra, a brief journaling and sharing to help the group excavate their previous thoughts or experiences related to the topic you intend to present.  The elicitation is meant to be fun and to engage the group right off the bat.  It also allows you to co-create the class a bit; if students come up with an understanding of the topic that is different from what you had intended to have the group explore, you may modify or open up the experiential component so that these avenues can also be pursued.

 Teacher’s Input:  Unless you have in mind a purely experiential learning experience, in which students are learning solely through their own response to a certain activity that you bring to the class, there will be a segment of the class that is reserved for a presentation of some information by the teacher.  Because educational models were so much based on lecture formats in the past, some modern teachers try to do away with the lecture as much as possible.  But this can lead to the feeling that students are merely manipulating information or knowledge that they already possessed.  I recommend a balance of teacher input, and student exploration or experiential learning.  There is a richness in this blend in which the teacher is offering access to new information (quotes from scriptures, philosophical concepts, historical background information et cetera), AND there is valuable time given for participants to explore the concepts and relate them to their own lives.

Students’ Exploration:  If the group does not have a chance to relate the information to previous ideas, knowledge or life experience, it will likely remain dry or remote to them and the lecture will not hit home.  It is therefore important to offer meaningful time for activities in which participants either reflect on some idea and what it might mean to them, or get into pairs or small groups to explore the concepts presented.  Pairs and small groups allow each participant to have more of the talk-time and therefore share more of their own ideas and experience.  The more you work with groups, the more creative you may find your activities become in order to engage the group with the ideas presented.

Closing:  Finally, it is more satisfying for everyone if the class comes to a close in a meaningful way.  Just as we don’t like to have classes opened with the teacher saying “Turn to page 10”, the class falls a bit flat when it is closed hurriedly without ritual or group reflection on what has gone on.  I use a variety of closing rituals, often two or three in combination, such as:

  • journaling in silence,
  • a brief survey of the findings of the pairs or small groups,
  • chanting or meditation to bring the group back together as a whole,
  • each member calling out a word that summed up the experience for them that day,
  • an energy work circle in which we place our hands on the backs of those sitting next to us and chant Om several rounds, or in which we place our hands over or under our neighbours’ hand around the circle (left hand under and right hand over).

Model for experiential learning session

I learned invaluable techniques for experiential learning from the senior teachers at Kripalu Centre, which is in my mind one of the fore-running organizations in the promotion of this type of method in spiritual and holistic education. The components vital to such a session are:

Safety

Experience

Integration

I gained an appreciation for the importance of bringing emotional safety to the experiential work I was doing with students, and of offering time and strategies for integrating the experiences from Ken Nelson at Kripalu Center and my participation in his sessions on Leading Powerful Experiential Workshops.  In this model, the learning is driven by the experience facilitated by the workshop leader, which is set up and concluded by activities or rituals that promote emotional safety and personal integration or the experience.

Safety:  The facilitator can foster an emotionally safe and nurturing environment by:

  • turning down the lights or having candles,
  • letting students know a bit about the flow of the session, and when they will be able to shift their seated position, go to the bathroom etc.,
  • making sure there have been enough group ‘breaking the ice’, and ‘getting-to-know-you’ sessions before embarking on an intimate Transformational Experience,
  • assisting students in finding partners for any pairwork aspects of the evening if they need this assistance,
  • making sure that as a facilitator you never ask students to do an activity that you yourself would not be comfortable doing, or modeling for them.

Experience:  The facilitator, and possibly the group will create an experiential activity.  An experiential activity is any process or inquiry that causes the participants to gain new insight about something simply from engaging with the group and the experience.  Yoga Asana classes are in and of themselves experiential if the participants are invited to explore and reflect on their own experience of asana that day instead of just following the teacher’s cues.  That said, yoga philosophy and history can also be taught experientially.  Facilitators can design yogic experiences or activities to demonstrate philosophical concepts, such as those that help to cultivate surrender of the firm boundaries of ‘I-ness’, and/or help participants get in touch with their bodies and glimpse states of union between body, mind and higher mind, and to connect with states of wonder, bliss, absorption or devotion.  Experiences can also be used as a part of a lecture or presentation, as I mentioned above.  Most commonly I integrate these two models and use even simple experiences to inspire reflection and discussion, such as:

