Sunday, December 5, 2010

3. Isvara Pranidhana: Follow What?

Hanuman (The Denver Art Museum)
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
- Tao Te Ching 1

Isvara pranidhana, the third part of  Kriya Yoga, is a little more difficult to approach and much less tangible than the first two parts (tapas , and svadhyaya). It means surrender and devotion to Isvara.  So what is this Isvara? It can mean "Lord" or "God", but it also can be any of the numerous labels we have to describe that undefinable mystery commonly labelled as "God".  However, I want to make it clear that a believe in "God" is not a prerequisite for yoga.  One can believe in God without surrendering, and one can surrender without believing.  I feel that both believers and non-believers alike can find a connection to Isvara pranidhana.

Isvara pranidhana can be compared to what happens after learning to play a musical instrument like the guitar.  First you put in a lot of hard work in training the fingers getting them placed on the fretboard and leaning technique to get a clear sound - this takes tapas.  Then you have to learn theory, and scales and chords and stuff like that in order to play songs - this involves svadhyaya.   Third component is much more subtle: the silence between the notes - this is isvara pranidhana.  Music is impossible with out that silence, that space between the notes.  In yoga class, it is the pause between the postures that one can really surrender and let go.

In my intersprititual approach I think isvara pranidhana is similar Jesus' call to "follow me"2 and Paul's call to know "the will of God"3.  To "follow" someone takes the utmost devotion from the follower, and to know "the will of God" calls for surrender.  As a Mennonite I choose to follow Jesus; as a yogi I respect that Jesus is just one of many forms of isvara.  There is no virtue for the Christian in believing that Jesus is the one and only way to God for all people.  Instead this is just another pitfall of the ego that all spiritual aspirants should work to overcome.  The three step process of Kriya Yoga is designed to overcome the pitfalls, or kleshas  - this is what we will look at next.

1. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (Chapter 1). Translated by Stephan Mitchell. Perennial Classics, 1988.
2. Mark 8:34 
3. Romans 12:2

Sunday, November 21, 2010

2. Svadhyaya: Renew the Mind Then Deny Yourself.

The Art of Study
Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power
- Tao Te Ching 1
With svadhyaya we move inward to the realm of the mind where we can begin to study our authentic selves.  With tapas we turn the body into a laboratory, now with svadhyaya we turn the mind into a telescope so we can see our own selves clearly.

Two excellent tools to "renew the mind"2 are the study of scripture and mantra repetition. Scripture provides a blueprint of your authentic self.  Without doing the "building" yourself the blueprint is not of much use.  The practitioner needs to bring the wisdom of scripture to life.  All scriptures have this as there aim, so any of them will do - yogi's choice!  There is nothing wrong with choosing just one and making that scripture more important that the others for your own journey to your authentic self, but we should respect others who choose to focus on other scriptures.  All scripture is equally sacred and equally flawed at the same time, as the written word can only point the practitioner to the way, it is not the way in and of itself.

Mantra repetition is used to focus the mind on one point; a one-pointed mind is a "renewed mind".  Our minds when allied with the ego want to be simulated constantly and scatter in all different directions clinging to vrittis, thought waves.  Repeating a mantra  can be helpful in breaking the mind's bond to vrittis and eventually the ego.  The mantra is best repeated silently, and can be any sacred word or phase of one's choosing.  For more on mantras I recommend Eknath Easwaren's book The Mantram Handbook.

How am I not my self?- I Heart Huckabees

It is necessary to "deny the self"3 that is ego based.  The ego-self attaches to all sorts of labels and thoughts and concepts, stuff we should deny.  My practice of svadhyaya should help attachment melt away. It is through these attachments that I become "not my self".  Which brings me to this clip from the film I Heart Huckabees. This is a pivotal moment for the nemesis in this movie, played by Jude Law, when his false ego-self is exposed.  This false self allowed him to get ahead in the corporate world.  His focus was to impress others while hiding his authentic self behind a mask.  After the false self is exposed by the light of self-study, he can no longer wear that mask and behave they way he has without making himself sick.

1. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (Chapter 33). Translated by Stephan Mitchell. Perennial Classics, 1988.
2.  see Romans 12:2
3.  see Mark 8:34

Sunday, November 7, 2010

1. Tapas: Nourishing the Body With More than Just Spanish Apetizers.

"Self-discipline is an aid to spiritual progress, whereas self-torture is an obstacle.1 -Sri Swami Satchidananda  
Face-plant on ice: tapas or torture?

Try to google "tapas" and what do you get? Spanish appetizers! You've gotta love those edible tapas but the tapas of the yoga variety is something differentTapas (self-discipline), as the first part of Kriya Yoga, lays the foundation for a solid yoga practice; the tangible practices used to discipline the physical body and our behaviors. It also provides the endurance to take on life's obstacles called kleshas in The Yoga Sutras.   The kleshas cause us much pain and suffering, and through tapas we learn to endure and eventually overcome this pain.  However, this is not a practice of creating pain through some sort of self-torture, as the opening quote reminds us;  So we are not being encouraged to be gluttons for punishment here.  Instead we try to cultivate a healthy body and refine our lifestyle.  These aims can be tackled with the practice of Hatha Yoga and Karma Yoga (two yoga paths that fall under the tapas umbrella).  So, it is for tapas sake that we practice the most popular yoga practice in the Western World: the yoga postures found in Hatha YogaKarma Yoga (The Yoga of Action) promotes a healthier lifestyle by encouraging us to partake in selfless service.

Tapas, Sacrifice and Carrying the Cross
 "Let me die in my footsteps before I go down under the ground" - Bob Dylan 
Now let's take a look at how the Biblical concepts of "carrying the cross"2 and "the body as a living sacrifice"3 compare to the tapas of Kriya Yoga.  To me, carrying one's cross means to live fearlessly; it means taking on life's challenges and burdens rather than hiding from them. It is a commitment to overcoming the fear of death.  This is the same obstacle, or klesha, that tapas is meant to overcome.  Both tapas and "carrying the cross" are methods of self-discipline that start with regulating our actions and attitudes to the world.  We are asked to take on our own selfishness and self-righteousness.

St. Paul's request to become a "living sacrifice" is also similar to tapas.  Rather than living for ourselves we are asked to sacrifice everything to something more than ourselves - what some call "God", and in The Yoga Sutras is called "Isvara".  Becoming a living sacrifice is hard work that requires one to examine one's actions on a moment to moment basis in an unending process of refinement.  In Karma Yoga the same idea of self-sacrifice is summed up with this passage from The Bhagavad Gita: "...if you want to be truly free perform all actions as worship.4"  With the same spirit that we turn outward with tapas, we also need to turn inward in a process that begins with svadhyaya, self-study, the next part of Kriya Yoga.
1 The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Intregal Yoga publications, 1990. (pg. 80).   
2. Mark 8:34 see also Matt. 10:38 and 16:24; Luke 9:23 and 14:27
3. Romans 12:1
4 3:9 of The Bhagavd GitaTranslated by Mitchell, Stephen. Bhagavad Git: A New Translation.  Three Rivers Press. New York, 2000. (pg. 63).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Kriya Yoga and Christanity: an Interspiritual Approach by a Yogi-Mennonite.

This is my attempt to draw a comparison between Kriya Yoga and Christianity.  But first a few words on interspirituality. I first came across the term while reading the book "Jesus in the Lotus" by Russill Paul, who explains it quite well. I recommend reading his book.  While searching for more information on interspirituality, I found a site,  Lighthouse Research Trails Project, that gives very misleading information about interspirituality by making it look like some sort of threat to Christianity and by erroneously defining the term "interspirituality" as "the combining of the world religions".  No! An interspiritual approach does not mean mixing all the worlds religions into one religion.  Nor does it mean cherry picking the best parts of different religions and adding them to your own religion. It is an approach that not only recognizes the similarities among religions, but also respects their differences and allows them to coexist.  Here is a good page I found that helps explain further: What is interspirituality?
The above photo represents my personal interspirituality. Books: The Yoga Sutras, The Bhagavad Gita, The Tao Te Ching, The Sermon on the Mount According to Vendanta, The Bible (Die Bibel), Tostoy's translation of the Gospel (Chetveroyevangeliye), Figures: the Buddha and Christian Rychener one of my Mennonite ancestors. Background: symbol for the sound "OM".
For me to be interspiritual means I am both a Mennonite and a yoga practitioner.  Both paths complement each other well, but at the same time each one can stand on its own as a sufficient path. I also understand that they have many differences. However, different doesn't mean one is wrong or inferior.  Studying a second religion or spiritual path is like learning a new language. It will enrich your world view, and it shouldn't threaten your primary religion if you are secure enough in it.

