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Who are you on the inside (outside)? August 8, 2020

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“Who are you?”

 

“Where does the world come from?”

 

– Questions Sophie Amundsen finds in her mailbox in Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder

In Sophie’s World, 14- (almost 15) year old Sophie Amundsen receives two questions and an odd postcard in her mailbox. Later she receives a packet of papers. The questions are addressed to her, as is the packet. The postcard, however, is odd because it is from Lebanon, has a Norwegian stamp, and is addressed to Hilde Møller Knag – “care of” Sophie. The only problem is that Sophie has never heard of this girl who is her same age. Neither has she heard of Hilde’s father, Albert Knag, seems to think the girls know each other well enough to exchange mail. Even more curious is that the girls have more in common than an address, an age, and birthdays a month apart – they have similar life circumstances. Sophie is, or course, curious about Hilde and curious about the mail, which turns out to be a survey course in ancient and modern philosophy (through the beginning of the 20th Century). Sophie becomes the philosophy student of Alberto Knox and, in the process, begins a journey not only into philosophy but also into her-self.

“Is there nothing that interests us all? Is there nothing that concerns everyone? Yes, dear Sophie, there are questions that certainly should interest everyone. They are precisely the questions this course is about.

What is the most important thing in life? If we ask someone living on the edge of starvation, the answer is food.  If we ask someone dying of cold, the answer is warmth. If we put the same question to someone who feels lonely and isolated, the answer will probably be the company of other people.

But when these basic needs have been satisfied – will there still be something that everyone needs? Philosophers think so. They believe that man cannot live by bread alone. Of course everyone needs food. And everyone needs love and care. But there is something else – apart from that – which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here. ”

 

– quoted from the letter in the first packet Sophie Amundsen in Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder

Born today in 1952 in Oslo, Norway, Jostein Gaarder is the author of novels, short stories and children’s books. He often uses stories within stories to take children and adults on an intellectual journey. In the case of Sophie’s World, which has been translated into at least 53 languages, we take the ultimate journey into the world of philosophy. As I’ve mentioned before, the word philosophy comes to us from Greek, by way of Latin, Old French, and Middle English, from a word that means “love of wisdom.” It is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, thought, reality, and existence. It provides a way to think about and understand the world, the universe, and everything. As stated in Wikipedia, it “is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” The most basic question being, “Why?” – Which spirals out of some variation of the questions above.

Throughout the history of the world, people have come at these questions from different directions. René Descartes had his infamous cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am.” José Ortega y Gasset (known for saying “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia”) took that a step further and said, “I live therefore I think (therefore I am)” – which is a wildly wonderful bit of circular truth. And the existential psychiatrist Similar to the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus (who believed we have no control over our circumstances, only over our reactions to our circumstances), Dr. Irvin Yalom focused on “four givens,” which are experienced by all and with which we define/create our lives. Then there are religious philosophers like Martin Buber, who explored life in the context of the Divine. If you study philosophy, you will find that there is a spectrum of thought and most philosophers are swinging between these different ways of coming at the questions of life. Even more so, though, we are toggling between the two visible sides of life’s cornerstone: what’s happening on the outside and what’s happening on the inside.

This past Wednesday, I mentioned how a cornerstone is the first stone set in the foundation of a structure and how all the other stones are set in reference to the first stone so that the cornerstone determines the overall position of the structure. That being said, when you walk up to a building or structure and look at the cornerstone you will notice that (as it is literally the stone on the corner) you can only see two sides of the stone.  When you think of the two sides of the yoga philosophy cornerstone, you find an outside focus (the five yamās) and an inside focus (the five niyamās) – and each of these ten has their own internal and external practice.

Yoga Sūtra 2.32: śaucasantoşatapahsvādhyāyeśvarapraņidhānāni niyamāh

 

– “Purity (or cleanliness), contentment, austerity (and the practices that lead to austerity), self-study, and a trustful surrender to [the creative source or the constant awareness to the highest reality] are the observances.”

