Thursday, August 21, 2014

Light on B.K.S. Iyengar

Tuesday when I read the news that yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar had been hospitalized and was in critical condition from renal failure, my heart sank and I began to weep. Yesterday when the news of his passing was confirmed, I cried throughout the day, a heaviness in my heart that this great man was no longer in his body.
For those that do not know, Iyengar was instrumental in bringing the teachings of Hatha yoga to America. If you ever took a yoga class, rolled out a yoga mat and practiced yoga postures (asanas), then you, mostly unknowingly, have been touched by his teachings. His style of Hatha yoga (known simply as Iyengar Yoga), has had a long history. While I myself had not taken a teacher training with B.K.S. or any of his teachers in his specific style, many of his teachings find their way into my classes - through his books and other lessons. I could never say that I could teach an Iyengar style class, but I can easily say that his influence is present in each of the classes that I teach. His story and legacy are important for all aspiring yogis to know about. I feel compelled to share a little...

Born in Bellur, India in December, 1918, Iyengar was a very sick child. His mother, while pregnant with him, had contracted influenza. In his own words:

"My  arms were thin, my legs were spindly, and my stomach protruded in an ungainly manner. So frail was I, in fact, that I was not expected to survive. My head used to hang down, and I had to lift it with great effort. My head was disproportionately large to the rest of my body, and my brothers and sisters often teased me. I was the eleventh child of thirteen, although only ten survived.

The frailty and sickliness remained with me throughout my early years. As a boy, I suffered from numerous ailments, including frequent bouts of malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis. My poor health was matched, as it often is when one is sick, by my poor mood. A deep melancholy often overtook me, and at times I asked myself whether life was worth the trouble of living." (From Light on Life).

As luck would have it, one of Iyengar's sisters married the famous Shriman T. Krishnamacharya, a scholar of philosophy and Sanskrit who had spent many years in the Himalayan Mountains near the border of Nepal/ Tibet, pursuing the study of yoga. It was Krishnamacharya that invited B.K.S. to live with him and learn the methods of yoga, in an effort to heal his sickly body and mind. This was a moment that Iyengar refers to as "a major turning point" in his life. Many yogis already know the rest, but for those who are still learning of these great yoga masters, Krishnamacharya's other student was the late Sri K. Pattobhi Jois, founder of the Asthanga school of yoga, the origins of which any Vinyasa style class is based on. It has always amazed me that from one teacher (Krishnamacharya), two of this generation's most important yoga teachers came...and they couldn't have been more different in techniques and styles.

While Asthanga yoga is a based on a specific series of postures to be done as a meditation with breath and body syntonization, Iyengar yoga is a very precise method of working on postures individually, while using various props and creating dynamic extension in the body. Both methods of yoga have equal weight and value. In my opinion, one cannot say that one method is any better. They've both shaped the way that we practice yoga today.

Each time I taught a class since his passing, I have dedicated it to Guruji, as he was known. As I read passages from Light on Life, I choked up each time. The rich teachings and long lineage of yoga continues through teachers like myself and those that even I train in my yoga teacher trainings. Yoga will go on. Maybe I found some comfort that such a master teacher was still alive and kicking to share his knowledge of the practice with us. I believe that we are ALL ongoing beginners in the practice of yoga. I don't believe there is a right or wrong style of yoga or necessarily even a "bad" teacher, because I truly feel that we learn something each time we unroll he mat and take to practicing. I suppose that I am saddened for the end of this era of authentic, Indian yoga teachers. While we have so many knowledgable and important teachers today: Shiva Rea, Baron Baptiste, and the likes, these men were the real deal - they literally wrote the books on yoga that all other teachers today are inspired to instruct by.

I have to be honest, I've walked out of more Iyengar classes and workshops than I've sat through in entirety. It was not a style, in the way that the local Iyengar teachers that I'd taken practice with taught, that resonated with me. However, reading B.K.S. Iyengar's books, listening to and watching him speak in videos, and learning some important aspects of his teachings has made me a better teacher - one with the ability to assist others in healing, the way that B.K.S. Iyengar was able to heal himself too through the practice of yoga.

"You do not need to seek freedom in some distant land, for it exists within your own body, heart, mind, and soul. Illuminated emancipation, freedom, unalloyed and untainted bliss await you, but you must choose to embark on the Inward Journey to discover it." (From Light on Life).

We will continue to learn yoga from B.K.S. Iyengar. His legacy lives on in each of us.
Namaste, Guruji.

Iyengar Website

CNN Interview on B.K.S. Iyengar, 2012

B.K.S. Iyengar in 1977 Demonstrating Yoga Asana

Interview with Iyengar from the 2008 movie "Enlighten Up"

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Lighting Up Our Humanity

Last night we heard the tragic news that comedian and actor Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide attempt. Social media blew up about the story with everyone commenting on what was their favorite movie of his and how brilliant and smart he was. A ripple of sadness enveloped us as we all shared in this loss.

