Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What is Yoga?

In which I take a shower of boiling antifreeze and keep my equanimity.
This blog is dedicated to my yoga and Ayurveda teacher Myra Lewin, her assistants Vanessa and Kelsey and all my fellow yoga travelers.
Last Friday I took my friends Lou (not that one) and Jean to the Honolulu airport around 4:00 PM in heavy rush-our traffic, stop and go, more stop than go, mostly stop and little go. Jenny Wuebbe, daughter of HollowSkai was also with us and we were heading to a workshop at Yoga Hawaii on kindness and presenting my new installation there.
Contemplating another installation at Yoga Hawaii.

 On November 30th I will teach a yoga workshop at Yoga Hawaii that focuses on strengthening the muscles surrounding the spine, the connection between the lower and upper body and the possibility on relieving back and neck problems, a stooped posture, all results of our modern lifestyles and sitting in a backed chair for hours on end.

Trusty and occasional temperamental 91 Vanagon. Runs courtesy of Stephen Whitesell.

Now, my 91 VW Vanagon has a very slow leak in the cooling system, which I hadn’t topped off for a little while. These old vans don’t like stop and go in the Hawaii sun and after we had turned around and were on the H1 freeway, looking at some more heavy traffic at least for a few more miles, the car started to overheat, just as I had made it to the far left lane. I maneuvered it back through the heavy traffic to the right and off the freeway at the next exit and quickly onto the sidewalk of Vineyard Blvd. There was a good boil going on in the back. After what I thought was enough time, I had to go to the bathroom really badly, I started to unscrew the cap of the cooling system to replace some water, when the cap just blew off and I took a shower of boiling antifreeze. It was a full body shower including head, face, mouth, shirt and pants. Fortunately, I only received a light burn on my right forearm, but the taste in my mouth was far from pleasant.

Attempt at unscrewing the blue cap on the lower left resulted in anti-freeze shower.

So what is yoga? Most of us understand yoga as the physical exercise done in pastel colored tights on rubber mats were we aim for flexibility and the ability to touch our toes. In a recent article on yoga the German news magazine Der Spiegel describes in more or less detail 18 styles of yoga from Acro Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Power Yoga, to Vinyasa Flow and Yin Yoga. The majority of the different styles deal primarily or exclusively with the physical aspect of yoga, which traditionally is called Asana = Posture. 
Yoga Hawaii class with Ganesh woodblock print.

In the introduction to the Bhhagavad Gita translated and introduced by Eknath Easwaran, Easwaran describes the Gita as brahmavidyam yogashastra, a textbook on the supreme science of yoga and suggests that there are as many meanings as there are paths to self-realization. The four main strands of yoga according to the Gita are jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, karma yoga, the yoga of self-less action and raja yoga, the yoga of meditation.
The word yoga, comes from the word yuij or yoke, to bind together, it is the unity of life experienced, pure consciousness or the sum of what one must do to realize the Self (Easwaran). Other definitions of yoga in the Gita are evenness of mind and skill in action, integration of the spirit. A yogi is a person who is accomplished in yoga.

A popular school of yoga is called Ashtanga Yoga, which is known for its flowing squences, spectacular jumps, and handstands in slow motion, but what does ashtanga really mean? The word astanga means eight limbs and Ashtanga yoga is the eight limbs of yoga as explained in the classical yoga sutras by Patanjali. According to Patanjali the eight limbs of yoga are:
1.     Yama – various forms of abstention from evildoing
2.     Niyama – various observances
3.     Asana – posture
4.     Pranayama – control of prana (life force energy), various breathing excercises and bandas (banda to bind or lock)
5.     Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the mind from sense objects
6.     Dharana – concentration
7.     Dhyana – meditation
8.     Samadhi – absorption in the Atman (the Self)

For my view on spirituality keep reading.

It goes beyond this writing to explain all the different limbs in detail, but I like to emphasize two things, one that the last three limbs of yoga deal with the practice and effect of meditation, since what is meditation really other than concentration, the ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time until we are able to unify with the Self, Atman, the divine core of personality, which ultimately is the same as Brahman, the Godhead or ultimate reality. The second point I like to make is that Asana (posture) means two things, the place on which the yogi sits and the manner in which he sits (Patanjali). Traditionally the most famous asana is the lotus pose, sitting cross- legged.

