Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Ahimsa.... what does it mean?

If you are a somewhat seasoned yoga practitioner, you have probably heard about 'ahimsa'. It is a word from the ancient language of Sanskrit, which was used to write down all ancient sacred Indian texts.
Ahimsa means "non-violence".
Easy enough to understand as a concept, you might think. In a way, it is.
However, maybe it means more than we perceive at first glance. In India the sages who practice ahimsa walk barefoot and try to not even crush a bug under their soles accidentally.
I am thinking that no matter how hard one tries to avoid crushing a tiny bug under one's foot, it is bound to happen. We cannot see what is hiding in the grass, or even in the dust of a road. So, whether the sage likes it or not, he will inevitably hurt some little creatures unintentionally. He can't help it.
So, maybe we can say that non-violence means to not inflict harm by intent.
What comes first to my mind then is - obviously - the meat eating habit of a big part of the world population. Is that violence? Is killing an animal for food violence? Since this is a subject of great importance to many, it will be hard to determine who is right and who is wrong. People just love to eat meat way too much. Do they need it truly for sustenance? The answer is no, not at all. Entire nations used to be or still are vegetarian and thrive healthily. Top Olympic sportsmen and women are vegetarians and outperform anybody else. I myself have never eaten meat in my life and am the healthiest person on the planet, well, one of them!

But, I rather wanted to talk about ahimsa much more closely in relation with the practice of yoga.
Two weeks ago, I pulled or strained a rib on my left side. I was practicing a bow posture, and in order to enhance it, I used a strap to achieve a stronger back bend. As I pulled the strap over my head, I felt that sharp pain in my left floating ribs, and I knew the damage was done right there and then. Ouch. That really hurt! Two weeks later, I can still feel where I pulled the rib out of its cartilage. It is amazing that just one little spot of injury can affect the performance of the entire body. I can feel that injury two weeks later, when I do a variety of postures, as all the muscles perform together, and they find this one week spot.

But, on the bright side, I did learn this lesson: Ahimsa in the practice of yoga means also to use props in the right way.
What does that mean? When using a prop, it must be done only to support the posture at the level where we can perform it, without any help from a prop. It is there only to ease us into what we can do by ourselves.
I used it - and so do many yogis every day - to push myself beyond what I could have done without it. The result was an injury, a violence committed towards my own body.

I did already understand the concept that yoga should not be competitive and also not understood as a form of gymnastics or body building. However, it was obviously good to realize that such an anodyne thing as a prop can also be the source violence towards oneself, through inappropriate usage and practice. I shall remember that lesson from now on.

Thanks for allowing me to share this insight with you!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Yoga to do? Or Yoga to be???

Yoga is Not to do....
Yoga is to BE

What is your status? Are you practicing yoga these days? And if so, how do you share this fact with your friends and neighbors when the subject comes up?  "Oh yeah, I am doing yoga" ?
And what do you or your friends and neighbors gather from that statement? What is "doing" yoga?

Nothing is further from reality than to think that this question is unjustified or even strange.

What do most people think when they hear the term 'Yoga' ?
Some kind of physical exercise, which makes people bendy.... some fitness work-out for good-looking, young and hip millennial folks....after all, each and every picture one can see in yoga sports magazines is about nicely tanned, air-brushed and model figured twenty-somethings! Or they'll surmise it is something you can do to get great abs and a firm tush, get back in shape.... those are the stereotyped answers I have gotten frequently when I ask this question.

Would you believe me if I told you that all of the above could not be further from the truth? Believe it!

The most important and also one of the oldest writings about yoga goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years. At one point, a sage named Patanjali  (pronounced Pa'tan'jally)decided to collect all the information that was available in different sources and write a very condensed book about the purpose and method of yoga. Those are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. They comprise 195 very compact, precise statements about the nature of mankind, their divine origin, and how to regain this original state of divinity or divine immersion in our life time. While I am writing this, my mind brings up the biblical story of the fall of humans from divine grace, as they are being expelled from the Garden of Eden by their Creator. Humans have created many religions to attempt in more or less similar ways to regain that divine status we lost so long ago. Even if they differ in many aspects, they all state clearly that man must be reunited with God.

