Getting to Heaven Before You Die

Another year is upon us. Or is it behind us? Or ahead? One thing is for sure: according to my calendar, the 366 days of Leap Year, 2016 have passed. Personally, I am a bit shocked by how fast the year has gone, even with the extra day thrown in. Most of the people I talk with agree that it went by quickly. Many (often those older than I) sagaciously nod their heads and them emphatically inform me that, the older I get, the faster the years will pass. So, as I reel from the speed with which 2016 has evaporated, I have been considering the following: 

     If we suppose that our life will span 80 years, that means our life will last 29,220 days. So, even if you were just born in 2016, you now are under 29,000 days. I’ll be honest, yesterday is the first time I actually stopped to do the math. I have to admit I was shocked that it was only tens of thousands of days. I thought a human life was hundreds of thousands, at least. I suspect I am not alone in this, which explains the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon of television reruns.

     Not that I wish to be grim, but I do wish that everyone, this holiday season, in addition to feeling an abundance of cheer, will feel the slight sense of constriction that that number—29,200—brings. This year I turned 43. That means I have roughly 13,515 days left (I didn’t figure out the number of leap years), if I make it to 80. That makes the sense of tightness even more acute. Of course, as Prashant Iyengar quips, I am practicing “I-younger” yoga so maybe I’ll make it to 100. Although I’d really only want to be that old under certain, very specific conditions. But we all know: there are no guarantees.

     So even if I make it to 100, that’s still only 20,819 days remaining. Now why, you may ask, all this focus on the (fleeting) number of days we have/we have left as human beings? Well, first, it is said in yoga that the affliction abhinivesha, or the instinctive fear of death is persistent. Actually, all the afflictions: avidya (spiritual ignorance), asmita (egotism or pride), raga (attachment or craving), dvesha (aversion) are persistent. Abhinivesha however, appears to be unique among the afflictions. B. K. S.  Iyengar, in his translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras states, “Self-preservation or attachment to life is the subtlest of all afflictions. It is found even in wise men.” He goes on to say that, “If even a highly educated, scholarly person cannot easily remain unattached to life, it is not difficult to gauge the feelings of an average individual.” 

     Secondly, though I find the turning of the year to be a bit arbitrary, it is a time when, collectively, we are watching something come to an end and something else begin. It is also a time when we are turning from the darkening half to the lightening half of the year. Just as in yoga, the transitions, the movements are important moments for attentive, reflective awareness and action. For those of us who practice regularly, we experience first-hand countless transitions. We literally embody the fact that our physical form is constantly and endlessly changing, and it doesn’t take holding a posture for too long to have a clear glimpse of the mind’s mercurial nature. This automatically seems to beg the question: If this body and mind are so inconstant and in such a state of flux, what will become of them? A look into the human condition will show there are virtually limitless possibilities, some clearly more desirable than others. But again, there seem to be no guarantees. 

     The fact that there seem to be no guarantees about how we will change leads us to ask another important question: Is there anything I can do to have the changes that are bound to occur be agreeable? This is a key question. To ask it, first and foremost takes courage, and to earnestly seek an affirmative answer, I believe leads to the most extraordinary experience a human being can have. It is a question worth loving, as Rainer Maria Rilke admonishes in his “Letters to a Young Poet.” It is a question worth living in for decades—for however many thousand (or hundred, or tens, or single) days we may have left. This is the question, I believe, that any sincere practitioner of yoga must ask if they seek true alignment. This is the question, I believe, that, if asked, would give rise to the teachings of yoga, in the absence of any existing teachers or texts on the subject. In other words, I believe the whole science of yoga has arisen out of an attempt to forge an affirmative answer to the question, “Is there anything I can do to have the inevitable changes I will experience as a human being be agreeable?” After all, is this not what we seek, an agreeable change of conditions; an agreeable change in our experience of life? Is this not why an estimated 80 – 95% of Americans (and perhaps the world) require some kind of chemical support for their experience in the form of (legal or illegal) drugs or substances? Is this not why we as a species are consuming natural resources at such a rate that we need five planets’ worth of resources to sustain us? Is this not why we have sought out the practice of yoga?

