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But, What If…? (mostly the music and links) May 3, 2022

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Abhyasa, Bhakti, Books, Faith, Hope, Meditation, Music, Mysticism, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Suffering, Vairagya, Wisdom, Yoga.
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Peace, balance, compassion, and blessings to all. 

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“surājye dhārmike deśe subhikṣhe nirupadrave |
dhanuḥ pramāṇa-paryantaṃ śilāghni-jala-varjite |
ekānte maṭhikā-madhye sthātavyaṃ haṭha-yoghinā || 12 ||

The Yogī should practise [sic] Haṭha Yoga in a small room, situated in a solitary place, being 4 cubits square, and free from stones, fire, water, disturbances of all kinds, and in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.”

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– quoted from “Chapter 1. On Āsanas” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

Please join me today (Tuesday, May 3rd) at 12:00 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

Tuesday’s playlist is  available on YouTube and Spotify.  [Look for “01252022 Sitting, Breathing… in a Room”]

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.)

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Sitting, Breathing… in a Room [the “missing” Tuesday post] January 26, 2022

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in "Impossible" People, Abhyasa, Art, Books, Changing Perspectives, Depression, Dharma, Food, Healing Stories, Hope, Life, Loss, Movies, Mysticism, One Hoop, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Suffering, Tragedy, Vairagya, Vipassana, Wisdom, Women, Writing, Yoga.
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Warning: This post references to mental health and a person who experienced severe emotional distress.

This is the “missing” post for Tuesday, January 25th. Links in the 4th paragraph of the “Coda” will connect you to other websites. You can request an audio recording of the practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.

Check out the “Class Schedules” calendar for upcoming classes.)

Coda:

Do you ever think about what yoga and Virginia Woolf have in common? No? Just me? Ok, that’s fine; it’s not the first time – and will not be the last time that I make what, on the surface, appears to be a really random connection. It’s not even the first (and probably won’t be the last) time this week. However, in circling back to this practice and this theme, I found myself thinking a little more about mental health and the implications of having space, time, and the other resources to focus, concentrate, contemplate, and meditate. 

Last year, this practice fell on Monday, 12521 (making it a palindrome practice). While I waited until the following day to reference Carl Jung’s thoughts on yoga and mental health, those thoughts are always hovering in the back of my mind. And yes, that is the second time this week I’ve mentioned the psychiatrist and psychoanalysis on the blog. However, he and his work have come up at least three times this week. Starting with a conversation I had with my brother.

As some of you know, my youngest brother is one of the coolest people I know. He is cool on a lot of different levels, including being pretty Zen in temperament. But, he doesn’t have a regular practice yoga or meditation practice and he doesn’t really talk about those things with people who do (except me). Over the weekend, he asked me about something he read regarding yoga, meditation, and people who have experienced trauma. Our conversations, as they often do, oscillated between the experiences of real people and the experiences of a certain Marvel comic book character. We talked a little about the emotional ramifications of sitting and breathing… and the things that come up when one is essentially alone with their thoughts. It’s a double-edged sword, as Dr. Jung pointed out – as Patanjali, Vyasa, and other early yoga scribes pointed out. So, we talked about the importance of practicing with care and awareness.

Today there is trauma-sensitive yoga, trauma-informed yoga, MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), HeartMath®, and people who just practice yoga with an awareness that stuff comes up. I mean; we’ve all been through something and when you’ve been through something, stuff comes up. The more intense the trauma-related experience was, the more intense it can be when stuff comes up. Every practice doesn’t work for every person (even Patanjali pointed this out at the beginning of the fourth section of the Yoga Sūtras); but every person needs some way to process what they have experienced – whether they consider it traumatic or not.

Journaling is helpful. Talking to someone is helpful. Connecting with nature is helpful. Sitting and breathing is helpful. You may not need (or want) a “trauma-” label associated with your method of processing, but if you find yourself being overwhelmed by emotion, do something: Ask for help! Maybe a teacher engaged in mindfulness-based practices can help you. Maybe you have a spiritual and/or religious guide who can help you. Maybe you need a mental health professional. Either way, remember that sensation is information; it’s the way the mind-body tells our stories.

Matthew Sanford, the founder of Mind Body Solutions, talks about “healing stories” – the stories we tell ourselves (and each other) to explain our experiences. Those stories are one of the ways we process our stuff. Dr. Toya Webb reminds us that we are “always listening [to the story we tell ourselves] – whether it is destructive or productive.” Maty Ezraty, a master yoga teacher, said that every practice is like a good story.

Consider all of this as you read the following revised version of last year’s post entitled, “Who’s Afraid of Breathing?”