In yogic terms, instead of saying "God", "Allah", "Brahma", etc....,  I would prefer to call this state the 'divine state' and the creator behind it, the 'Divine Energy Source'. That way, whatever religion we may prefer to practice won't get in the way of the practice of yoga. Yoga is not a religion by any means and should not be regarded as such, ever.

Let's get back to Patanjali, the great sage. He structured these sutras in four chapters. It appears that he intended each of these to be addressed to four of his closest disciples. Their names were Kritanjali, Baddhanjali, Mastakanjali and Purnanjali. These four disciples were all at different stages in their yogic practice and each chapter addresses the particular challenges they deal with at those levels.
Do we have to study the Sutras if we are to properly practice yoga? Yes and No. But if you just asked me, the answer would be No, and here is why: The very essence of yoga is to fine tune one's inner perceptions in such a way that we can feel a constant connection with our inner divine Self. It is that simple. To do this requires a strong longing, or desire to achieve it. If a person is driven by this desire, and if they have faith in their path, they are onto practicing yoga already. It is then just a matter of "time" for them to grow until they merge into the Divine Source. There is no need to feed information through our intellectual channel in order to walk this path. All we need is to listen to our innermost guidance. It is always there, but often it is just cluttered up with the seemingly inextricable challenges of daily life. How many of us would say they had this inner voice when they were children, but lost it somewhere as life became more complicated?
At any time can we make this decision to return to a purer, child-like and innocent state of heart, mind and soul. It is up to each one of us to make that call.

Back to the business of the practice of physical yoga. Why do it? Can't we just sit down and learn how to meditate right away? Sure we can. Try it and see for yourself. You may find that your mind is quite uncooperative, as it will take you on a wild goose chase across all of your memory banks. It is so unbridled that it won't stay still for even a split second! You may find that you can remember even the most insignificant events from long ago, things you did not even know you remembered! And just when you try to clear your mind of all activity, it comes around and serves you the most incongruous dishes of way back when! Such is the nature of the beast, if I may say....

So, in order to learn how to put a bridle on that mind of ours, we use the best tool we have: our own body.
The most central item which keeps this body alive and kicking is..... drum roll.... our breath!
We can survive without any food for forty days. I did it and it works quite well, actually.
You can survive without water for about five to seven days, and barely so at the end of that period.
How long can our body survive without oxygen? Try to hold your breath for as long as you can and you got your answer! So, we need to keep breathing constantly and steadily in order to stay alive in our body.
In yoga, we use the rhythm of breathing to time the movements we make. Each move is one half breath: inhale and raise your arm, exhale and lower it back down. We learn to focus our mind on this simple activity: a combination of breathing and moving with that breath. This may sound simple enough, but it actually requires sustained focus! If you are lying on your back and you are raising your arms and legs to your inhale, then lower them back down to the timing of your exhale, you are already dealing with multiple parameters: first, you need to overcome the weight and inertia as you get the straight legs off the floor in a smooth and even movement. Next, you have to adopt different speeds for your arms and your legs, as they have different distances to travel: the legs go up to vertical, which would be 90 degrees, and the arms travel all the way to the floor overhead, which is an arc of 180 degrees. Not to mention that your arms are easier to raise than your legs! Try it out and see what happens! The rule is: you finish raising your arms and legs as you finish inhaling. You finish lowering your arms and legs as you finish exhaling. Then you have a brief pause, before you begin the next cycle. I can assure you it will take some coordinating and concentration to do this simple movement smoothly!

So we come to see that these exercises are not meant to be gymnastics, but rather a way to learn how to focus our mind inward and keep it focused as long as we want. All these postures, called Asanas in Sanskrit, even the complicated ones, are only there to push us to a more heightened state of concentration and inner focus. You can become a perfect yogi without ever doing a ballerina's split, or a wheel, or a hand stand. There is no competition in yoga, and there are no tests to be taken or grades to be obtained, ever. We are simply spiritual beings on our life-long quest for the answers to the questions of who we are, where we came from, why we are here and where we are going. This is what yoga will help us figure out, each in our own rhythm and time. And remember, time does not exist! If you don't believe it, let me know. I'll explain that to you next time! Namasté!