     There is so much more to say, but days go by quickly these days . . . I will end with a call to action and an invitation. First the call to action: B. K. S.  Iyengar acknowledges a longing in us to find our comfort, and the challenges we face in doing it. He also suggests a different approach we might take on our quest to orchestrate more agreeable changes in our lives. He states, 

“As mammals, we are homeostatic. That means we maintain certain constant balances within our bodies, temperature for example, by adapting to change and challenge in the environment. Strength and flexibility allow us to keep an inner balance, but man is trying more and more to dominate the environment rather than control himself. Central heating, air conditioning, cars that we take out to drive three hundred yards, towns that stay lit up all night, and food imported from around the world out of season are all examples of how we try to circumvent our duty to adapt to nature and instead force nature to adapt to us. In the process, we become weak and brittle . . . ”

Can you hear the call to action? It is simple. It is yoga. It is Iyengar Yoga. I declare that now is the time for us to take up our duty and adapt to nature. Now is the time to give it a break from our incessant demands that it adapt to us. Were that the solution,H. O. P. E.  we would be living in paradise, given our ability to cause nature to adapt? I declare that paradise lies in a different direction, the direction we take when we seek to adapt to nature, when we seek an answer to the question, “What can I do create agreeable changes in my life?” The first requirement in seeking such an answer is discover what agreeable changes truly are. For this we must address our afflictions. We must address the avidya, asmita, raga, and dvesha that we face as human beings. If these afflictions govern our perception we have no way on knowing what is truly agreeable—not to use, not to our own egoistic sense of self, but to Life. Human history up to this point confirms that. We have never lived in times where the ego’s desires could be so extensively satisfied. Trouble is, the ego’s desires can never be satisfied. 

     Now for the invitation: This is where yoga comes in. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is clearly stated that the practice of yoga reduces the afflictions and leads to samadhi, the experience of knowing the absolute reality of life. It is with this knowledge alone that we can successfully answer the question, “What can I do create agreeable changes in my life?” You could say that the whole science of yoga exists as an answer to that very question. It’s guidance is expert and comprehensive. So the invitation is: start somewhere. First, let us ask the question. Or perhaps we need to back up and start with a preliminary question: “What exactly is an agreeable change?” I am confident that, if asked with sincerity and loved wholeheartedly, these questions can and will empower us to fill however many days we have left in a worthwhile way. I am sure that they can guide us to enjoy a “happy life and majestic death,” to quote Mr. Iyengar. I also have a feeling they might just help us find  H. O. P. E.. That’s Heaven On Planet Earth. Aren’t you ready for some of that? I know I am. 

Healthier by the Minute

Most people in our culture lead busy lives. You will rarely meet a person who says, “You know, I have these two or three extra hours every day and I just can’t figure out how to spend them.” At the same time, you will rarely meet a person who doesn’t have numerous “idle moments” peppered into their daily activities. Waiting in line at the bank or grocery store, lingering on hold for tech support or with a service department, watching a commercial on television. Each of us have hidden moments when our activity stops . . . or at least seems to. 

For example, according to a company called All Over Media, a self described “market leader in the ever-changing Out-Of-Home media industry” and provider of Gas Pump Advertising, “The average person stops at a gas station 5-7 times a month . . . While standing at the pump, consumers have 3-5 minutes of refueling time when they are able to view and pay attention to your advertisement.” So, if we do the math, that means the average person spends 15 – 35 minutes per month (that’s 3 – 7 hours per year) standing at the gas pump. 

Now, consumers (that’s us) surely are “able to view and pay attention” to advertisements during these minutes (and hours) at the pump, but I have been thinking there’s surely another way to spend this idle time. When confronted with his student’s struggles to fit yoga practices into their busy schedules, B.K.S. Iyengar is alleged to advise them to “just do one posture.” So, that’s the idea behind Living Tradition Yoga’s “Healthier by the Minute,” campaign. Each idle minute is an opportunity, true, for a business to advertise to you. It is also an opportunity to put your well-being first and add another 3 – 7 hours (at least) of yoga practice to your life this coming year. I say at least because the gas pump is not the only place we have so-called idle time. 