“surājye dhārmike deśe subhikṣhe nirupadrave |
dhanuḥ pramāṇa-paryantaṃ śilāghni-jala-varjite |
ekānte maṭhikā-madhye sthātavyaṃ haṭha-yoghinā || 12 ||

The Yogī should practise [sic] Haṭha Yoga in a small room, situated in a solitary place, being 4 cubits square, and free from stones, fire, water, disturbances of all kinds, and in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.”

– quoted from “Chapter 1. On Āsanas” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

“… a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…”

– quoted from the essay “A Room of One’s Own,” as it appears in A Room of One’s Own And, Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

In October 1928, Virginia Woolf gave two speeches to two different student societies at Newnham College and Girton College, which at the time were two of the all-women colleges at the University of Cambridge. (NOTE: Newnham is still an all-women’s college. Girton started accepting men in 1971 and started allowing men to be “Mistress,” or head of the college, in 1976.) The speeches were about women and fiction – and specifically detailed why there were so few women writers who had earned acclaimed (and, to certain degree, why those that did often did so anonymously or with “male” names). She also highlighted the absurd trichotomy between the two wildly archetypical way women are portrayed in literature and the reality of the very different types of women in the room, let alone in the world.

Born Virginia Stephen in Kensington, England, Janaury 25, 1882, Ms. Woolf speculated about the works that might have come from a woman (say, in Shakespeare’s time) who had a helpmate to take care of the cooking, cleaning, children, and other household business. She also talked about the social constraints that not only prevented a woman from devoting copious time to the practical application of her craft, writing, but also the social constraints and inequalities that could result in what would amount to writer’s block. All this, she detailed, even before she addressed the issue of a market place predisposed to highlight male writers – and she introduced her ideas by establishing two (really three) of the things a woman would need to overcome the obstacles of society: (time), space, and money.

When I first started going deeper into my physical practice of yoga, I looked into some of the classic texts within the tradition. One of those texts was the Haţha Yoga Pradipika (Light on the Physical Practice of Yoga), a 15th Century text that focuses on āsanas (“seats” or poses), prāņāyāma (breath awareness and control), mudrās (“seals” or “gestures”), and Samādhi (that ultimate form of “meditation” that is absorption). Throughout the text, and in particular in the chapter on mudrās, there is a breakdown of how energy, power, or vitality moves through the body and the benefits of harnessing that power.

I would eventually appreciate how the text is almost a summary of the earlier Yoga Sūtras, but (as an English lit major), what struck me first was how similar these early instructions – related to a practice that can be used to cultivate clarity and harness the power of the mind – were to Virginia Woolf’s advice to women writers.

“athāsane dṝdhe yoghī vaśī hita-mitāśanaḥ |
ghurūpadiṣhṭa-mārgheṇa prāṇāyāmānsamabhyaset || 1 ||

Posture becoming established, a Yogî, master of himself, eating salutary and moderate food, should practise [sic] Prâṇâyâma, as instructed by his guru.”

– quoted from “Chapter 2. On Prāņāyāma” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

“I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me. I am arch, gay, languid, melancholy by turns. I am rooted, but I flow.”

 

– quoted from “Susan” in The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Just as Virginia Woolf addressed misconceptions about women in her essays and fiction, the translator Pancham Sinh addressed some misconceptions about people who practice yoga and the practice of prāņāyāma in an introduction to the Haţha Yoga Pradipika. Part of the introduction is an admonishment to people who would study the practice, but do not practice it, stating, “People put their faith implicitly in the stories told them about the dangers attending the practice, without ever taking the trouble of ascertaining the fact themselves. We have been inspiring and expiring air from our birth, and will continue to do so till death; and this is done without the help of any teacher. Prāņāyāma is nothing but a properly regulated form of the otherwise irregular and hurried flow of air, without using much force or undue restraint; and if this is accomplished by patiently keeping the flow slow and steady, there can be no danger. It is the impatience for the Siddhis which cause undue pressure on the organs and thereby causes pains in the ears, the eyes, the chest, etc. If the three bandhas be carefully performed while practicing [sic] the Prāņāyāma, there is no possibility of any danger.”

Siddhis are the powers or “accomplishments” achieved from continuous practice. They range from being able to extend peace out into the world and understanding all languages; to being able to levitate and know the inner workings of another’s heart and mind; to the six “powers unique to being human.” Bandhas are “locks” and refer to internal engagements used to seal sections of the body in order to control the flow of prāņā. The three major bandhas referred to in the text are the same engagements I encourage when I tell people to “zip up” and engage the pelvic floor and lower abdominal cavity (mūla bandha), the mid and upper abdominal cavity (uḍḍīyana bandha), and the throat (jālandhara bandha). I typically refer to a fourth – pada bandha – which is a seal for the feet; however, in classical texts the fourth bandha is the engagement of the three major bandhas (root, abdominal, and throat) at the same time.

