Saturday, December 29, 2012

Yoga Ph.D.

Carol Horton’s Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body is one of those books (and delightfully there are ever more of them being published*) that I’d love to see every student in every Yoga Teacher Training read and take its message to heart. I believe it’s that important a contribution to what may perhaps be the most important question facing the very growth and existence of Yoga. Though Horton wrote it to find answers to her questions regarding the origins of yoga, how it “works,” and why it’s become so popular, the koan facing all practitioners, and in particular teachers of yoga, that she offers is whether the paradoxes embodied in contemporary yoga will remain generative or will its very popularity and commercialization usurp it of its vitality?

What paradoxes? In Horton’s words: Contemporary yoga “is a modern invention with ancient roots, a fitness fad with spiritual sustenance, a $6 billion ‘industry’ with non-material values;” a weird synthesis “of the utterly pedestrian and magically transformative.” And while Horton generally seems to have a better opinion of contemporary mainstream yoga and it’s paradoxes than I do, her own conclusion seems paradoxical as well. She ends with hope that postmodern yoga will indeed remain generative, with each successive generation of practitioners and teachers planting and nurturing new seeds. As she clearly summarizes, the history of yoga shows that it has always changed to meet the demands of the times, while somehow retaining something of its ancient roots. I am reminded of Georg Feurstein’s calling yoga “a living fossil,” in this regard. And I agree that's a good thing.

Yet, she also admits elsewhere that she guesses “the already pronounced tendency to turn yoga into yet another means of commodifying the body” will continue because “the commercial potential of idealized images of the ‘yoga body’ has simply become too good to pass up.” Sadly, this commercialized pull undermines the tremendous potential of yoga practice and theory to create the transformative self-integration possible. And that's a bad thing. Yes folks, it ain't "all good" in yoga or in life!

Chapter Six, “Self-Commodification, Teacher Worship, & Spirituality Lite” is worth the price of the book and should indeed be mandatory reading for yoga teacher trainees. In a “culture” that tends to hide it’s critical thinking potential in the mud, this chapter clearly presents the major blind-spots that tend toward undermining yoga’s real potential and offers the antidote: critical thinking.

For me, it’s come to the point where I hesitate to tell people I teach yoga because of what “yoga” has come to represent in contemporary culture. While Horton asks why American yoga culture seems to be growing ever more shallowly commercial, morphing from “intimate, organic, and essentially counter-cultural to corporate, ‘branded,’ and aggressively mainstream” while at the same time there is something about it that differentiates it from other fitness regimens and self-help programs, I question if there is anything different in the way most people approach and practice it. One of the more popular yoga studios here in Tucson, for instance, is popular and as successful as it is because it offers one-hour "workouts" with maybe some one-word "theme" that can loosely be considered "spiritual." 

In Chapter Seven, “Yoga, Modernity, and the Body,” in a section sub-titled “But Why Does It Work?” Horton parses out for herself the reasons, and then hypothesizes why yoga “works” and summarizes: “I believe yoga works so well for me for the same basic reason it does for so many others: it gives me a connection to my body that I wouldn’t otherwise have” with its “combination of physical postures, mental focus, and breath regulation” providing that connection “in an exceptionally accessible way.”

As she also explains, the postural emphasis in contemporary hatha-yoga is rooted in the worldwide physical culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was conceived as education through and not merely of the body and, as Mark Singleton shows in his revelatory Yoga Body, was intended for the cultivation of mind, body and spirit. In my experience, if I bring mental focus and breath regulation to my weight-lifting, it is every bit as much yoga as practicing Surya Namaskara. The same is true of gardening or any other activity. When that understanding is lost, the practice of “doing yoga” arises and becomes no different than how many of my fellow weight-lifters approach their lifting.

Horton knows this too, and admits that such transformative, self-integration is not unique to yoga practice. What her book so eloquently argues is that for contemporary yoga to avoid losing its soul altogether, it must learn to integrate the life of the mind with the wisdom of the body. If her book is read by enough people, then perhaps the conversation and self-questioning it could provoke might just help save post-modern yoga’s “soul.” Curmudgeon that I can often be, I won’t be holding my breath.

* among them: Mark Singleton, Yoga Body; Carol Horton & Roseanne Harvey (eds), 21st Century Yoga; Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi" A Review

It's a sign of yoga's popularity and its assimilation into the popular imagination, that a whole new genre of "yoga memoir" has developed over the last few years.  Brian Leaf's contribution, Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi is one of the more enjoyable of the lot.

As Stephen Cope blurbs about Leaf's book, Brian Leaf "writes in an utterly winning voice -- by turns as neurotic as Woody Allen, as irreverent as Huck Finn, and as serious as Jack Kerouac." The self-effacing neurotic humor is perhaps my favorite aspect of this memoir, so that Leaf's taking himself down a bit (or as the Brits might say, 'taking the piss out' on himself) keeps the whole narrative from becoming a self-righteous, heroic pean to 'self.'

Leaf comes from the Kripalu tradition, though he's explored other forms of practice from Iyengar to Astanga, and so he stresses the more meditative, mindful self-exploration of that tradition. On the whole, it is a tradition that I have much affinity for. My only two criticisms, and really they are quite minor, are his falling at times into what I take for new-agey 'woo.' However, it never approaches the brain-dead status of so much contemporary yoga that is permeated with the inanities of The Secret or the kind of pontifications of Deepak Chopra. The other minor misgiving is Leaf's attempt to squeeze in more than the weight of this book can fully handle.