  • Chewing a raisin for 5 minutes and flowing into a reflection on clinging and craving versus savouring;
  • singing kiirtan or other devotional songs and then observing their effects,
  • sharing circles and healing circles,
  • activities that show us the ingrained patters of movement and response to circumstances that we have cultivated and what it might be like to shift them, such as crossing the legs or folding the hands in the way opposite to that which is automatic for us.
  • Activities that help us to understand the mind-body connection more deeply such as a visualization on peeling and biting into a lime.
  • eye-gazing meditations with a partner and reflecting on the concept of I-ness
  • synchronized breathing and/or energy work and reflections on universal prana or the primordial vibration.

Integration:  The facilitator should encourage the integration of these states or realizations into their understanding of yoga and their lives, such as,

  • allowing for silent contemplation at the end of an experience before moving on or closing the session,
  • allotting time for journaling their experiences right in the circle after the experience,
  • having pairs debrief with each other regarding the experience,
  • having the group debrief with each other regarding the experience,
  • conducting a ritual that ceremonially closes the experience and helps to reinforce the experience through its symbolism.  As you will notice, I often use fire, prostrations, and the concept of surrendering or offering up whatever the participant wishes to release or transmute.

I would like to emphasize that each session is a creative, interpersonal journey.  I begin with a plan, a theme, and a message that had come up for me in working with the group.  I may have planned ahead by writing a mantra on a white board, or asking students to review a certain more lengthy mantra if we would be working by candle light.  But as people arrive and we co-create the sacred circle, I notice that I am often moved to present a different message, or different, spontaneous activities.  It has been proven to me again and again, that when as a facilitator I allow myself to open up to the group’s energy, and to be a channel for universal energy, that there is a special, mystical quality to the sessions that creates a real intimacy amongst the group.  For example, one night we were having a Divine Feminine evening, and after some pretty etheric Ma kiirtan, I was moved to ask the group to move into toning to the sound Ma to whatever pitch, tones or length of sounds seemed right for them.  We would continue for about 20 minutes.  For me, this was one of the more powerful experiences I had with that group.  It felt fresh, non-sectarian and universal.

It is in this spirit that I offer this session today – to inspire your creativity, and to give you a leaping point in facilitating this type of session.

Sample Class – the following is a class designed to get new yoga teachers to reflect on the art of teaching, and how teachers can take concrete steps to set up nurturing, confidence-building, [insert your adjective here] experiences.

 

Visualization:            Allow to arise in your mind, the image of a teacher who has moved you.  Stay with the visualization of that teacher, or an interaction you had with them in which they exude the qualities and teaching presence that moved you.  Now, allow to arise in your mind 3 words that describe them and the teaching/learning context they evoked.

Pairwork:            When you’re ready, turn to a partner, and share the image and the words you came up with.  Having shared this with a partner, is there anyone who would like to share their visualization with the whole group?

Journaling:            Turn to your journals now, and write a bit about what you would like your students to take away from classes that you facilitate.  Write also about qualities that you have that you would like to draw on to create this type of learning context.  Finally, consolidate these ideas into 5 words.

Small Group:            Make a mind map of all of your words.

Now, let’s tap into how can we provide the context for increased ‘self-respect’, for example, to be one of the outcomes of the yoga class. Think about the small ways, or ways of being that you can bring into the classroom to make these intentions for your teaching-learning experience a lived reality for your student groups.  For example, if you said ‘continuity’ was important to you in your teaching and learning, what context would you be willing to work in to create that outcome?

These categories may help you to think about ways of putting your intentions into action, and creating a culture or sacred space for your classes.

  • Registration
  • Setting/yoga space/atmosphere
  • Attitude/dress
  • Language/voice
  • Content/continuity
  • Access/availability
  • Resources for students continuing and self-guided learning

Closing:            Share with the larger group some of your ideas in each category.

Debate on Yoga in Washington Post

When I first met Vishva ji in Rishikesh, I asked him whether he identified more as a yogi or as a Hindu.  I was not trying to polarize the two, but for many reasons was interested in any discussion that night evolve from the question.  I had no idea that 12 years later this very questions would become a widely and hotly debated topic on the pages of the Washington Post blog nonetheless.