So, here are some quick ideas about how to spend this time:

First, you could do as my friend and colleague, Clayton Winkler–a Certified Financial Planner with the firm Wiklund and Bond in Auburn Hills (pictured here)–and take the posture known as “Urdhva Hastasana” (more affectionately known between us as “Gas Pumping Posture”).

Additionally, if you want to be more discrete, you can simply bring your awareness to the way you are standing, ensuring that your weight is evenly balanced over both feet, your thigh muscles are firm and pulled up, your chest is lifted and your shoulders rolled back; or you could feel the gentle touch of the breath naturally coming in and out of the nostrils; or you could take a full, complete deep breath–starting with a complete exhalation, then a deep full inhalation followed by a deep, complete exhalation (please be sure to do this away from the gasoline fumes, though); or you could simply stand and feel the life–the breath, blood, secretions, sensations, etc–pulsing through you in a state of profound silence and awareness. 

There are many other options to consider (they are vast). But I will end this post with one last suggestion  . . . really more of a prayer, come to think of it. Perhaps your utilization of your idle time to elevate your well-being will be noticed by someone. Perhaps–through your example, through conversation, or even through asking them to take a photo of you that you can then send to us for sharing with our community–your actions might inspire them toward the same; might inspire them to put their well-being first and thus know that ecstatic state for themselves.

Why is it a prayer? Because people in an ecstatic state of well-being bring beautiful experiences into the world. What might it be like to fill up on that the next time you stop at the pump?

The Inner Infinite

In an era where humanity is enjoying creature comforts and technological conveniences in a way that no other era has known, we are also seeing unprecedented levels of inner turmoil and collective restlessness and unhappiness. I recently watched a discussion between a great yogi of our times and a group of physicians from New York City. When asked, the physicians estimated that 65 – 85% of people in the city were dependent upon some form of “chemical support” (prescription or otherwise) to maintain a minimum level of inner calm and stability. [To view this discussion, click here: AAPI convention with Sadhguru.] We don’t have to look far to see humanity ripping the planet (and each other) apart in a seemingly mad pursuit of some kind of well-being, some kind of panacea for inner discontentment, some kind of pleasure and comfort.

The Inner Infinite, our Summer Yoga Studies intensive at Living Tradition Yoga this year is designed to offer a different option to the relentless external pursuit of pleasure and comfort. It offers the opportunity to address the conditions within ourselves that are responsible for our unrest, our affliction. By facing these conditions and afflictions, we have the opportunity to experience the reality that the source of our joy, our well-being, our freedom also lies within ourselves.

Such an experience does not often come easily to us. The intensive will be intense. Addressing the cause of our afflictions and tracing the source of our joy does require that we face and move through whatever suffering lies within us. But, as B.K.S. Iyengar has said, only through facing our own pain, can we know the light*.
In my view, this is the type of human being the world needs: one willing to take responsibility for his or her own suffering, rather than one who takes that suffering out on other people, creatures and the world around him or her. A human being with the courage to face his or her own suffering, and the willingness to take action to transform that suffering into “light” has the opportunity to become a living solution the planet so desperately needs. In my view, there is no joy, no success higher than this.
This, and nothing short of this, is the goal of this weekend’s intensive: to give such sincere human beings the strength they need to be a living solution in the world; a light in the darkness.

[For more information about The Inner Infinite, an Iyengar Yoga Intensive, please click here: 2016 Summer Intensive]

[To Register for The Inner Infinite online, click here: http://livingtraditionyoga.com/store/products/inner-infinite/]

Parinama (Transformation): The Real Aim of Yoga

According to the sources I’ve examined, the word “Parinama” means “change, alteration, transformation, product, fruit, or result. It also means, “transformation or change due to time; mutation.” One thing is clear, parinama is used in relation to the tendency of all phenomena (material or “prakrtic” phenomena, including the mind and emotions) to change in state, form, substance, or composition.

