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Practice Responsibly July 26, 2020

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“…aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

 

– quoted from Amazing Fantasy #15 by Stan Lee, et al, August 1962

In 1962, at the end of the comic book that introduced Spiderman to the world, Peter Parker is faced with the tragic and life-altering loss of his Uncle Ben Parker. This loss leads to the life-altering realization that he can never again take his actions for granted. The words above, which appear in the final panel, are perhaps the most well-known and oft quoted words in comic book history. Really, in world history, when you consider that the words (and the idea behind them date back) to the French Revolution. We’re human; so, context matters. The way we receive the message, or even internalize the lesson, is different if we first read it in the final panel of a fantasy comic book versus if we’re studying historical documents from the French National Convention in 1793. We may discount the message, or take it more seriously, when it is attributed to beloved elder (like Ben Parker) versus when it is attributed to British Prime Minister (like William Lamb or Winston Churchill). Especially in a situation like this, there is a certain gravitas that comes not only from the words, but also from the speaker and whether their life is a reflection of the words.

“Are you practicing?”

 

– David Swenson, on the cover of his Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual

Do they practice what they preach? Seeing the contradiction and/or hypocrisy, do we do as they say or as they do? Or, do we completely disregard the benefit of the lesson, because it is associated with someone who behaved badly?

These are the questions a lot of people are asking right now, in regards to race, sex, sexuality, religion, and the forming of countries (in particular the United States) and companies. They are also questions some of us in spiritual and religious communities have been asking for years with regard to our practices. Part of the challenge in answering these questions, with regard to bad behavior associated with the founders of an institution, is ignorance about the true nature of thing (avidyā). We may not always know about the bad behavior when we first become associated with an institution and, sometimes, the way in which we learn about the bad behavior makes it seem not so bad. Doesn’t matter if we are born into a society or join a community as an adult, once we are involved, our experiences are very personal and, as a result, we associate these situations with our sense of self – or false sense of self (asmitā). We define ourselves based on our attachment to things we like (rāga) and our aversion to things we dislike (dveşa) – even though sometimes don’t understand the true nature of what we like and dislike (hence, more avidyā). Finally, we are challenged by these questions, because answering may mean we lose something very meaningful to us, we may lose our sense of who we are, and we fear those losses like Peter Parker fears the loss of his uncle.

Notice, all the challenges I mentioned above are identified in the Yoga Sūtra as kleśāh (“afflicted” or “dysfunctional”) and therefore they are the very things that lead to suffering. Patanjali recommends meditation (YS 2.11) and the 8-limbs of yoga (YS 2.28) as a way to end the afflicted or dysfunctional thought patterns (and therefore the words and deeds) which lead to suffering. (Note, this instruction dovetails with the Buddha’s recommendation of meditation and the noble 8-fold path of Buddhism, as well as certain theological practices found in the major religions.) There’s only one problem: For most of us in the West, the practices of yoga and meditation are mired in the muck of bad behavior and the suffering that has been caused by that bad behavior.

“I was far more hurt by the culture of silence and ignoring the victim and victim-blaming than the abuse itself. If there would’ve been support from the community, and it had been dealt with, it would have gone away.”

 

– Anneke Lucas, founder of Liberation Prison Yoga, quoted in The New Yorker (07/23/2019) about confronting Sri Pattabhi Jois

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted about the foundations and how on Saturdays I place a year-long emphasis on “building the practice from the ground up,” both physically and philosophically. In the post I mentioned B. K. S. Iyengar and Sri Pattabhi Jois (who was born today in 1915). Both teachers are part of a small group (of mostly Indian men) who were charged by their teacher Sri Krishnamacharya with introducing the physical practice of yoga to the Western world. Both teachers introduced their personal practice as “the practice” and for many people those practices are how people define “yoga.” Thinking that yoga is a particular set of poses and/or a specific way of doing them is problematic in and of itself. However, there is a bigger problem: both of these teachers have been very credibly accused of bad behavior. And, they are not alone. There are a number of yoga (and Buddhist) teachers (male and female) who have been called out for bad behavior. (Note: I am not using the term “bad behavior” in an attempt to belay or undermine the heinous of what people have allegedly done. Instead, I am using the term as an umbrella to cover sexual misconduct, physical and psychological abuse, and financial misconduct.)

A few days after I posted, a friend and fellow yogi sent me an email, with a link to an article about Jois, and expressed concern about the allegations and “about the current Ashtanga community’s response (or lack thereof) to his abuses.” In conclusion, this friend acknowledged their own conflict about allegations related to their own practices and asked about my thoughts. I started to reply, but then didn’t finish or send the reply (because, well…life). So, with apologies to my friend and fellow yogi, here is part of my response:

Hi! How are you?