Before anyone gets it twisted, let’s be clear that this introduction is not advice to grab a book and follow instructions without the guidance of a teacher. In fact, Pancham Sinh specifically advised people to find a teacher who practiced and indicated that while one could follow the directions from a (sacred) book, there are some things that cannot be expressed in words. There are some things that can only be felt.

This is consistent with Patanjali’s explanation that the elements and senses that make up the “objective world” can be “divided into four categories: specific, unspecific, barely describable, and absolutely indescribable.” (YS 2.19) That is to say, there are some things that have specific sense-related reference points; some things that can be referred back to the senses, but only on a personal level; some things that have no reference points, but can be understood through “a sign” or comprehension of sacred text; and some things which cannot be described, because there is no tangible reference point and/or “sign” – there is only essence.

One of the things we can feel, but not touch, is emotion. Emotions can come with visceral experiences and, in that way, can fall into the “unspecific” category. More often than not, however, what we feel is “barely describable” (or even indescribable) – and yet, writers are always trying to describe or capture the essence of what is felt. As the author of nine novels (including one published shortly after her death), five short story collections (most of which were published after her death), a hybrid novel (part fiction, part non-fiction), three book-length essays, a biography, and hundreds of articles, reviews, and essays, Virginia Woolf constantly endeavored to describe what she felt and what she felt she saw others feeling. Even more salient, she often focused on the disconnection between what her characters felt and what they could describe about what they felt.

The author’s efforts were hindered, or aided (depending on one’s viewpoint), by the fact that she experienced so much trauma and heartbreak; much of which led to emotional despair. She was possibly (probably) abused by one of her half-brothers from an early age. Then she suffered a mental breakdown at the age of 13, after her mother died. Then she had to deal with the death of her half-sister and a maternal role model just two years later. When her father he died, in 1904, she had another breakdown, the severity of which landed her in the country for a period of convalescence. It was during this period that she began to write in earnest (even though the doctors had recommended that she only write letters) and that she would meet Leonard Woolf, the author whom she would marry in 1912. The writing helped, in that she seemed to find some mental and emotional stability for about 15 years. But, she would experience another breakdown after correcting the proofs of her first novel, The Voyage Out. The novel was published by her half-brother’s publishing company (yes, that aforementioned half-brother) and introduced the world to “Clarissa Dalloway,” the protagonist of her fourth novel.

“evaṃ vidhe maṭhe sthitvā sarva-chintā-vivarjitaḥ |
ghurūpadiṣhṭa-mārgheṇa yoghameva samabhyaset || 14 ||

Having seated in such a room and free from all anxieties, he should practise [sic] Yoga, as instructed by his guru.”

– quoted from “Chapter 1. On Āsanas” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

– quoted from The Hours: a novel by Michael Cunningham

It is interesting to me that while the instruction for the Haţha Yoga Pradipika instructed a person to practice when they were “free from…disturbances of all kinds” (HYP 1.12); “free from dirt, filth and insects” (HYP 1.13); and “free from all anxieties” (HYP 1.14), the vast majority of people practicing in the modern world do so in order to free themselves from the various maladies that plague them. Additionally, I find it interesting that historians, teachers of literature, and even psychiatrists spend a lot of time (theoretically) diagnosing a young woman (Virginia Woolf) who may have been experiencing (and working through) the most natural of emotions; natural, given her circumstances.

Were her emotions extreme and potentially dangerous? Yes, by all accounts – including her own words and her death – her emotions were extreme and dangerous; as were her circumstances. Initially, she was able to work through her distress because she had the support of those to whom she was connected. In the end, however, she was left alone and feeling disconnected.

The Air I Breathe, one of my favorite movies, was released in the United States Janaury 25, 2008. Inspired by the idea that emotions are like fingers on a hand, the main characters are known to the audience as Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, Love, and Fingers – and their stories are interconnected, even though they don’t necessarily realize it. In fact, some of the most desperate actions in the movie are motivated by fear and a sense of isolation. Promotional materials for the movie proclaimed, “We are all strangers / We are all living in fear / We are all ready to change” and in the movie Happiness asks, So where does change come from? And how do we recognize it when it happens?” Happiness also says, “I always wondered, when a butterfly leaves the safety of its cocoon, does it realize how beautiful it has become? or does it still just see itself as a caterpillar? I think both the statement and the questions could be applied to so many, if not all, of Virginia Woolf’s characters. They could also be applied to all of us in the world right now.

“‘For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’ And if, when reason has had its say, still some obstinate emotion remains, some love of England dropped into a child’s ears… this drop of pure, if irrational, emotion she will make serve her to give to England first what she desires of peace and freedom for the whole world.”