The questions Sophie receives in her mailbox compel her to seek answers and, naturally, she starts within. I say “naturally,” because the book is set in 1990, she’s 14 (almost 15), there’s no internet and she only has the questions (which are directing her inward). But, eventually, she understands the nature of her reality and taps into her own personal will and determination in order to, on a certain level, redefine her reality. In a similar fashion, the five internal observations which make up the second limb of the philosophy of yoga compel the yoga practitioner / philosopher to turn inward, take a look at themselves, and (in the process) take a look at the world and their part in defining it.

I’ve mentioned before that although the yamās are sometimes referred to as external restraints and they very clearly outline a code of conduct towards the world, all practices start with the person practicing. What I mean by this is that we first practice non-violence and non-harming (ahimsā) with ourselves. On the yoga mat, that looks like being mindful of our physical and mental state so that we practice in a safe way even when we are being pushed and challenged to practice on the edge. I think it was Dharma Mittra who said you should breathe and practice as if you are on the edge of a cliff. My apologizes if I have mixed up where I heard this great piece of advice, but I bring it up to point out that the teacher who said it didn’t advise breathing and practicing on the edge of cliff – that would be dangerous! Instead, the advice is to be mindful. Also, to be mindful requires being honest; which means, ahimsās leads directly to satyā (the second yamā).The yoga mat is a place to be mindful about how you interact with yourself so that you are also mindful of how you interact with others.

At first glance the five niyamās may seem to be things you would only practice on your own. To some, they might even appear to have no bearing on the way we interact with others. Go a little deeper, however, and we find that the internal observations are like Alberto Knox guiding Sophie through the history of philosophy and therefore through different ways we can look at our lives (not to mention different ways to live our lives).

“Basically there are not many philosophical questions to ask. We have already asked some of the most important ones. But history presents us with many different answers to each question. So it is easier to ask philosophical questions than to answer them.”

 

– quoted from the letter in the first packet Sophie Amundsen in Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder

When it comes to śauca (cleanliness or “purity”) and the physical practice of yoga, I often focus on how the movement and the poses are a way to detoxify the body. What I miss by doing that, however, is the opportunity to reflect on how the movement and the poses purify the mind. Consider how clean, clutter-free, your mind is after your practice. Now consider how when your mind and body are clean, inside and out, you are less likely to clutter them. Consider also how, over time, the practice of cleanliness related to your mind-body translates into a desire to de-clutter your space and even your life. Even more importantly, consider how, over time, you not only have the desire to clean up – you also have the energy and the will. Therefore, the internal observation becomes a process and a state achieved through the process.

Just as practicing ahimsā (“non-violence”/non-harming) leads directly to the other yamās, practicing śauca leads to the other niyamās. For example, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD., explains santosha (“contentment”) as “Not desiring more than we have” – which is hard to do when we are surrounded by so much stuff and are filled with the physical and mental desire to have more stuff. Once we commit to the practice, we notice that it requires discipline and austerity (which are ways you can translate tapas). Furthermore, as these are all processes as well as states that are cultivated through the processes, there is a constant need to pay attention to how you are feeling, thinking, speaking, and acting – which is not only self-study (svādhyāya), but also another rubric for how to practice.

“The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings.”

 

– quoted from “With a monist” published in Pointing the Way: Collected Essays by Martin Buber

Please join me for a 90-minute virtual yoga practice on Zoom today (Saturday, August 8th) at 12:00 PM, when we will literally and virtually embrace ourselves, in order to embrace the world. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0.

Today’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. (This is the “04262020 Philosophy of Locks” playlist.)

 

As I have had a death in my family, I will not be teaching on Sunday (8/9) of this week, but I will send a recording of today’s class to anyone on my Zoom class email lists.  Please keep an eye on the “Class Schedules” calendar (see link above) as I am not yet sure which classes I will be able to teach next week.

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.

“So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”

 

– quoted from Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder

 

Full disclosure: Jostein Gaarder is an environmental activist who named an environmental development prize after the character of his most famous novel/children’s book. The international award of $100,000 (USD) was issued to people and organizations working with the environment and sustainable development (1998 – 2013). He has also made some polarizing political statements – statements which can easily be seen as anti-Semitic (unless, of course, that is your blind spot).