Thank you for your email (and the link). I had only heard a portion of this, and it was quite a while back – so, obviously, a lot more has come up. I appreciate the information. Interestingly enough, a friend who is also an Iyengar teacher is in town and when we were catching up she posed a similar question about the value of the teachings when the teacher (and their actions) are so clearly heinous. I ask myself this question a lot, because (unfortunately) there’s so much bad behavior.

Honestly, I’m not sure I have a good answer. In regards to individuals and their bad behaviors, this is something I have also seen in the performing arts (and obviously in Corporate America and religious organizations), and it is why I think it is so important to maintain awareness and connection to the ethical components of these practices – not as a way to condemn or ostracize others, but as a way to have checks and balances into our own practices and behaviors. Ultimately, there is a power element to the practice of yoga and a power imbalance in the (formal) teacher-student(s) relationship. It is up to the (formal) teacher to maintain awareness of this power and power imbalance in order to protect themselves AND the student(s).

I am not part of a formal tradition and have not had any direct contact with guru-predators. And I’ve never had a big-G Guru, which is itself a can of worms. That said; if I hear of someone doing something questionable I will steer people away. (Even though, in my case, I am only going by hearsay and have to step carefully.) Also, when people ask me about teacher trainings I always stress checking out the teacher/studio/situation to make sure that their comfortable with the instructors. I also stress that during teacher trainings (or intensives) people are sometimes asked to do things they may not feel comfortable doing and that it is important to feel secure in knowing when you are uncomfortable because you are outside your comfort zone (i.e., being asked to do something you haven’t ever done before) versus feeling uncomfortable because someone is doing something or asking you to do something that is just plain wrong.

Like Jubilee Cook, I often wonder why – even when people didn’t/don’t feel like they had/have the power to bring a predator down – they don’t understand that they have the power to stop others from being abused! I mean, I do get it on a certain level…and I say this not as a way to blame the victims, but to highlight an additional challenge.

Part of that additional challenge (or maybe it’s a separate challenge) is that people in formal traditions (led by big-G Gurus) experience a combination of hero worship and brain washing that can itself be a kind of trauma. In the recent past, it has taken people a bit of time to “deprogram.” My hope is that the delay in Ashtangis speaking up comes from needing to “deprogram.” Or maybe that’s my naiveté, because honestly, as more comes out, more shame and blame comes up – and people tend to want to curl up and ignore it. Especially, if/when you can pretend that sense certain people are dead the abuse has ended.

With regard to actual teachings…I found there is amazing value in the practice of yoga (on so many different levels)

That’s where I stopped. And, to a certain degree, that is where I am still stuck; because I can’t go back and learn all the valuable things about yoga through a less fractured lens. Maybe “stuck” isn’t the right word, but the bottom line is that this is an issue I confront on a fairly regular basis – not because I’ve personally encountered so much of this bad behavior, but because I can’t go back and pretend like bad behavior didn’t happen. I want people to be informed, but I don’t not always feel it is appropriate to bring certain things up in the middle of a yoga practice. Yes, yes, I do sometimes bring up a lot of controversial and horrific things that have happened in history. I also wrestle with the decision to do so.

Sometimes, I become aware of someone’s bad behavior and I change the way I teach certain things – or leave something/someone out completely, if I know of another way to make the point. Sometimes, I pivot because I’m aware of the history (or age) of someone in the room. I also, sometimes, make a misstep; I am human after all. However, I teach certain things (like religion, philosophy, science, and history) as if they were part of a history lesson or a survey course. I do this out of respect for the subject/theme and also because I think knowledge is power. And with that power…

I am not a big fan of William J. Broad’s very well researched and very well written book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. Broad is very upfront about the fact that his book is about the physical practice – but that’s one of my big complaints about the book! By separating the physical practice from the larger context, the book does the exact same thing so many people do: it removes the ethics. Yet what Broad’s research reinforces, to me, is that one of the “rewards” of the postural practice (the increase in physical health and power) becomes a risk if some kind of ethical component is not affixed to the practice.

Let us not forget, Patanjali gave us the ethical component when he codified the system – and it didn’t give it to us as an afterthought. He gave it us first (just as the Buddha did). Most yoga teachers, and all teachers of Buddhism or the major religions, are aware of the ethics of their particular system. If they are not teaching those elements, they may not be practicing them. If they are not practicing the ethics of their system, in all aspects of their life, we end up with more suffering.

Please join me for a 65-minute “short form” virtual yoga practice on Zoom today (Sunday, July 26th) at 2:30 PM, when you can practice your ethics. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. PLEASE NOTE: Zoom 5.0 is in effect. If you have not upgraded, you will need to give yourself extra time to log into Zoom. You can always request an audio recording of this practice (or any practice) via email or a comment below.

Today’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. (This is the playlist dated 04192020. It is actually two playlists and you can decide which one you use.)