If you haven’t seen it, I have put a link here because it should be read first hand.  It has already been scooped by the NY Times and opinions I’m sure are beginning to form based on second hand descriptions.

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/undergod/2010/04/shukla_and_chopra_the_great_yoga_debate.html

Now that you’ve read the debate between Deepak Chopra and Aseem Shukla, I’d like to suggest that part of the difficulty in this debate is that the terms need to be defined; otherwise we’re arguing at cross purposes.  The way that the two debaters use the words Hinduism and Yoga are quite different, as is the interest they invest in the terms.  Deepak Chopra argues that Hinduism evolved from Yoga.  Aseem Shukla argues that Yoga evolved from Hinduism.  In some senses both are right.  It depends on how you define the terms.

Chopra’s arguments show that he defines Yoga in the broadest possible sense as Sanatana Dharma – the seed truths and energy explored by the rishis beginning about 10,000 years ago.  Hinduism, I infer, for him is the socio-cultural religious system that evolved from the Brahmanical interpretation of the scriptures of the Sanatana Dharma and the Vedas.  The kernel of the religion is the same, but Hinduism is a codified form with structured beliefs and not always egalitarian.  As such, before even the word Hinduism was ascribed to this tradition, Buddhists and Jains separated from the tradition for the socio-political layering that had come about in the Brahmanical period.  This is a common trajectory which is likely recognized in all religions – the tension between revelation and institutionalization.  Of course patriarchal inequities also cropped up later in Buddhist institutions – something less commonly understood.  For more on that, please read A Cave in the Snow by Vickie MacKenzie.  In any case, this is why Chopra compared Hinduism to Christian sects.  In this analogy Yoga would then be compared to Christian mysticism, or to the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.  What I interpret Chopra as suggesting here is that while Christ exhibited and promoted a direct connection with God, the Church(es) for the most part promote the intermediary of priests as necessary.  In the same way, Yoga is a gnostic process like the rishis explored, of going beyond socialization, doctrine and belief, and releasing oneself from divisive codes and systems in order to find the authentic self/Self.  These definitions are in line with my own understanding.

Shukla uses the term in the exact opposite way.  He equates Hinduism with Sanatana Dharma and the wisdom of the Vedas (its widest possible interpretation), and defines Yoga as the Classical Yoga of Patanjali (2-300 AD).  By this definition he would be right that the Yoga Sutras were written after the Vedas.  But, as above, this does not mean that Yoga, by its widest definition, evolved from Hinduism.

I think this debate, which in various forms has been going on for quite some time now, would be served much by the developing of some common language.  As is mentioned in the blog, the word Hinduism came from the Persians describing the tradition of peoples inhabiting the region to the east of the Indus river.  This happened in the early middle ages around the time of the Mogul invasion of India, I believe.  Just as city names have been modifies post British Colonial Regime, perhaps the name Hinduism has outlived its colonial utility.  It is by nature a label given by the Other.  The use of the word Sanatana Dharma, however, implies going back to the source wisdom of the tradition.  Many Vedic revival sects attempt to do just that – to get back to the basics and strip away what is dogma or the result of power brokering etc.   That said, the debate is further clouded by the fact that there is so much pluralism in both Indian philosophy and in modern day Hinduism.  There are Hindu sects that worship a plethora of anthropomorphic deities in which the full power of the deity inhabits the material statue, and there are Hindu sects that reject the use of anthropomorphic images even as symbols.  To discuss either Hinduism or Yoga as a unitary tradition, the absolute code of beliefs of which can be debated and agreed upon is perhaps the primary issue here.

I find this debate very interesting from a historical point of view.  But in reflecting on the intensity of it on the WP blog, I wonder if it would not be more helpful if we could ascertain what we aim to understand from such a debate.  If our aim is to reduce discrimination and gross misunderstandings about Indian traditions, and false references in schools, then certainly I think there are processes which could and are to some extent being taken.  Name calling and mud slinging by respected adults is not the way forward for teaching tolerance and understanding to our children.