Apparently he suffered from depression - something I do not think was spotlighted for many people prior to his death. We knew he battled his demons (drugs and the like) over the years as he went through a couple of stints at rehab. But we didn't know - couldn't know - what was behind these troubled feelings of his.

The unfortunate thing is that many, many people suffer from depression and, at least once have considered suicide to a life that they feel in some way is just not worth living any longer. Because they are not public figures, most of them go unnoticed, except for the family & friends that sit in wonder, trying to piece together the signs that may or may not have been there for them to see, and possibly help avoid the impending death of their loved one. I believe that until it happens to someone very close to you, most people do not put enough weight on issues of depression. This is not merely being "sad. This is a mental illness.

To me this highlights the ever present need to learn how to calm the mind. Whether you enjoyed his comedy or not, I think that everyone can agree that Williams' mind was insanely fast & brilliant. The way he pulled from vastly different historical & socially relevant ideas in the blink of an eye on endless and tireless rants clearly showed that he was a man ruled by his brain. In some circles this quality would be widely admired, right? Yet the yoga practice supports the idea of quieting the mind and finding peace in the calm stillness - something that anyone with mental illness has a very difficult time doing.

My intention is not to use this time of loss as a time to advertise for yoga. My intention is to continue to bring mindfulness to us all. The deal is that you can never know what someone else is going through, thinking about, battling, etc. - not even if you ask them outright. You just can never know a person's whole story and struggles. Not the "nasty" clerk at the store. Not the "jerk" that cut you off in traffic. Not the "elitist" teacher that has it in for your kid. Not the "mean" aunt that is never happy. NOBODY. You just do not know what they're going through at any moment.

The judgments that we place on people - continually - come from our ego needing to define something or potentially making it to feel better about itself. But there is a better way: compassion and understanding.

Maybe the store clerk didn't make you laugh and the person who cut you off is not a member of your immediate family, but that does not make that person any less important in the world. Everyone is a human being deserving of non-jugemental compassion. EVERYONE.

So before you jump to conclusions about someone, take a moment to consider that they may be moving through some very dark energy. And instead of sending judgements and hateful words, spread some loving kindness. If someone is depressed and on the brink of committing suicide, a kind word or a smile from you could make all the difference in the world to that person.

We need to start living outside of our own limited beliefs. We need to start caring for other people like we care about our cell phones. We need to start tuning back in to humanity. When we can be that kind of people together, then maybe nobody will feel so alone. And just maybe we will all be able to find peace in being still and quieting our mind, knowing that our collective consciousness is building us up as a whole - instead of one person here or there.

I hear a lot of people talk about this new age/aquarian age of enlightenment and how some people will be left behind in the waking of consciousness. I do not subscribe to that egoist way of thinking. I believe that the only way for us to become enlightened is to rise up together. It has to start with our thoughts. And it has to start now.

Turn off the Cell Phone and Listen to Someone With Your Ears, Eyes and Soul…Peace Out.

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Interestingly, after I posted this blog, a few hours later Russell Brand posted this on his channel. We speak about the same things - he perhaps more eloquently. Check it out.

Russell Brand Trews on Robin Williams

Friday, August 1, 2014

Yogi Corner - The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Dharana

The most famous part of the Yoga Sutras is called the "eight limbs." Sometimes referred to as branches, these limbs are to be worked on until the impurities are dwindled away in order to achieve yoga. For August we will discuss the next limb, that of "Dharana."

"Desabandhas Cittasya Dharana." 
B.3, V.1
Translation: Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.

In yoga we talk about the "monkey mind." Its that constant wondering from one thought, object or event to another, like the proverbial monkey jumping from branch to branch endlessly. Most folks understand this well. For the step of Dharana yoga, the yogi aspirant now is able to focus the mind completely on one item. 
Dharana is the beginning of Meditation. "Concentration is the beginning of meditation; meditation is the culmination of concentration," - Sri Swami Satchidananda.
Perhaps one of the biggest realizations that I acquired from practicing yoga is that I can control my thoughts. Previous to any formal study, I assumed that they ruled me. However, through yoga practice I found the ability to redirect it from thoughts that create anxiety, compulsions, and constant negative assumptions to other more positive pursuits. 
Through recent studies in quantum physics we know that our thoughts create our realities, quite literally. The early yogis already knew that and they gave us a system for creating peace in our body, mind and spirit. Dharana is the beginning of finding that place. But since the ego is at constant work, so must the practice of dharana be. 
Got it? Then get to it!