– quoted from the novel-essay “Three Guineas,” as it appears in The Selected Works of Virginia Woolf by Virginia Woolf

As I have mentioned before, I consider the 8-Limbed Yoga Philosophy to have very real-time, practical applications and I normally think of the physical practice as an opportunity to practice, explore, and play with the various elements of the philosophy. I will even sometimes use aspects of alignment as a metaphor for situations in our lives off the mat. Given this last year the last few years, however, I have really started to consider how āsana instructions from classic texts like The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali and the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, can be more practically applied to the most basic aspects of everyday life.

  • For instance, if we spend our time on the mat cultivating a “steady/stable, comfortable/easy/joyful” foundation in order to breathe easier and more deeply, doesn’t it make sense to spend some time cultivating the same type of foundation in our lives?
  • Going out a little more, if we do not have the luxury or privilege of practicing “in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully,” doesn’t it behoove us to create that land?
  • Finally, what happens if we (to paraphrase yoga sūtras 2.46-47) establish a baseline for stability and then loosen up a little bit and focus on the infinite? Patanjali and the authors of the other sacred texts told us we would become more of who we are: leaner in body, healthier, brighter, more joyful, “clearer, stronger, and more intuitive.” In other words: peaceful and blissful.

“lōkāḥ samastāḥ sukhinōbhavantu”

– A mettā (loving-kindness) chant that translates to “May all-beings, everywhere, be happy and be free.”

Tuesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify

“vapuḥ kṝśatvaṃ vadane prasannatā
nāda-sphuṭatvaṃ nayane sunirmale |
aroghatā bindu-jayo|aghni-dīpanaṃ
nāḍī-viśuddhirhaṭha-siddhi-lakṣhaṇam || 78 ||

When the body becomes lean, the face glows with delight, Anâhatanâda manifests, and eyes are clear, body is healthy, bindu under control, and appetite increases, then one should know that the Nâdîs are purified and success in Haṭha Yoga is approaching.”

– quoted from “Chapter 1. On Āsanas” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

“The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

– quoted from the essay “A Room of One’s Own,” as it appears in A Room of One’s Own And, Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

If you are thinking about suicide, worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also call the TALK line if you are struggling with addiction or involved in an abusive relationship. The Lifeline network is free, confidential, and available to all 24/7. YOU CAN TALK ABOUT ANYTHING.

If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgement-free place to talk, contact the TrevorLifeline (which is staffed 24/7 with trained counselors).

“Realize that there is freedom in telling your story and that there is power in your words.”

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– quoted from the November 2018 TedxDelthorneWomen talk entitled, “Change Your Perspective and Change Your Story” by Dr. Toya Webb 

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### OM SHANTI, SHANTI, SHANTHI OM ###

Who’s Afraid of Breathing? Part II (the Tuesday post) January 27, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Abhyasa, Art, Books, Changing Perspectives, Healing Stories, Hope, Life, Meditation, Movies, Music, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Science, Suffering, TV, Vairagya, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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[This is the post for Tuesday, January 26th (12621). You can request an audio recording of Tuesday’s practices via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.]

“Who’s afraid of a deep breath in, a deep breath in, a deep breath out? Who’s afraid of a deep breath in, a deep breath in, a deep breath out? Not I!”

 

– A parody of a parody of a Disney™ song

Even before you get to the fact that I’m making a pun (on top of a pun), one might wonder why anyone would fear breathing deeply in and breathing deeply out. It’s kind of like asking who is afraid of living. Of course, living is different from just being alive; living comes with risks. And so it is very common for people to fear life beyond the simplest forms of experience. Additionally, when speaking about prāņāyāma and breathing exercises, even people like the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung have warned that the very thing that can bring peace and ease can also bring discomfort and dis-ease. It all comes down to how you do it and, to a certain extent, why you do it.

“People put their faith implicitly in the stories told them about the dangers attending the practice, without ever taking the trouble of ascertaining the fact themselves. We have been inspiring and expiring air from our birth, and will continue to do so till death; and this is done without the help of any teacher. Prāņāyāma is nothing but a properly regulated form of the otherwise irregular and hurried flow of air, without using much force or undue restraint; and if this is accomplished by patiently keeping the flow slow and steady, there can be no danger. It is the impatience for the Siddhis which cause undue pressure on the organs and thereby causes pains in the ears, the eyes, the chest, etc. If the three bandhas be carefully performed while practising [sic] the Prāņāyāma, there is no possibility of any danger.”