If we wish to increase esteem for India’s heritage which was assaulted badly during the Colonial era (both the Mogul and the European colonies) then it seems to me that cultural revival, such as is occurring with yoga (asana, kirtan, meditation, ayurveda and religious studies) is a wonderful start.   I certainly think that yoga teacher training programs should add include a philosophy and history component, and that more discussion about yoga and its processes and long history should be explored in yoga classes, or in workshops, universities, public lectures etc.  This would be more appropriate and effective than making demands that yoga teachers use the word Hinduism to describe Yoga’s origin.  But also, perhaps initiating formal sharing meetings between cultural groups at both international, national and community levels would be helpful.  Perhaps we need to highlight in political and cultural institutions the pejorative light cast on India during and since the Colonial Era and outlining steps forward as Indian citizens and the Indian diaspora continue to excavate aspects of their cultural heritage and pride.   I think in the past we have neglected how much of this may be necessary for all post colonial nations.

Finally, what is needed both in yoga communities and in general is more accessible information about, and a higher level of general knowledge about Indian history, the richness of its diverse spiritual philosophies and the diversity of modern-day living traditions.

P.S.

I would also like to see more balanced and realistic reports about India’s economic and social issues.  It seems we are either fed the glory of the world’s most spiritual land, the crown jewel of economic booms, or the despair of corruption and disenfranchised poverty.  Can we as a global society take one of the precepts of yoga – vidya, or clear seeing – and begin to authentically see Indian (as well as other societies) society for its merits and demerits, and begin pointing to and supporting systemic change for the increased welfare of all of India’s citizens.

Art as a Mirror: Enlightening evening at the Lightbox

When I was teaching ESL here in Toronto, one of my colleagues asked our group of staff to share with each other a novel that had changed their life.  To our surprise, one of the teachers dismissed the activity saying, “How can a novel change your life; it is just a story”.  Sometimes in spiritual groups I also hear people suggest that reading or watching fiction is a waste of time, or is somehow almost immoral.  To me this demonstrates a continuing misunderstanding and diminishing of the role of art and literature in our lives.  Does this have something to do with the idea that the stories are untrue?  In my view, stories are almost always a vehicle for messages about the mysteries and predicaments of life.  Rather than using a discursive, direct approach to sharing, the ‘fiction’ writer knowingly or unknowingly embeds these messages through themes, symbols and the experiences of the characters.  Reading, hearing or watching stories unfold gives us the opportunity to explore aspects of ourselves and of life that we may otherwise have glossed over.  Art, stories, films, like nature, can be as transformational as the experiencer is willing to allow them to be.  Some act like sledgehammers, radically shifting our understanding; some are subtle and penetrating.

Sunday night I went to the Lightbox, a film complex created for the Toronto Film Festival which is now showing their top 100 films.  My aunt, uncle and I chose to see a film of the French nouvelle vague by Agnes Varda called Cleo de 5 a 7.  The film started straight away from a black screen, and ended directly to black, really adding to the feeling of the film as a piece of art rather than a commodity.  The film, in black and white, starts out up close and personal in a very tight shot of the cards being turned over in a tarot reading.  Rather than typical narrative, the film proceeds as snapshots of Cleo’s life as it is lived, down to the few minutes at a time.  She relates her tarot reading to her assistant in a cafe; buys a hat and arranges to have it delivered; goes home and changes clothes to recline for a few minutes with a water bottle, before going out again to wander the streets of Paris.  As she considers her mortality, she happens past a few disturbing street performances; the faces she sees in the crowd are mostly elderly, and we have the impression they have weathered the challenges of the war etc.  After connecting with a friend between engagements, she is guided to go to a park where she meets a young soldier about to return to Algeria.  His remarks about the rhythms of the park’s visitors, the astrological season, and the flowering Polownia trees shift our perspective from the fragmented, seemingly meaningless barrage of sensations in an urban life to a savouring of the moment as it is.  As the soldier is about to ship off to an uncertain fate, and Cleo receives the news from her doctor that she is in for 2 months of radiation, the whirlwind of her day settles.  She expresses the feeling that they in fact have a lot of time to share, and that she has the impression of being suddenly happy in the moment.

