Monday, January 2, 2012

Self Study as Practice...

Yoga has become a household word. The concept of “enlightenment” is
being used to sell everything from cars to honey ham. Over the past decade
yoga's popularity has grown so much that its classical images (the Om symbol,
practitioners in postures, words written with the hanging scroll of faux-
Sanskrit letters) are seen emblazoned on clothing and jewelry and have become
commodities, trends and fashion statements. Sacred mantras are given new
melodies, set to a drum beat and stream through hip-hop yoga classes and
dance parties in cities all over. The proliferation of yoga's physical practice –
hatha yoga and asana – continues to birth a never ending stream of variations
that include slow flow, power glow, yoga fight club and yoga-booty-ballet with
the emphasis on BIGGER backbends, STRONGER core, HARDER postures
and MORE achievement. This is not inherently good or bad. In light of Mark
Singleton's 2010 book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Postural Practice, and the
discovery that even the more known "traditional" systems of yoga are only
about a century old (and are in fact a creative collection blending wrestling
moves, gymnastics, calisthenics and charismatic leaders' polishing the package)
gives credence to the idea of creativity and exploration beyond the boundaries
set forth by those who previously trod this path. More yoga, in all its variations,
arguably will create more opportunities for more people to embrace its healing
benefits. The point that its ubiquitous representation via Shanti-Shakti-Om
emblazoned paraphernalia and stamina-driven sweaty-yoga workouts will water
down the ancient wisdom teachings that preceded the physical practice so
popular today remains to be seen and ultimately depends on the practitioner.

The aphorism that variety is the spice of life might be applied in this context.
We could consider it a blessing to have so many options to approach the
spiritual practice of yoga. It is the nature of humans to be creative and
thoughtful and to utilize individual expression. This quality of self-reflection is
the very thing that sets humans apart from other sentient beings on this planet.
Humans have the capacity to think about their thoughts, their actions and
words. Choices can be made about what could be done, how well the
individual and others will be served or harmed by an action and what the end
result will be. Human animals have so much more than basic instinct and habit
and are the only animals that have full vertical, upright capability... placing the
brain on top of the rest of the physiology. This is the anatomical foundation of
the chakra system in yoga. The top four chakras are said to be responsible for
sensitivity in giving and receiving love, clearly communicating ideas and
connection to others, seeing the truth of life and death and knowing ultimate
reality. Without self-reflection, study of the self is not possible. Self-study, or
svadhyaya, is the practice of noticing one's habitual tendencies in speech,
actions, thoughts… including practice!! Through the experience of svadhyaya
one notices their tendencies, their ruts, or samskaras and then works to create
their opposite, fulfilling a balanced and evolved life. This is often the missing
piece. Tias said once, "Svadhyaya is tapas. Tapas is svadhyaya." Self-study is
austerity in practice and austerity in practice is self-study. The crux of this is
that if one does not know one's self, they'll end up falling blindly,
unconsciously, into whatever ol' practice suits their fancy. Without svadhyaya
and tapas, whatever is popular, whatever feels good, whatever appeals to our
potentially very out of whack nervous system is what we are drawn to, like
moths to a flame! This manifests as “like attracts like: The intense, strong, fiery
types flocking to strenuous hot yoga classes; loving, nurturing, bhakti types
gathering at kirtan circles; silent, intense and introverted types sitting at the
local Zen center; detail oriented, strong, perfectionist types gearing up for
Iyengar yoga… and never the ‘twain shall meet. It's the skillful practitioner who
can clearly see what their tendencies are and begin to include the opposite.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2.33 suggests this very notion, to cultivate the opposite
wing in one's practice for a balanced life force:

When these codes of self-regulation or restraint (yamas) and
observances or practices of self-training (niyamas) are inhibited
from being practiced due to perverse, unwholesome, troublesome,
or deviant thoughts, principles in the opposite direction, or
contrary thought should be cultivated.

What's popular in a culture and society is generally the result of the energetic
of desires and fears gone amok. The trend is overly available, opportunistic,
appealing to the masses, usually watered down and inevitably over the top in
order to draw as many consumers as possible. Nothing in nature reflects these
tendencies in popular culture. All animals (save the human animal) change
their behavior in an attempt to bring balance and they do it by instinct alone! A
skillful practitioner will work in a system intentionally varied that is inclusive of
stillness practice, sounding and devotional practices, rigorous asana, restorative
asana and introspective healing work. This is the gift of yoga. This is the call of
the yogin and yogini.  Om on.