Kriya Yoga, as defined in yoga sutra II.1, I find to have similarities with two passages from the Bible's New Testament: Mark 8:34* and Romans 12:1-2*. These two Bible passages and sutra II.1, all provide the spiritual aspirant with a three step process.  The three steps are:

Kriya Yoga                                            Mark 8:34                                    Romans 12:1-2
1) tapas                                                1) carry your cross                      1) your body as living sacrifice
2) svadhyaya                                        2) deny self                                 2) renew your mind
3) isvara pranidhana                           3) follow me                                3) know gods will
(surrender to a higher power).

How are the three concepts in Kriya Yoga similar to those in Mark and Romans?   We will begin to look at this question in the next installment of Yoga Goggles, as I will break it down part by part starting with tapas.

I would like to extend a special thanks to the authors of the following articles from Elephant Journal: Is Yoga Un-Christian? and Further Thoughts on Yoga and Christianity, for inspiring me to write this post.

*The complete passages:
Mark 8:34  Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (NIV)

Romans 12:1-2  Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  (NIV)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Yoga - Tri Me!

Yoga Sutra II.1
tapah svadyayesvara pranidhanani kriya yogah

Kriya Yoga consists of tapas, svadyaya, isvara pranidhana.

The main course of The Yoga Sutras is chapter II, The Chapter on Practice (Sadhana Pada). It begins with a three point plan of action, Kriya Yoga, and ends with an eight point plan, Astanga Yoga, that spills over into the beginning of chapter III. In a single sentence (sutra II.1), Patanjali brings together the three big paths of yoga: Karma Yoga (The Yoga of Action), Jnana Yoga (The Yoga Of Wisdom), and Bhakti Yoga (The Yoga of Love and Devotion) that correlate with the three pactices in Sutra II.1 self-discipline (tapas), self-study (svadyaya), and surrender to a higher power (isvara pranidhana). These three practices are fuel for the whole person. Tapas nourishes the body; Svadyaya nourishes the mind; Isvara pranidhana nourishes the spirit.

I took this photo while on my morning walk to work. (No, I'm not a photographer nor have I ever enjoyed taking photos, but I decided to dust off the digital camera and start taking pictures of random things around town that inspired me to put on some Yoga Goggles.) This picture is of a sculpture-fountain located where the Cherry Creek bike path crosses Steele St. in Denver, CO. For weeks, I had been admiring this fountain and how its three concrete triangle-structures shoot streams of water out that all flow together in the center to form a single stream. With my luck, the morning I finally remembered to bring the camera it was Fall already and the fountain had been shut off. I took the picture anyway as an illustration of how blocked I am when I'm not practicing yoga enough and my "streams" don't flow together disconnecting my body, mind and spirit. But when the three steps are practiced evenly and they flow together the implied forth step can be eventually realized: samadhi.

Read about the Big-3 paths of yoga: They are found in The Baghavad Gita Ch. 3: Karma Yoga, Ch. 4: Jnana Yoga, Ch. 12: Bhakti Yoga.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Where the Rivers Converge.

. . .there is no one right way for people to live.
There never has been and never will be.1 - Daniel Quinn

I find yoga to be in agreement with this statement by the writer Daniel Quinn. There is no one way to practice yoga. Instead, there are many diverse ways for people to reach the state of yoga just as there are many rivers that empty into the same ocean. The Yoga Sutras recognize this by including many different paths of yoga; it provides a place for the rivers to converge.