 

– quoted from the 1914 introduction to the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh

The “on top of a pun” to which I earlier referred, is related to Edward Albee’s award-winning play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which premiered in October 1862). When I first learned about the play, I expected it to be about people who feared and felt threatened by feminist ideas. So, I was really confused by the play which, while dealing with characters who (like Virginia’s Woolf’s characters) sometimes have a severe disconnect between what they are thinking and what they are saying, really has nothing to do with Virginia Woolf, or her ideas. While there is a little bit more to the story behind the name, ultimately the title refers to a pun based on the Disney™ song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” (1933) from the cartoon “The Three Little Pigs” – and the fact that the rights to the song and title were so expensive that people would sing, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.”

In the Disney cartoon and the nursery rhyme, three little pigs made houses out straw, sticks, and bricks/stones (respectively). Of course, the hay/straw and the twigs/sticks didn’t stand a chance against the big, bad wolf and the first two pigs had to escape to the home of the relative they teased earlier in the cartoon. Re-watching the carton as an adult, several things stick out to me. First, there are three obvious breath patterns exhibited by the pigs and the wolf – and a fourth, less obvious pattern of breathing. Second, the characters in the cartoon are anthropomorphic and so the four breath patterns in the story match common breath patterns related to real-life human experiences. Finally, when the characters are not exhibiting the fourth breath pattern (the one of peace and ease) the cartoon characters exhibit the same debilitating conditions Patanjali described in the yoga sūtras (1.30-31).

The first breath pattern is the one that allows the first two pigs to sing and dance (and tease their relative). After years working with professional performing artists, I can’t help but think of the level of training and conditioning that is required to put on a performance. The breath has to be deep and also sustainable. It has to be controlled and measured, in some ways similar to the way we control and measure the breath when practicing certain forms of prāņāyāma.

The second breath pattern is one that can be associated with fear. Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. It doesn’t matter if the threat turns out to be real or not, the perception is what kicks that body’s defense mechanisms into overdrive. This breath pattern can manifest as shallow breathing and/or an involuntary breath suspension or holding of the breath. If this fear-based pattern is sustained for too long, it can become a habit – just as it has for so many in the world who have had to deal with extended periods of trauma – and often results in the “unsteadiness or trembling of limbs” described by Patanjali.

The third breath pattern is the breath pattern of the wolf. It is a pattern of anger and or frustration; it is “huffing and puffing.” This could also be considered shallow breathing (and one could easily argue that sometimes fear-driven breathing and anger-driven breathing are very similar, if not the same).

The fourth breath pattern, as I mentioned before, is a breath of peace and ease. It is a resting breath, a breath we experience in deep, peaceful sleep and also in meditation. It is the breathing pattern of someone who feels safe and secure, stable and steady, content and at ease. This is the breathing pattern of the third pig (who builds with stone). It is similar to the first breath pattern in so far as the fact that, with training, hard work and exertion can be achieved while maintaining a deep breath in and a deep breath out.

“We are alive because we breathe. The more harmonious the breath, the more peaceful and organized the mind. Unsteadiness in the limbs and organs caused by a vast range of mental negativity – particularly anger and fear – has a direct effect on the breath…. According to the yogis, fear and anger are the major causes of chest breathing. Chest breathing limits the intake of oxygen and the output of used-up gases. Our lung capacity declines, the level if vital nutrients in or blood drops, and the level of toxins in the body rise. Our physical vitality and strength decline, as does our mental clarity and ability to think linearly.”

 

– commentary on Yoga Sūtra 1.31 from The Practice of the Yoga Sūtra: Sadhana Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Throughout the year, I repeat the refrain: What happens in the body, happens in the mind; what happens in the mind happens in the body; and both affect the breath. And the breath affects the mind and the body. I keep coming back to this not only because Patanjali and the authors of other sacred text kept coming back to it, but also because it is a truth we can all experience for ourselves. We can all gauge the breath and, in turn, use the breath as a gauge to determine how experiences (thoughts, words, and deeds) are affecting us. At any given time, we can just take a moment to notice the breath – and consider which breathing pattern most consistently reflects those four from the story. Additionally, at any given time throughout the day, we can harness the breath – and the power of the breath – by breathing deeply in, and breathing deeply out. Changing the pattern of the breath can not only calm and balance the mind-body, it can also cultivate a little more peace and ease or a little bit more energy. These practices have short term as well as long term benefits, both of which can be cumulative.

Prāņāyāma, meditation, and other practices that might fall under the “mindfulness” umbrella cultivate clarity of mind and also get us in touch with the heart. In the Eastern philosophies, like Yoga and Buddhism, every emotion has a near-relation, a near-opposite, and an opposite emotion. In the case of fear, wisdom is the opposite emotion; and in the case of anger/frustration, loving-kindness is the opposite – these are the expressions of the heart when everything is in balance. Everything is in balance when the we feel safe, steady, comfortable, at ease, and maybe even joyful.