Of course the final quarter of the film reminded me of yoga and the process of coming back to the moment through nature, through authentic connection and the utter dropping of pretense, in this case facilitated by an anonymous party’s expression of compassion and listening.  But the style of the film, the experiential nature of its telling through accompanying Cleo on her day’s journey, alerted me to my addiction to narrative, to the cohesive story as a medium for meaning.  Like ritual, the bald witnessing evoked by the form of the film was powerful and transmitted a very simple but salient message as if it were gleaned through lived experience.  This experience confirmed for me yet again that writing, reading, making and participating in art can be a form of spiritual practice.

Sadhana as Service

Recently I posted a comment on Toronto Body Mind to participate in the growing dialogue among Toronto yoga teachers.  I’m very interested in the idea of sadhana (whatever our practice is) as a kind of service by emanation, as well as small acts of kindness as service as opposed to more ‘grandiose’ forms of overt service.  So, I wrote as follows – a few thoughts.

Namaste!

Yes, very interesting – yoga is about vidya – seeing things as they really are. To do this usually we need to both challenge outmoded habits and nurture emotional wellness. Service begins at home. So to serve others, we often need to begin by learning how to best serve out bodies and minds (though asana, pranayama, mantra, meditation and diet perhaps). As clarity comes, we radiate that change and emit a positive rather than a destructive charge, we seek to help others to alleviate their own suffering etc. Rarely is the search for self actualization actually solely selfish. As you say, we are interconnected and interdependent. If we are feeling unwell emotionally, or we are suffering, that affects others around us. Service also does not go only in one direction. Because we are practicing yoga and mindfulness does not mean we are the helpers and others are the recipients of our service. In my experience as we take on different roles and challenges in life we are both the offerer and the recipient of community support. Having children for example, aging, becoming disabled. Yoga and that clear seeing support us in all situations, but we often also need to share in the support of the communities in our lives, as we may seek to support others when we are able. To all those single, able bodies yogis out there – yes, serve others, but with the knowledge that you may also be in a position to require service of others at some point in your life – let service not be ego driven. Also, may we serve those amongst us who may not seem in need, simply by loving those around us who may be in silent suffering of the feeling of isolation. A kind word at a satsang gathering, a welcoming gesture to all!! Let’s truly be a yoga community and nurture and care for each other. This will create more strength and vision to help out in the wider community.

 

Hari Om!

 

What’s in a name?

About 10 years ago I legally changed my name to Chetana, a spiritual name I had been given by a Tantrik nun, meaning consciousness.  I found it harder being called one thing by some of the people in my life (co-workers, family members and in other bureaucratic matters), and another among yoga teachers and yoga friends.  I had just moved to Ottawa when I legally took the name Chetana, so it was easy enough to assume it in all areas of my life.  I have found since that a name is powerful.  It can change how people relate to us, if it is foreign or hard to pronounce for example.  I have seen that it is easier for people to take on positions of authority if they have certain titles or designations.  Labels are to a certain degree how we initially get acquainted with something or someone.   A spiritual name is like a mantra – as people call us by that name, especially when it is freshly given, it is a little wake up call, a reminder of our deeper essence, what our teacher saw in us.  It can help to give us a glimpse beyond the personality, who-we-think-we-are, in those moments of heightened noticing.

Through Yoga, many of us have had the experience in meditation of going into a pre-verbal state in which we experience the nature of objects without describing or naming.  Adopting a spiritual name can for a time be akin to this cutting through the limitations of who we think we are.  But this is not permanent; perhaps this is why sannyasis often get new spiritual names as they receive different initiations.  As a tool for seeing everything from a different perspective.

The trap is perhaps thinking that those layers of identity we develop over the years are unhelpful, or are the not-us.  My feeling at this point is that they are part of the multiplicity of who we are.  People tend to say things like, “I’m this way, or I’m that way”.  One of the most helpful things for me has been accepting the multiplicity of who I am: seeker, writer, traveller, linguist, mother.  Acceptance of ourselves seems to come not from reducing who we are to a single thing, but rather by expanding our view to accommodate and embrace all that we are.  The true identity is not the reduced, single-minded, focussed spiritualist, but rather, all the layers of personality and that which is beyond.  Our identity as a spiritual seeker, or mystic is not the ‘true’ identity, but simply one more aspect of our personality, albeit perhaps one that is attractive to us.  Multiplicity is contained in wholeness.  The expansive, all-we-are is what I feel I get in touch with when I drop back into a state of meditation, whether seated, or after savasana, or on a long nature walk.  It is all the names I call myself and more – so, I can sense it in that pre-verbal state, but there is no name large enough for it.