A big chunk of Chapter I (see I:23-39) is basically a list of choices on how to practice yoga. Choices! How refreshing! In a world that seems to want to move towards one large mono-culture, yoga may be able to help us value tolerance and diversity instead. One of my favorite sutras in this list is:

I:39 yathabhimata dhyanad va
Or by meditation on anything that appeals to one as good.2

This sutra really highlights the universality of yoga. Anything you choose can become your focus of meditation. It doesn't matter what religion, or non-religion that you may practice. There is still something for everyone. While reading a new book that I got from the library, The Mirror of Yoga, I came across the following bit that expresses a similar idea to sutra I:39: "We hone the skill of focusing the mind on whatever pattern of perception it lights upon; whatever we are thinking, feeling, sensing, emoting becomes the object of meditation."3

So, there are many ways to still the mind, perhaps as many as there are people. In the beginning of our practice we should be encouraged to use a process of trial and error to find out what works for us. Chapter I (Samadhi Pada) of The Yoga Sutras gives many different 1-step plans to reach samadhi (the ultimate state of yoga). For some, putting into practice just one of these sutras (I:23-39) will do it for them. Although I find the 1-step plans in Chapter I inspiring, I don't think I'm quite cut out for one of them. I still cling to too much baggage, so I can't just jump on the next flight on standby with no check-ins or carry-ons. But fear not! For people like me there is Chapter II, where we will turn to in the next portion of Yoga Goggles.

A little inter-spiritual extra credit: Can you find any similarities between The Yoga Sutras and texts from other traditions like The Tao Te Ching, The Dhammapada, or The Bible?

1. Quinn, Daniel. Beyond Civilization. Three Riviers Press. NY, 1999. (pg. 96)
2. trans. by Swami Vivekananda. Raja-Yoga. Revised ed. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center. NY, 1955. (pg. 134)
3. Freeman, Richard. The Mirror of Yoga. Shambala, Boston and London, 2010. (pg. 14)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Are the Batteries Included?

Yoga Sutra I.12: abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan nirodhah
The mind can be stilled with practice and detachment.

Yes, a "yoga battery" is included! It can be found in sutra I.12. On the positive side we have practice (abhyasa) and on the negative, detachment (vairagya). This is the first sutra to answer the question "how do I still the mind?" And the answer is the same way a battery makes things work: with a positive and a negative charge. It needs both to function. All yoga practices should be balanced with detachment from the results.

As a teenager, I loved basketball. I practiced shooting hoops everyday. My goal was to make the highly competitive basketball team at my school. When try-outs came around, I played poorly in part because I was so worried about what the coaches were thinking that I couldn't focus on what I was doing. The other part was that my practice to prepare for try-outs was centered around shooting baskets and I failed to improve the most important part of the game: defensive skills. Worst of all, after getting cut, I just quit playing all together. I was attached to the results of my practice to the point where I lost the enjoyment of the game.

Asana (yoga postures) is the most well known yogic practice in the Western World, and is often practiced without detachment. Asana is a great way to explore the body and prepare it to sit in meditation, but without detachment you risk becoming an asana junkie. I almost became one myself.

Another risk is allowing your yoga to be aligned with materialism, commercialism and consumerism instead of detachment. Don't get sold on the false idea that before you can practice yoga and be happy you need to go out and buy a bunch of stuff like a high performance yoga mat with a designer mat bag, a strap, block and ball as well. You will also need some fashionable yoga clothes, a couple pairs of yoga toes and yoga paws, a box of Power Bars, a case of Vitamin Water . . . the list can go on and on. Instead, try lighting your load by giving away stuff.

More on The Yoga Sutras: Sutra I.12. is the key to all the other sutras that prescribe practices. For example The 8 Limbs of Yoga that are introduced in Chapter II all have aspects of both abhyasa (systematic practice) and vairagya (detachment). Some, however, are more dominated by practice while others by detachment. Thus, The 8 Limbs can also be grouped into two larger categories: limbs 1-4 fall under abhyasa, and Limbs 5-8 fall under vairagya.

A parallel reading to sutra I.12 can be found in The Bhagavad Gita (6:35).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Whole Enchilada Concisely Wrapped up in Three Neat Parts.