Taro plants with Trush that visits when I work in the garden.

What is commonly known as yoga then really is Asana, just one limb of yoga. There are complex reasons, why this single limb of yoga has become the predominant practice in the Western world and what we commonly understand as yoga. From my own experience after 30 plus years of meditation practice I know how difficult it is for us Westerners, who are used to sit in chairs, to sit quietly with crossed legs and try to focus our minds. Only recently have I made some new progress and it is thanks to diligent daily practice of pranayama, asanas and sitting meditation and some observance of the Yama’s and Niyama’s. I cannot claim to have practiced Pratyahara or that I have reached Samadhi. I like to put the idea forward that one of the reasons we to practice Asanas, to be healthier of course, but that we in our bodies actually learn to sit in concentration for a while. Our Western lifestyles, has lead to a disconnect from our bodies, weak backs, stiff necks and stooping shoulders, weak core and an absence of the connection, between lower and upper bodies. Most of us know one or most of these maladies. 

In her inspiring book Awakening the Spine, Vanda Scaravelli writes about the importance of daily practice: "...in this kind of work, continuity and and perseverance are required. We will progress much more effectively through daily training. When we are not well we turn to our daily practice. But perhaps, illness could be prevented, avoided or even totally rejected, if we had kept our body in full health by practicing." I like to ad that in yoga or taiji, daily practice is essential if one doesn't just want to scratch the surface. We get stressed out and go to a yoga class, which makes us feel better. Then we continue like before until we go to the next class. We are always playing catch-up, but never get ahead to reap the real benefits of personal transformation.

Water, wildlife, concrete.

For five years I have practiced every day, missing less than a handful days per year, and know how the practice of yoga and an Ayurvedic inspired lifestyle has changed me. Knock on wood, but for more than three years now, I haven't had neither cold nor flu. Of course, I could get it tomorrow. Since August I have been working as a substitute teacher, which according to a good teacher friend is like being shark-bait. If I have to go to work early I get up even earlier and still practice 1/2 hr pranayama, 1/2 hr meditation and might shorten my asana practice, but my daily practice ensures me that I am going to be ok, and that I can experience a shower of boiling antifreeze or a group of rude teenagers without yelling and cursing.

Pali Highway rainbow.

One of my readers questioned my use of spiritual in my last blog on Lou Reed. There might be slightly different interpretations in the European and American realm. Basically, I believe in the unity of the universe. Some people might call this God, Allah, the Divine, Atma/Brahma. The universe is everything. At the center of our being is what I understand as spirit. When I encounter you, I aim at recognizing this. We are all connected.
 Coda: Due to working frequently at the tiring job of substitute teacher in Hawaii's less than optimal functioning public education system, the blogs have taken a bit longer. On top of being a sub I have worked on 4 art projects with deadlines, three done, one more to go. This was accomplished to a great part, thanks to my current fantastic assistant Jenny Wuebbe. Check out her blog. You can practice your German, but it has tons of pics too. I will have art pieces in exhibitions in Boulder, CO and Telluride, CO.

Boulders bike art poster.

 We also laid down the basic tracks and some vocals for three songs, two new originals and a cover of David Bowies' Helden that Lucie Voelker and I are going to sing as a duet in German. The originals are called Oahu Sweet and Rockets of Desire. You will hear them as soon as they are presentable. Last night we played at the monthly Coconut Grove Music jam at Kailua's Boardriders. Today I taught taiji for the first time since I injured my shoulder. Through all this I have kept up my daily yoga practice.

Six mikes on the drums.

I have written abut yoga, taiji and inspired art in these previous blogs:

What does the chewing gum do under the table in the local high school?

1 comment:

Rishikesh Yoga Retreats said...

A very simple but nice blog. All the criteria appreciable. We recommend yoga classes in rishikesh which is really beautiful and wonderful place for Yoga.