In my tangential way, I have been trying to write about what we call yoga.  There are many names, and many ways to describe yoga and the various aspects of the tradition.  It is not that one is the true yoga, or the true name, but that they are all part of a description.  To describe the whole of it in one name seems impossible.  The names that have endured or come close to this all seem to describe this almost un-namable vastness.  Plain ‘Yoga’, union.  Sanatana Dharma, the eternal way.   Om.

That said, for us as teachers, or schools, or lineages which practice a certain aspect of the tradition more than others, names can be useful — in particular if they clearly represent what they are intended to label.  This is why a teacher’s name can be a very effective label for a particular way of practicing yoga.  Then all that behoves the student or reader/listener is to know and understand which particular practices or approach to yoga that teacher emphasized in his/her teaching.  The limitation of these appellations seems to be the understanding that yoga schools are invariably a part of a larger tradition, which has been diverse almost since its inception.  No one school has a claim to THE yoga.  Where names become extremely problematic is when the name of a school of yoga is identical to name of a major branch of the tradition, such as Kundalini Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga.  People with limited exposure to yoga history and philosophy often misunderstand that this school is the only one teaching that branch of yoga, or that they are one and the same, or the only one with the authority or direct transmission of that branch of yoga.  Using such a name can appear to be an inappropriate claim on knowledge.

We didn’t used to have any particular name for our approach to teaching yoga or teacher training.  But as I mentioned above, names can be helpful.  They help us to identify our pedagogy (approach to teaching).  Having reflected on our approach to teaching and continuing to do so, is in my view absolutely essential for every teacher/facilitator.  Not having one word to encapsulate what we were doing, meant that others either had trouble describing it, or described it as something much reduced.  In the same way that the word Hatha Yoga has come to mean only asana, when we use the word yoga, it has come to mean only asana.  I have heard it aptly said that nowadays when people hear the word Buddism they think of meditation, and when they hear Yoga they think of asana.  One of the unique things about Yoga is that it can be used as a wellness modality that includes movement.  But, it was and is very important to us that people know that one of our main aims is to give people access to diverse practices in the yoga tradition: mantra, pranayama, visualization, philosophical aphorisms, yantra, ritual, meditation, and Ayurvedic understanding of the elements and balanced living, as well as asana.  So, we chose to name and describe our approach for people as Akhanda Yoga, or Akhanda (holistic) Yoga.  What we like about this is that while it helps people to understand a bit about the type of class environment, process and practices, it also refers to that indescribably vast essence of what yoga helps us to experience: wholeness.

In the beginning…

So, this iswhere it all began, or almost.  Yogi Vishvketu (commonly called Vishva) and I (Chetana Panwar) brought our first Yoga Teacher Training and retreat group to Kanvashram, North India in February 2004.  It was an incredible month of intimacy – in the remote foothills of the Himalayas about 2 hours east of Haridwar.  The dark marble hall was great for morning yoga, but philosophy and techniques classes eventually convened on the roof of the hall, which overlooked the Nalini River, and a lush jungle.  Occasionally lungur monkeys bounded across the roof behind me, animating discussions somewhat, or a goat herder would pass by, and upon our asking announce that he was shepherding 150 goats!

This photo just popped up as I began this first blog entry, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to reminisce about the elegance and the quirks of Kanvashram, and our first experience of co-teaching.  (Notice the old car seat strung up as a swing in the background.)  Vishva ji still hams it up on occasion while I’m about to close a circle discussion.  Our venue has changed somewhat since we co-founded Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh, as seen below.

I’m writing this as a spontaneous introduction to this blog.  I am quite excited about joining the lively dialogue that is emerging in the yoga community regarding yoga teaching, standards, and how yoga unfolds in our lives.  I will likely also share my thoughts about yoga in India, yoga philosophy and diverse traditions within the tradition, and current yoga teaching methodologies.  Since I am also a mother of two young children, and a have long been writing poetry and creative non-fiction, I have increasingly been exploring the intersection between yoga/meditation and creativity, writing and motherhood.  I’m sure reflections of this nature will also show up here.

Namaste!

copyright Chetana Panwar 2010

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