One additional note to consider: Yesterday, I chose not to mention some of the culturally problematic aspects of Virginia Woolf’s biography. However, I will take a quick moment here to address one of the many problematic elements within the Disney™ universe.

The pigs, the wolf, and the overall situation in the Disney™ cartoon are all symbolic. The pigs represent the different ways people deal with impending and inevitable disaster and the wolf symbolizes that something that will destroy the known world. People, especially when the cartoon first appeared in 1933, looked at it as Disney’s take on the Depression; and, would eventually also relate the story to World War II and the rise of fascism. However, like so many cultural elements from our past (and like way too many Disney pieces), “The Three Little Pigs” originally contained a culturally insensitive and highly problematic element: in this case, an anti-Semitic element whereby the wolf was depicted as Jewish. The audio was re-looped early on and, in 1948, Disney™ re-edited the original animation in order to completely eliminate the anti-Semitic trope and move onto the right side of history.

“chale vāte chalaṃ chittaṃ niśchale niśchalaṃ bhavet||
yoghī sthāṇutvamāpnoti tato vāyuṃ nirodhayet || 2 ||

Respiration being disturbed, the mind becomes disturbed. By restraining respiration, the Yogî gets steadiness of mind”

 

– quoted from “Chapter 2. On Prāņāyāma” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

 

Tuesday’s Noon playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “07192020 Compassion & Peace (J’Accuse!)”]

 

The Tuesday evening playlist is also available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “10272020 Pranayama II”]

 

### KEEP ON BREATHIN’ & BREATHIn’ & BREATHIN’ ###

Who’s Afraid of Breathing? January 26, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in "Impossible" People, Abhyasa, Art, Books, Changing Perspectives, Depression, Dharma, Food, Healing Stories, Hope, Life, Loss, Movies, Mysticism, One Hoop, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Suffering, Tragedy, Vairagya, Vipassana, Wisdom, Women, Writing, Yoga.
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[This is the post for Monday, 12521 – another palindrome practice! You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

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“surājye dhārmike deśe subhikṣhe nirupadrave |
dhanuḥ pramāṇa-paryantaṃ śilāghni-jala-varjite |
ekānte maṭhikā-madhye sthātavyaṃ haṭha-yoghinā || 12 ||

The Yogī should practise [sic] Haṭha Yoga in a small room, situated in a solitary place, being 4 cubits square, and free from stones, fire, water, disturbances of all kinds, and in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully.”

 

– quoted from “Chapter 1. On Āsanas” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

 

“… a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…”

 

– quoted from the essay “A Room of One’s Own,” as it appears in A Room of One’s Own And, Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

 

In October 1928, Virginia Woolf gave two speeches to two different student societies at Newnham College and Girton College, which at the time were two of the all-women colleges at the University of Cambridge. (NOTE: Newnham is still an all-women’s college. Girton started accepting men in 1971 and started allowing men to be “Mistress,” or head of the college, in 1976.) The speeches were about women and fiction – and specifically detailed why there were so few women writers who had earned acclaimed (and, to certain degree, why those that did often did so anonymously or with “male” names). She also highlighted the absurd trichotomy between the two wildly archetypical way women are portrayed in literature and the reality of the very different types of women in the room, let alone in the world.

Born Virginia Stephen in Kensington, England, today in 1882, Ms. Woolf speculated about the works that might have come from a woman (say, in Shakespeare’s time) who had a helpmate to take care of the cooking, cleaning, children, and other household business. She also talked about the social constraints that not only prevented a woman from devoting copious time to the practical application of her craft, writing, but also the social constraints and inequalities that could result in what would amount to writer’s block. All this, she detailed, even before she addressed the issue of a market place predisposed to highlight male writers – and she introduced her ideas by establishing two (really three) of the things a woman would need to overcome the obstacles of society: (time), space, and money.

When I first started going deeper into my physical practice of yoga, I looked into some of the classic texts within the tradition. One of those texts was the Haţha Yoga Pradipika (Light on the Physical Practice of Yoga), a 15th Century text that focuses on āsanas (“seats” or poses), prāņāyāma (breath awareness and control), mudrās (“seals” or “gestures”), and Samādhi (that ultimate form of “meditation” that is absorption). Throughout the text, and in particular in the chapter on mudrās, there is a breakdown of how energy, power, or vitality moves through the body and the benefits of harnessing that power.

I would eventually appreciate how the text is almost a summary of the earlier Yoga Sūtras, but (as an English lit major), what struck me first was how similar these early instructions, on a practice that can be used to cultivate clarity and harness the power of the mind, were to Virginia Woolf’s advice to women writers – about cultivating clarity and harnessing the power of the mind.