 

 

### “Who are you? I really want to know?” – The Who ###

 

Where the practice begins (and ends) July 25, 2020

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“Theft is the one unforgivable sin, the one common denominator of all sins. When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. There is no act more wretched then stealing.”

 

– Amir, remembering the lessons of his father, in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

 

“They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, ‘In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.’ And they ask you what they should spend. Say, ‘The excess [beyond needs].’ Thus Allah makes clear to you the verses [of revelation] that you might give thought.”

 

– quoted from Surah Al-Baqarah (2:219), Al-Qur’an al-Kareem

We all have a moral code, an ethical compass, something that helps us navigate through life – ostensibly creating as little harm as possible. The vast majority of people are born with an instinctual “true north,” just like every other creature in the natural world, and it’s calibrated based on the ethical lessons we are given early in our lives. We are given these lessons – about right and wrong and about how to conduct ourselves in the world – at a very early age, regardless of who we are, where we were born and raised, what language we speak, and/or which aspects of the Divine we may or may not honor. We can call them lessons of the father and the mothers, but they are also lessons of the sisters and brothers, lessons of the elders, lessons of the peers. Sometimes we are given explicit instructions, other times we watch the way people conduct themselves around us. Eventually, we recognize them as laws. And, just like Amir in The Kite Runner, there are times when we check in our moral compass and think, “Yes, this makes sense, this feels right” or, “Ooo, wow, this doesn’t make sense, this feels off.”

If you grow up in a society associated with one of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islām) then you may think in terms of the commandments (10 or 613) or you think in terms of what is of benefit and what is forbidden (harām). If you grow up in a culturally Buddhist society, you may view things through the precepts. Still, when we get to a certain age, these lessons have been instilled in us and we take them with us wherever we go – even on the yoga mat.

Yoga Sūtra 2.30: ahimsāsatyāsteyabrahmcaryāparigrahā yamāh

 

– “Non-violence (or non-harming), truthfulness, non-stealing, walking in awareness of the highest reality, and non-possessiveness (or non-hording) are the restraints (or universal commandments).”

Even if you have never heard of or explored the 8-limb philosophy of yoga, even if you have never been taught that the practice begins with an ethical component, the five yamās, or external restraints, will sound familiar. Along with the five niyamās, or internal observations, the yamās provide a rubric for the practice – that is to say, they give the practitioner direction about how to conduct themselves and how to move through the practice. Even when they are not the explicit focus of the practice, the yamās and niyamās make up the foundation of the practice. If you are not practicing them, or not practicing some form of them, while you are practicing āsanas (poses), you are not practicing yoga. One can also say that if you are practicing them while engaged in something other than āsana, then you are practicing yoga.

“Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind.

Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvot. Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost.

Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above from you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.”

 

– quoted from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:1

Please join me for a 90-minute virtual yoga practice on Zoom today (Saturday, July 25th) at 12:00 PM. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Today’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. (This is the “Hays Code 2020” playlist dated March 31.)

 

“Talking about a path is not walking that path. Thinking about life is not living.”

 

– quoted from Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu (translation from A Path and a Practice: Using Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching as a Guide to an Awakened Spiritual Life by William Martin)

 

### WHAT ARE YOU PRACTICING? ###

 

Going Back to the Start April 27, 2020

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(“Ramadan Mubarak, Blessed Ramadan!” to anyone who is observing Ramadan. I typically talk about Ramadan at the end of the season, so keep your eyes open.)

“I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

 

– from A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft

 

 “Biology transcends society.”

 

–from The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life by Jessie Redmon Fauset

Many, if not most, Westerners are introduced to yoga through the physical practice – which is a combination of asana (“seat” or pose) and pranayama (awareness of breath or “control of breath”). This introduction often comes without any introduction to the philosophy itself – or to the fact that people are starting in the middle of the practice, instead of at the beginning.

In some ways, starting in the middle is problematic, because the beginning of the philosophy provides the ethical component and fundamentals through which one can access the rest of the philosophy. Just as the beginning of a story introduces the characters and their situation, the beginning of the philosophy/practice introduces the who, what, where, why, and (most importantly, in some cases) the how of hatha yoga (the physical practice, regardless of style or tradition).