In the context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, parinama seems to refer less to the general (universal) tendency of all phenomena toward transformation, or the general state of impermanence of all material phenomena, and more to a specific process that a consciousness refined—by yoga sadhana—undergoes as the higher stages of practice, or samyama, manifest. With the exception of Sutra II.15, which uses the word parinama as more of a general description of the tendency toward impermanence of all states of experience (thus reminding the student to develop the discernment not to become too attached to pleasant experiences, or too averse to painful ones by realizing all experiences transform ceaselessly both in quality and content) Patanjali employs the term parinama to describe a distinct process whereby the mind, or rather consciousness, is, to quote Guruji B.K.S. Iyengar, “transformed, cultured, refined, and polished.” (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, pg. 191). Clearly, Patanjali is here using the word to describe not an inevitable occurrence of a law of nature, but rather the conscious, intentional, invocation of that law to produce a certain effect. In other words, transformation “ordinarily” occurs as the result of what we could call “natural” forces or factors (or even the will of God?). The individual is more or less a passive participant, often at the effect of this phenomenon. In Patanjali’s yoga system, by contrast, the adept practitioner learns to participate in this process and, by what Guruji calls “skillfull repeated efforts,” to utilize this natural tendency to direct the consciousness (or perhaps a better verb would be to release the consciousness) to its highest possible state.

Parinama of consciousness, as taught by Patanjali in Sutras III.9 – III.13 involves its changing from an activated (restless), outward-moving state to a restrained state, from a restrained state to a state of single-pointed attention (where the outward-moving tendency has been overcome, at least to some extent), and from the state of single-pointed attention to a state of what Guruji calls “no pointed attentiveness.” Another important point here about the parinama Patanjali describes is that it is without a doubt a transformation from a “lower,” to a “higher,” and then to an ultimate state. By my reading of the Sutras and Guruji’s commentary, as well as through the experiences of my own practice over the years, I view parinama as a description of the tendency of phenomena (including and especially my own body, mind, emotions, energies, etc.) to seek the highest possible state. Of course, Patanjali’s use of the term parinama also implies there are no guarantees that this higher level will be reached. Rather it seems to depend upon the cultivation of the proper conditions whereby this natural tendency can unfold most fully. This is where proper (i.e. long-term and skillful) practice proves essential.

So, now to make this more practical. I have certainly seen transformations occur through practicing. Most obvious—and Guruji does write that “the three stages of transformation described in [Sutras] III. 9 – 12 affect the entire being: organs, senses, body, and mind, and bring about a stable, steady state of consciousness.” (L.O.Y.S.O.P., pg. 195)—have been the changes in my hamstrings, hips, upper body, etc. Come to think of it, I’d have to say the changes in mind are equally notable. I have seen my desires and habits change as well. Practice has transformed me from a smoker to a non-smoker, from someone who used intoxicants with frequency to someone sober for over a decade. My diet and tastes (not just in foods, but also in books, music, recreational activities, even companions) have changed markedly. More specifically, I can distinguish parinama  manifesting in my asana (and to some extent, pranayama) practice in the same sequence enumerated by Patanjali. For example, in any posture, especially say a longer Sirsasana, I must regularly restrain the “rising” waves of my consciousness (vyuttana citta) by utilizing breath, action, sense of direction (i.e. “alignment”) to invoke nirodha parinama. When I am able to sustain this restraint, I do find the consciousness does settle inside of the body (or at least upon the act/ asana at hand). Finally, on some occasions, when the consciousness does seem to settle in this way, I find I can expand my awareness from the act/ asana at hand and have this kind of whole-body experience. In those moments I feel I am experiencing, even “living” the posture rather than doing the posture. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am experiencing ekagrata parinama, but certainly this seems a corollary to the transformation Patanjali describes. There are moments where I experience the asana as a “state,” as described by Prashant Iyengar. I would associate the transformation of the practice of asana—as a set of isolated movements and actions, to an integrated set of movements and actions, to an experience of that integration as a state of being—with the parinama Patanjali describes.