“athāsane dṝdhe yoghī vaśī hita-mitāśanaḥ |
ghurūpadiṣhṭa-mārgheṇa prāṇāyāmānsamabhyaset || 1 ||

Posture becoming established, a Yogî, master of himself, eating salutary and moderate food, should practise [sic] Prâṇâyâma, as instructed by his guru.”

 

– quoted from “Chapter 2. On Prāņāyāma” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

 

“I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me. I am arch, gay, languid, melancholy by turns. I am rooted, but I flow.”

 

– quoted from “Susan” in The Waves by Virginia Woolf

 

Just as Virginia Woolf addressed misconceptions about women in her essays and fiction, Pancham Sinh addressed some misconceptions about people who practice yoga and the practice of prāņāyāma in an introduction to the Haţha Yoga Pradipika. Part of the introduction is an admonishment to people who would study the practice, but do not practice it, stating, “People put their faith implicitly in the stories told them about the dangers attending the practice, without ever taking the trouble of ascertaining the fact themselves. We have been inspiring and expiring air from our birth, and will continue to do so till death; and this is done without the help of any teacher. Prāņāyāma is nothing but a properly regulated form of the otherwise irregular and hurried flow of air, without using much force or undue restraint; and if this is accomplished by patiently keeping the flow slow and steady, there can be no danger. It is the impatience for the Siddhis which cause undue pressure on the organs and thereby causes pains in the ears, the eyes, the chest, etc. If the three bandhas be carefully performed while practicing [sic] the Prāņāyāma, there is no possibility of any danger.”

Siddhis are the powers or “accomplishments” achieved from continuous practice. They range from being able to extend peace out into the world and understanding all languages, to being able to levitate and understand all languages, to the six “powers unique to being human.” Bandhas are “locks” and refer to internal engagements used to seal sections of the body in order to control the flow of prāņā. The three major bandhas referred to in the text are the same engagements I encourage when I tell people to “zip up” and engage the pelvic floor and lower abdominal cavity (mūla bandha), the mid and upper abdominal cavity (uḍḍīyana bandha), and the throat (jālandhara bandha). I typically refer to a fourth – pada bandha – which is a seal for the feet; however, in classical texts the fourth bandha is the engagement of the three major bandhas (root, abdominal, and throat) at the same time.

Before anyone gets it twisted, let’s be clear that this introduction is not advice to grab a book and follow instructions without the guidance of a teacher. In fact, Pancham Sinh specifically advised people to find a teacher who practiced and indicated that while one could follow the directions from a (sacred) book, there are some things that cannot be expressed in words. There are some things that can only be felt. This is consistent with Patanjali’s explanation that the elements and senses that make up the “objective world” can be “divided into four categories: specific, unspecific, barely describable, and absolutely indescribable.” (YS 2.19) That is to say, there are some things that have specific sense-related reference points; some things that can be referred back to the senses, but on a personal level; some things that have no reference points, but can be understood through “a sign” or comprehension of sacred text; and some things which cannot be described, because there is no tangible reference point and/or “sign” – there is only essence.

One of the things we can feel, but not touch, is emotion. Emotions can come with visceral experiences and, in that way, can fall into the “unspecific” category, but more often than not what we feel is “barely describable” (or even indescribable) – and yet, writers are always trying to describe or capture the essence of what is felt. As the author of nine novels (including one published shortly after her death), five short story collections (most of which were published after her death), a hybrid novel (part fiction, part non-fiction), three book-length essays, a biography, and hundreds of articles, reviews, and essays, Virginia Woolf constantly endeavored to describe what she felt and what she felt she saw others feeling. Even more salient, she often focused on the disconnection between what her characters felt and what they could describe about what they felt.

The author’s efforts were hindered, or aided (depending on one’s viewpoint), by the fact that she experienced so much trauma and heartbreak; much of which led to emotional despair. She was possibly (probably) abused by one of her half-brothers from an early age. Then she suffered a mental breakdown at the age of 13, after her mother died. Then she had to deal with the death of her half-sister and a maternal role model just two years later. When her father he died, in 1904, she had another breakdown, the severity of which landed her in the country for a period of convalescence. It was during this period that she began to write in earnest (even though the doctors had recommended that she only write letters) and that she would meet Leonard Woolf, the author whom she would marry in 1912. The writing helped, in that she seemed to find some mental and emotional stability for about 15 years. But, she would experience another breakdown after correcting the proofs of her first novel, The Voyage Out. The novel was published by her half-brother’s publishing company (yes, that aforementioned half-brother) and introduced the world to “Clarissa Dalloway,” the protagonist of her fourth novel.