 

My apologies, again, to my friend and fellow yogi, for the delay. I also apologize to all for any missteps I’ve made along the way. If you would like to know more about the history of the practices mentioned above, here is a Kiss My Asana blog post from 2016. I started to excerpt it, but trust you won’t think unkindly about the amazing yogi in the profile just because he shares a gender with people who have harmed others.

 

 

### “HOW YOU DO YOGA, IS HOW YOU DO LIFE” ###

You’ve Got The Power June 15, 2020

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“…re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

 

– from the preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

 

“…I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train yourself for that but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don’t hate anything.”

 

– from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (Letter #4 to Franz Kappus, dated July 16, 1903)

 

As you will see, I am looping back around to a previous post. Really, I am looping back around to several posts and several conversations, including a couple of conversations about dana (much thanks to Adam and Cameron) after last week’s Common Ground practice (on Zoom). However, I feel I should preface this by saying a couple of things, so….

First, I am surrounded by a lot of really smart people – and I have been all my life. Some people are intellectuals; some are even recognized as such. Others are intellectually smart – even if they don’t have a lot of formal education. Some are labeled as fun, but you would be ignorant to underestimate their knowledge base. Still others are smart, savvy in a way that underscores the origins of “savvy,” which comes from Spanish by way of pidgin English for “you know.” (In other words, they know things – and they may or may not have ever read about those things in a book or seen them in a movie.) Second, teaching yoga the way I do is a little like being a comedian (or any kind of writer) in that if we have a conversation or any kind of interaction there’s a good chance you’re going to pop up in my practice. After all, one of the lojong or “mind training” techniques in Tibetan Buddhism is, “Whatever you meet unexpectedly, join with practice.”

Keeping all of that in mind, you can be sure that when I post a title like “How Ignorant Are You?” – as I did on Saturday – I did it knowing that it was blunt, in your face, and that a lot of people’s knee jerk reaction is, “Well, I’m not ignorant, but [insert person of choice]….” Calling someone, or even implying that someone is, ignorant is a great way to push someone’s buttons. It’s like calling someone racist when they are exhibiting racist behavior (especially when they believe they are “not racist” and/or believe they are straight up “woke”). It’s also like calling someone racist when they have been a victim of systematic racism (especially when you do so while exhibiting your own racist behavior). These are great examples of shenpa, which Pema Chödrön translates to as “the hook” and is a sign of attachment (which is one of the afflicted thought patterns that produces suffering).

Avidyā is the Sanskrit word for “ignorance.” It can also be translated as misconception, misunderstanding, or incorrect knowledge. We may also think of the English word as “lack of knowledge.” No matter how you view it, we are all ignorant of something – either because we have not experienced it (i.e., perceived with our own senses); we have not inferred (or logically deduced) it based on information we have perceived; and/or it has not been revealed or taught to us through sacred text (i.e., the documented experience of another). Note that I have been very specific about how we can lack knowledge. I have been very specific, because these descriptions are specifically outlined in the Yoga Sutra 1.7 as vidyā (“correct knowledge”), which is obviously the opposite of incorrect knowledge.

Correct understanding and incorrect understanding are two of the five mental functions. But, perhaps even more importantly, the five mental functions (correct understanding, incorrect understanding, imagination, dreamless sleep, and memory, as indicated in Yoga Sutra 1.6) fall into two categories: klişțāklişțāh (“afflicted and not afflicted”). Afflicted thought patterns create suffering and there are five afflicted thought patters: “Ignorance (or lack of knowledge), false sense of self, attachment (rooted in pleasure), aversion (which is attachment rooted in pain), and fear of death of loss.” Again, I’m very specific here, because these are the definitions outlined in Yoga Sutra 2.3.

Furthermore, these afflicted thought patterns (which I referred to as “dysfunctional” on Saturday) are all connected. When we don’t have correct knowledge or understanding about the world that means we also don’t have correct knowledge or understanding of ourselves (and others). That initial lack of knowledge leads us to create stories so that, inevitably, we define ourselves according to the things and people we like (attachment rooted in pleasure) and the things and people we don’t like (attachment rooted in pain). Finally, we fear change, because all change is the end/death of something and a loss of something – specifically the death or loss of ourselves and our world as we know it.

Take a breath. Let all of that settle in for a moment before you move on to the next paragraph.

So, Patanjali starts off his explanation of the 8-limb philosophy of yoga by explaining how the brain/mind works and then gets into the practice, which is how we can work (work with / play with) the mind. Along the way he mentions siddhis, which can be loosely translated as “powers.” It is more literally “fulfillment: or “accomplishment.” Even if you’ve never delved into any Sanskrit texts, this may sound familiar if you know the story of the Buddha (Siddhartha Guatama), the story of Siddhartha Finch, and/or you’ve been to one of May the 4th classes (when I talk about Jedi Knight tricks). More often than not, when random people (myself included) talk about siddhis in the context of yoga, we are talking about the extraordinary (or “Supernormal” as Dean Radin calls them in the book of the same name) powers/accomplishments Patanjali describes at the end of the yoga sutras. However, when he goes deeper into the nature of afflicted or dysfunctional thought patterns, Patanjali indicates and alludes to the side effects – in other words, some of the direct suffering – of these thought patterns.