After you have cracked open your copy of The Yoga Sutras and looked it over some, you may quickly notice that this text is pretty concise. Actually, Patanjali was a master of the art of conciseness. He didn't leave any explanation to the Sutras. (The job of explaining this brief text was taken on by the multitude of not so concise commentators.) So, Patanjali really gets to the point by wrapping up the entire story of yoga in just the first three Sutras. Let's take a look at them and see how they form a story:

I.1-3 atha yoganushasanam
yogas chitta vritti nirodhah
tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam

Now, the teachings of yoga [are presented].
Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.
When that is accomplished, the seer abides in his own true nature.1

With these sutras 1, 2, and 3, we have a complete story: an introduction, body and conclusion. Those enchiladas are really starting to make me hungry now.

The introduction sets the stage to begin our practice at the physical level with a process of purification. We have to get rid of some baggage before we can start our journey. Then we shower, get dressed, put on our walking shoes, and head out the door. The body of the story gives us the task we need to do on our journey. Our practice moves to the mental level. When we attempt to still the mind we run into all kinds of obstacles, but we keep going on our journey until the obstacles are overcome. In the third sutra we reach the innermost level of spirit. We are home! Now we can kick back and relax. Sounds simple enough, right?

But wait, I ask myself what if my mind is not that simple to still? How can I possibly still this thing jumping around in my head? Maybe I should read on. The next 193 sutras help fill in the details on how we can accomplish the task of sutra I.2. The big "but" is sutra I.4 which explains that in all other cases when the mind is not still we are lost in the disturbing waves of the mind.2 We remain as mere slaves to our minds. The practice of yoga is the process of breaking free from this mental slavery.

I have to face it my story is not as neat as the one above. It looks something more like this: I started out on my journey with way too much baggage and an untied shoe that doesn't fit right and I keep falling down. Somehow I forgot where I was going, and my trusty map didn't seem to help; it just got me more lost. I wound up stumbling into an ocean. I have no goggles, and I can't even swim. Now, I'm getting pounded by waves. Where do I go from here? The first step is to admit I have a problem . . . Ah, that feels better. Somehow, I'm able to float back to shore. I get the water and seaweed out of my ears and pull out my soggy map to take another look. Then it hits me - I've been looking at the map up-side-down this whole time. Well, the good news is I think I might be on the right track now. The bad news? As it turns out I still need to cross that ocean. Maybe I should get some goggles and learn how to swim.

An extremely difficult task lays ahead, but if I'm interested in breaking free from mental slavery, I need to gain control of the mind-waves (vrittis) says Patanjali . For the few rare beings out there, sutras 1-3 is all they're gonna need. End of story. For the rest of us, like myself, there are the other 193 sutras, and a lot of hard work ahead.

Something else to chew on: Patanjali didn't pull these teachings out of thin air. In fact, he didn't claim any authorship to the ideas and practices in this text. Instead his task was to organize and record what was already known and practiced by random yogis. He must also have drawn from the wisdom of older texts like The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads. It my be worthwhile to take a look at some of those as well.

1. Trans. by Bryant, Edwin F. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. 2009. (pp. 4, 10, 22)
2. Paraphrase of I.4 my own. Here is a more literal translation: I.4 vritti sarupyam itaratra. "At other times [the self appears to] assume the forms of the mental modifications." Trans. by Sri Swami Satchidanda.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different . . .

This famous line from Monty Python's Flying Circus, is not that different from the opening line in The Yoga Sutras:

I.1 Atha Yoganushashanam
"Now the teachings of yoga . . ."

With the word "now", Patanjali, who compiled this splendid text, is urging us to move on to "something completely different" after we've tired ourselves out from chasing life's fleeting pleasures. It's as if he is saying something like: "remember that yoga stuff you may have heard about and perhaps dabbled in? Well, now it's time to start a comprehensive practice, and really dig in below the surface."

This opening line marks the beginning of a new adventure, and the wisdom that follows provides us with a road map that will help us navigate through our yoga journey. Now, let's take a look at these yoga teachings, shall we? After all, when would be a better time than now?

Plan of action: If you haven't already, visit your library or search online for a copy of The Yoga Sutras, start reading and enjoy! Any translation will do, but for starters I recommend: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda). A good commentary can be helpful.

For more info. visit: The Yoga Page.