“evaṃ vidhe maṭhe sthitvā sarva-chintā-vivarjitaḥ |
ghurūpadiṣhṭa-mārgheṇa yoghameva samabhyaset || 14 ||

Having seated in such a room and free from all anxieties, he should practise [sic] Yoga, as instructed by his guru.”

 

– quoted from “Chapter 1. On Āsanas” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

 

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

 

– quoted from The Hours: a novel by Michael Cunningham

It is interesting to me that while the instruction for the Haţha Yoga Pradipika instructed a person to practice when they were “free from…disturbances of all kinds” (HYP 1.12); “free from dirt, filth and insects” (HYP 1.13); and “free from all anxieties” (HYP 1.14), the vast majority of people practicing in the modern world do so in order to free themselves from the various maladies that plague them. Additionally, I find it interesting that historians, teachers of literature, and even psychiatrists spend a lot of time (theoretically) diagnosing a young woman (Virginia Woolf) who may have been experiencing (and working through) the most natural of emotions; natural, given her circumstances. Were her emotions extreme and potentially dangerous? Yes, by all accounts – including her own words and her death – her emotions were extreme and dangerous; as were her circumstances. Initially, she was able to work through her distress because she had the support of those to whom she was connected. In the end, however, she was left alone and feeling disconnected.

The Air I Breathe, one of my favorite movies, was released in the United States today in 2008. Inspired by the idea that emotions are like fingers on a hand, the main characters are known to the audience as Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, Love, and Fingers – and their stories are interconnected, even though they don’t necessarily realize it. In fact, some of the most desperate actions in the movie are motivated by fear and a sense of isolation. Promotional materials for the movie proclaimed, “We are all strangers / We are all living in fear / We are all ready to change” and in the movie Happiness asks, “So where does change come from? And how do we recognize it when it happens?” I think both the statement and the question could be applied to so many, if not all, of Virginia Woolf’s characters – and they could apply to all of us in the world right now.

“‘For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’ And if, when reason has had its say, still some obstinate emotion remains, some love of England dropped into a child’s ears… this drop of pure, if irrational, emotion she will make serve her to give to England first what she desires of peace and freedom for the whole world.”

 

– quoted from the novel-essay “Three Guineas,” as it appears in The Selected Works of Virginia Woolf by Virginia Woolf

As I have mentioned before, I consider the 8-Limbed Yoga Philosophy to have very real-time, practical applications and I normally think of the physical practice as an opportunity to practice, explore, and play with the various elements of the philosophy. I will even sometimes use aspects of alignment as a metaphor for situations in our lives off the mat. Given this last year, however, I have really started to consider how āsana instructions from classic texts like The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali and the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, can be more practically applied to the most basic aspects of everyday life.

For instance, if we spend our time on the mat cultivating a “steady/stable, comfortable/easy/joyful” foundation in order to breathe easier and more deeply, doesn’t it make sense to spend some time cultivating the same type of foundation in our lives? Going out a little more, if we do not have the luxury or privilege of practicing “in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully,” doesn’t it behoove us to create that land? Finally, what happens if we (to paraphrase yoga sūtras 2.46-47) establish a baseline for stability and then loosen up a little bit and focus on the infinite? Patanjali and the authors of the other sacred texts told us we would become more of who we are: leaner in body, healthier, brighter, more joyful, “clearer, stronger, and more intuitive.” In other words: peaceful and blissful.

“lōkāḥ samastāḥ sukhinōbhavantu”

 

– A mettā (loving-kindness) chant that translates to “May all-beings, everywhere, be happy and be free.”

 

There is no playlist for the Common Ground practice.

 

“vapuḥ kṝśatvaṃ vadane prasannatā
nāda-sphuṭatvaṃ nayane sunirmale |
aroghatā bindu-jayo|aghni-dīpanaṃ
nāḍī-viśuddhirhaṭha-siddhi-lakṣhaṇam || 78 ||

When the body becomes lean, the face glows with delight, Anâhatanâda manifests, and eyes are clear, body is healthy, bindu under control, and appetite increases, then one should know that the Nâdîs are purified and success in Haṭha Yoga is approaching.”

 

– quoted from “Chapter 1. On Āsanas” of the Haţha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Pancham Sinh (1914)

 

“The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

 

– quoted from the essay “A Room of One’s Own,” as it appears in A Room of One’s Own And, Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

 

If you are thinking about suicide, worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also call the TALK line if you are struggling with addiction or involved in an abusive relationship. The Lifeline network is free, confidential, and available to all 24/7. YOU CAN TALK ABOUT ANYTHING.

### OM SHANTI, SHANTI, SHANTHI OM ###