When you start in the middle of the story, you are constantly playing catch-up or asking someone else to explain what’s happening. You’re a little lost. You can still catch on, but it’s harder than if you started at the beginning. Another problematic aspect, especially if you are asking someone else for all the pertinent details you missed at the beginning, is that they occasionally missed a detail that comes back up later – and suddenly, you’re lost again. It’s like walking into the middle of a something written by a fan of Anton Chekov and going, “Wait, why does it matter what color thread she uses?” Or, wondering why people are laughing about a Rolex watch in Die Hard.

Yoga Sutra 2.30: ahimsāsatyāsteyabramacaryāparigrahā yamāh

– “Non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-possessiveness are restraints (or universal commandments).”

 

Yoga Sutra 2.32: śaucasantoşatapahsvādhyāyeśvarapraņidhānāni niyamāh

 

– “Cleanliness, contentment, discipline (or austerity), self-study, and trustful surrender to the Divine are the internal observations.”

The first and second limbs of the 8-limb philosophy of yoga consist of five universal commandments and five internal observations. Although, the yamas are often referred to as “external” restraints the truth is that we may first need to practice these on ourselves. Hence, we not only do unto others as we would have them do unto us (to paraphrase Jesus, Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12), we also do unto ourselves as we would do unto others (which sounds a lot like Matthew 22:39). And the perfect place to practice is on the mat (or on the cushion). The same is true of the niyamas. Get on the mat, get in a pose, breathe and notice how you are treating yourself. Notice what you are thinking about yourself. Notice how you are loving yourself. Or Not.

As you all have heard me say, and as my early teachers say, “How you do yoga is how you do life.” So, as you move through the practice you are, essentially, moving through the different aspects of your life. How you treat the different parts of you, may reflect the different ways you treat people in your life; people who are, essentially and philosophically, reflections of yourself. How you focus on outside, versus on the inside, reflects what you have been taught is most important.

“Sometimes I think that no matter how one is born, no matter how one acts, there is something out of gear with one somewhere, and that must be changed. Life at its best is a grand corrective.”

 

– From There is Confusion by Jessie Redmon Fauset

“Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

 

– from A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft

A slight loophole to my earlier statement about how starting in the middle is problematic, is that most people are introduced to some aspect of yoga after they have already been introduced to some kind of moral code or ethical compass. You may not have heard of the yamas and niyamas before, but you’ve most likely heard of the Ten Commandments (notice 5+5 = 10). Even if you did not grow up in a Judeo-Christian environment, you did grow up within a society with a division between right and wrong and (for most people) that comes with an understanding that translates into a code of conduct. In other words, you have your own set of commandments and observations.

Ultimately, the real problem is not that people are not immediately introduced to the ethical component of the philosophy; it is that the importance of ethical behavior is not always emphasized at the beginning, and throughout, the practice. Furthermore, this ethical component has to extend beyond the practice on the mat (or on the cushion), because practicing will change the way you interact with yourself and the world around you.

That last statement is not conjecture or opinion. It is absolutely fact. Underlying this idea is, as William Broad points out in The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, that yoga can result in physiological changes to the body, including an increase in testosterone. Testosterone, of course, is a natural occurring hormone in all genders. It is related to muscle and bone mass, prevention of osteoporosis, as well as sexual drive, aggression, and competitive behavior. Broad is a science writer and book received a lot of criticism from the yoga community (myself included) not because of his scientific research, but because he lumped all physical practices together and decided to only look at the practice through the physical lens. So, ultimately, the biggest complaint was that he left out the context; he left out the ethics.

Mary Wollstonecraft, born today in 1759, was one of the earliest feminist philosophers. She authored A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which she argued that women should not only be treated, educated, and respected in the same way as men, but should also be held to the same accountability as men. Wollstonecraft wrote, “The mind will ever be unstable that has only prejudices to rest on, and the current will run with destructive fury when there are no barriers to break its force.”

“I am colored and wish to be known as colored, but sometimes I have felt that my growth as a writer has been hampered in my own country. And so — but only temporarily — I have fled from it.”