I have one example from a teaching perspective. In class I may have a general (scattered?) idea about the postural and philosophical theme(s) I plan to cover. But as the class progresses and I begin to discern how my students are responding, theses themes take on greater clarity. At times, as these themes develop and as the students’ practices coalesce around them with a certain skill and focus, new connections and unforeseen augmentations will develop, and the teaching moves from “one pointed” to “no-pointed”.

Comfort or Growth

Comfort or Growth?

While yoga is often marketed as a “peaceful,” “relaxing,” activity it is truly a dynamic and radical practice of self-refinement and transformation. While yoga’s practices aim at the serenity of the mind, yoga recognizes that this serenity is the result of certain internal conditions, not external factors. The practice of yoga traditionally involves eight limbs, and is known as “Ashtanga Yoga.” Ashtanga Yoga contains practices that range from ethical, moral, and personal observances to the cultivation of states of consciousness that transcend physical reality (and even some of its “laws”) and blur the boundaries between oneself and the cosmos one inhabits.
Seen from this view, Ashtanga Yoga is less about seeking an experience of pleasure and comfort in ones body or surroundings, but rather about confronting and transforming the patterns of thought, action, and intention that cause one’s own inner disturbance. In other words, Ashtanga Yoga is about clearing away all blockages or impediments to Union with the Divine. A variety of principles and processes have evolved over the millennia to train the earnest seeker to attain such realization.
This Fall, Living Tradition Yoga cannot promise you a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Our classes will generally (with perhaps the exception of some parts our restorative yoga lesson weeks) not be an oasis of comfort and pleasure. We cannot suggest that coming to class will be a “break” where you enjoy some “me” time. Instead, what we will offer you is a chance to dismantle the compulsion to relentlessly seek pleasure and comfort (a pursuit that appears to have put the planet and its inhabitants under profound distress; in fact, the BBC reports that if everyone on the earth lived at the same level of comfort and consumption as the average American, we would need four earths). In fact, we will instead help you to dismantle the “me” with its endless needs. We will also offer you the opportunity to “Find Comfort in Discomfort,” to quote B.K.S. Iyengar. In our view, true freedom does not involve an absence of adversity, but the capacity to encounter adversity in a balanced and even-minded way. This is what we are out to practice at Living Tradition Yoga.
Of course, the development of equanimity is not an overnight matter. Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, and the first to codify the concept of Ashtanga (Eight-Limbed) Yoga, said the practice of yoga must be pursued with relentless determination, faith, great vitality and enthusiasm. He also suggested this pursuit must take place over a long period of time, without faltering, and in the face of any and all obstacles. In light of this (humbling) requirement, a 14-week session seems a bit weak, but, as Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita declares, “no effort on the path of yoga is wasted.”
So what’s the point? It is simple. We assert that our time desperately needs people committed to actualizing the highest potential within themselves. Anyone who has ever achieved anything of substance in their lives (i.e. anyone who has actualized their potential)   will tell you that it took a high level of determination and commitment, over the long term to attain to a goal. With yoga, the goal is nothing less than a human being free of all affliction, negativity, and distress. Such a human being innately imparts well-being and causes all life they touch to thrive. This Fall, of the year 2015, let us make fullest use of this gift of Ashtanga Yoga, and B.K.S. Iyengar’s eloquent and powerful teachings of it, to take strong and determined steps toward creating such human beings and igniting the process of making ourselves, community, the healthiest and most joyful ever. This is our mission and we invite you to share it with us.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga:

  1. Yama: Ethical disciplines (Includes: Non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-hoarding)
  2. Niyama: Individual disciplines or fixed observances (Includes: cleanliness or purity, contentment, austerity, self- and scriptural study, and surrender to God)
  3. Asana: Postures
  4. Pranayama: Regulated Breathing Practices
  5. Pratyahara: The withdrawal of the senses from the objects of their attraction
  6. Dharana: Concentration
  7. Dhyana: Meditation
  8. Samadhi: Absorption of the Consciousness in the Self
Sincerely,
Chris Briney and Living Tradition Yoga