Patanjali specifically points to nine obstacles to practice and to maintaining a clear, joyful mind (YS 1.30) plus five physical conditions which arise because of the obstacles (YS 1.31). The physical conditions (pain, mental agitation, unsteadiness or trembling limbs, abnormal  or unsteady inhalation, and abnormal or unsteady exhalation not only arise from the obstacles, they also feed into the obstacles. So, it is a constant loop of suffering that dulls the mind. And all of this starts with those five afflicted or dysfunctional thought patterns, specifically ignorance. I could go on all day about this (and have), but my focus today is on some very specific powers we lose when we are steeped in avidyā.

“The nine obstacles described in the previous sutra rob the body of vitality, strength, stamina, and agility, and the mind of clarity and peace. The absence of these obstacles is the ground for joy. Their presence is the ground for pain, which in turn leads to the four other debilitating conditions….”

 

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

In commentary, which is based on comparative analysis and lived practice, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, describes how our minds (and bodies) become disempowered in 28 different ways. These different types of disempowerment fall into three categories: (1) disempowerment of our mind and senses, (2) disempowerment of our inner sense of fulfillment, and (3) disempowerment of powers unique to humans. Now, the first category manifests as dullness in experience; we are riddled with doubt and the world loses its vibrancy. Think about how food tastes (or lacks taste) when you are steeped in depression or sadness versus how it tastes when you feel alive and engaged. The second category has a series of subcategories (with their own subcategories), but let’s just say that we experience one (or more) of these nine subcategories when we are rigid in our beliefs; when we are satisfied with the (spiritual) trappings of our beliefs and believe those external trappings will bring us peace; when we procrastinate; when we fall into what I call the “fate/predestination” trap; and/or when we use any of a number of logical arguments to avoid engaging in worldly matters. The third type of disempowerment is a loss of power related to “powers and privileges unique to humans.”

Here, finally, is the focus for today! According to the Sāmkhya Karika, possibly written around the same time as the Yoga Sutras, humans have the following six siddhis:

  1. the power of discovery (i.e., intuitive knowledge;
  2. the power “to give a form to sound, assign meaning to each segment of sound, and to store both sound and meaning in memory….[and] the capacity to communicate both sound and its meaning to others. We also have the capacity to give a visual form to each segment of sound and the meaning associated with it[;]”
  3. the power to “study, analyze, and comprehend” abstract ideas no matter how they are (effectively) communicated;
  4. the power to eliminate “three-fold sorrow – physical, mental, and spiritual;”
  5. the power to “[cultivate] a good heart; finding friends;”
  6. the power of dana, which is “the ability to give.”

 

“I’ve got the power
I’ve got the power

It’s getting, it’s getting, it’s getting kinda hectic
It’s getting, it’s getting, it’s getting kinda hectic”

 

– from the 1990 song “The Power” by Snap!

 

Now, I (personally) can’t say for sure that all of these are unique to humans, but I do feel comfortable saying that most very clearly are human abilities/powers. I’ve experienced them in myself and in others, and one of the things that has struck me over the last week in particular is how much of these siddhis are being lost, dulled, or completely short circuited in people all over the world. Yes, there are some people all over the world who are experiencing their powers – even recognizing the responsibility that comes with their powers – and using their powers for help those around them. But, I bet if you could identify and poll those people, most of them would also say they have felt a loss in powers. So, the question becomes, how do we activate our innate powers? According to the sacred texts, the removal of ignorance is the key (or secret) to experiencing true peace, fulfillment, and freedom. Furthermore, every system of religion and philosophy recommends surrender in order to obtain that key or secret.

If you’re interested in a little sweet surrender, please join me on the virtual mat today (Monday, June 15th) at 5:30 PM for a 75-minute yoga practice on Zoom.

This is a 75-minute Common Ground Meditation Center practice that, in the spirit of generosity (dana), is freely given and freely received. 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.

If you are able to support the center and its teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” my other practices, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible, class purchases are not necessarily.)

There is no playlist for the Common Ground practices.

“We have both the wisdom and the courage to share what lawfully belongs to us with others. We are designed to experience the joy of giving. This joy is the architecture of human civilization, characterized by self-sacrifice and selflessness.”

 

– commentary on Yoga Sutra 2.24 (as it relates to “dana”) from The Practice of the Yoga Sutra: Sadhana Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

 

 

 

#### “… with great power there must also come great responsibility” SL, et al ####