 

– Jessie Redmon Fauset in a 1923 Paris Tribune interview

Like so many other Harlem Renaissance artists, Jessie Redmon Fauset spent some time as an expatriate in Paris. An African-American editor, poet, novelist, and educator Fauset, born today in 1882, graduated as valedictorian of her class at Philadelphia High School for Girls, the city’s top academic school, and applied to Bryn Mawr College. She ended up at Cornell University, however, after officials from Bryn Mawr found her a scholarship at another university!

After graduating from Cornell and receiving a Masters in French from the University of Pennsylvania, Fauset was selected by W. E. B. DuBois to be the literary editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis (from 1919 to 1926). Her novels focused on the lives of the Black middle class and, in some cases, the ethical and psychological ramifications of “passing,” where a Black person enters into society as a White person. Her work, as an editor and as a writer, was highly praised during her lifetime. Yet, despite the praise and the fact that she went to highly respected schools, you’ve probably never heard of her. There’s a good chance, however, that you’ve heard of some of the people whose work she highlighted as an editor: writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Gwendolyn Bennett.

You may notice that, with the exception of Bennett, all of those remembered writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance are men. And, you may not think very much of that, given the big picture that is how artists are promoted in the world, unless you consider a little bit of (her)story related by Morgan Jenkins in a 2017 The New Yorker article. The article talks about the events leading up to a dinner initially intended to honor Fauset and the release of her novel. The philosopher, writer, and educator Alain Locke, however, suggested that the evening should honor a group of writers and Faust ended up relegated to being “an afterthought.”

For many people, the other 6 parts of the 8-limb philosophy of yoga are an afterthought (or a never thought). If you join me tonight (Monday, April 27th) at 5:30 PM, however, the ethics will be front and center during a 75-minuite virtual yoga practice on Zoom. The new Zoom security protocols have definitely kicking in; so, please use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems. There is no playlist for the Common Ground Meditation Center practices.

I consent to you Kiss(ing) My Asana?

The 7th Annual Kiss My Asana yogathon benefits Mind Body Solutions, which was founded by Matthew Sanford to help those who have experienced trauma, loss, and disability find new ways to live by integrating both mind and body. Known for their adaptive yoga classes, MBS provides “traditional yoga” classes, workshops, and outreach programs. They also train yoga teachers and offer highly specialized training for health care professionals. This year’s yogathon is only a week long! Seven days, starting yesterday (Saturday), to do yoga, share yoga, and help others. By participating in the Kiss My Asana yogathon you join a global movement, but in a personal way. In other words, you practice yoga… for 7 days.

The yogathon raises resources and awareness. So, my goal this year is to tell 7 stories in 7 days and raise $600 for Mind Body Solutions. You can do yoga starting today. You can share yoga be inviting a friend to one of my classes or by forwarding one of the blog posts. You can help others by donating or, if you are not able to donate, come to class Saturday – Wednesday (or request a class you can do on your own) and practice the story poses on Thursday and Friday so that I can make a donation on your behalf.

You can add 5 minutes of yoga (or meditation) to your day; you can learn something new about your practice; or even teach a pose to someone close to you – or even to one of your Master Teachers/Precious Jewels.

To give you some ideas about how you can spend this week, consider that in past years my KMA offerings have included donation-based classes and (sometimes) daily postings. Check out one of my previous offerings dated April 27th (or thereabouts):

30 Poses in 30 Days (scroll down to see April 27th)

A Musical Preview (scroll down to see March 27th)

A 5-Minute Practice

5 Questions Answered by Yogis

Answers to Yogis Questions

 

* Psst…Ella’s story was my first KMA 2020 offering and her pose is Tadasana / Samasthiti (Mountain Pose / Equal Standing) as if you are offering a gift. The second story was the story of philosophy and connectivity via a little bit of the histories of Charles Richter and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Today’s stories takes us back to the start. So far I only have one yogi submitted story, which means I need 3 more. Please tell me your story!

You can also check out yesterday’s all-humanity, Kick-Off gathering featuring insights from MBS founder Matthew Sanford, conversation with MBS students, and a mind-body practice for all. If you’re not familiar with MBS, this will give you a glimpse into the work, the people, and the humanity of the adaptive yoga program which I am helping to raise $50K of essential support.

### IMBALANCE BALANCE IMBALANCE ###