Here, what I am referring to is what amounts to an attempt to work in his interest and practice of Ayurveda. It is clear it is a major part of his practice and he even graduated from my alma mater, The New England Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine, but that subject is so vast that what he can manage to work into his tale comes across as more an 'add-on' than as intrinsic to his practice as I am sure it truly is.

But again, these quibbles are just that; quibbles. I found Leaf's tale funny, and insightful, and his gentle, friendly voice serves as a real friend along the path. Check it out!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is Yoga A Religion?

Is Yoga a Religion?

The following is an essay I wrote for my old Karuna Blog, back in 2006 and which then appeared in the Asian journal, Namaskar, and later on the Ashville Yoga Center blog. I've never posted it here, however, and am prompted to do so in response to the question again popping up in reaction to a group of parents in Encinitas suing the School system for teaching yoga in school!  If you are not familiar with this story, you can read about it at It's All Yoga, Baby.

When people ask if yoga is a religion, it first makes sense to ask them what they mean by “religion.” If what they mean is a creed of beliefs and dogma that must be adhered to, according to an established institution – most usually hierarchical and authoritarian – then the short answer is “No.” But if we take a deeper look into the original meaning of the word “religion,” we find that its root is in the Latin word religio which means “to tie or bind back”. It was a word used in horticulture, used to refer to the binding and pruning of branches in order to create a stronger and more aesthetic tree of shrub. 

In this sense, we find a similarity with the original meaning of the word “yoga,” which comes from the root yuj, which means to “yoke or to harness.” The English word yoke is actually derived from the Sanskrit, and both connotations of that word apply to the word yoga. It can mean “union,” or “to join together,” and it can also mean “to harness” or “to restrain,” and so by extension it has come to signify spiritual endeavor, especially the disciplining of the mind and the senses. Free of its institutional forms and meanings, the similar meaning of these two words point to the essentially religious purpose of all yoga practice. 

Yoga, as such, is the generic name for the various Indian philosophies and practices (disciplines), the purpose of which is to liberate the practitioner from the existential human situation described as duhkha. This is the experience of discontent, dissatisfaction and unease that we feel in subtle and not so subtle ways. Duhkha is often translated as “suffering,” but it was a word used to describe an axle that was not centered in its wheel. It is this sense of being “uncentered” or “imbalanced” in our way of life that is meant by duhkha. Yoga is what Georg Feurstein calls “the psychospiritual technology specific to the great civilization of India.” 

Now, out of this greater Yoga Tradition emerged what we may call the three major Yogic religious-cultural complexes of India: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. So, in the give-and-take that is a natural process of history, the teachings of Yoga became suffused with concepts that are shared with these three religious cultures. Yet none of these cultures are “religions” in the way defined in my opening paragraph. That is to say, none of them require adherence to a set creed. Indeed, there are many – even contradictory teachings – that are to be found in any of these three “religions.” Also, none of them are centralized under a totalistic institutional authority.

Perhaps the main sticking point for many practitioners in contemporary non-Indian cultures in accepting Yoga practice are the teachings of karma and reincarnation or rebirth and the many deities that are spoken about. Well, there are Yoga masters throughout history who have rejected these ideas and the notion of deities in Yoga are more akin to the idea of angels or even more abstractly as similar to Jungian archetypes of the collective unconscious. 

Basically, all forms of Yoga agree that we as humans have not even begun to tap our fullest potential. All forms of Yoga assert that we are mistaken in identifying ourselves with our body, thoughts and emotions, and posit that we are something much more – boundless, limitless and unconditionally free. Yoga doesn’t expect us nor want us to just accept this idea on faith, but challenges us to test the hypothesis for ourselves by experimenting through asana, meditation, pranayama and other yogic technologies. In this sense, Yoga is a kind of science, where the practitioner is both laboratory and researcher. Rather than accept anything on faith, we are free to allow our personal experience and realization to shape our understanding. 

For this reason, Yoga can and in fact has been practiced by people with widely varying philosophies and beliefs. One can practice from the perspective of a believer in God who wishes to devote her life to honoring and surrendering to God, or as an atheistic humanist intent on maximizing his fullest human potential of compassion, joy, and peace. Some believe in a personal God, while others believe in a more impersonal Ultimate Reality, and others have no interest in such metaphysical speculation. Yoga is simply and primarily a tool for exploring the depths of human nature, of diving deep into the mysteries of the mind and of the body.

Whether you identify yourself as a religious or spiritual person, as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, an atheist, agnostic or whatever, Yoga can aid all persons in becoming a more peaceful, calm, loving, compassionate, authentic person. The practices of Yoga help to balance the nervous system, support the immune system, strengthen the skeletal and muscular system and help calm the mind. More than that, who can find fault with the yogic recommendations to live a virtuous life dedicating oneself to nonharming, truthfulness, compassion, tolerance, generosity and freedom from greed, anger and ignorance?

Ultimately, through the consistent and dedicated practice of true Yoga – which is essentially meditative – whoever takes up the practice of Yoga will find themselves less conditioned and reactive in their life, and freer and more creative in their response to all their experiences and relationships. And that is the greatest gift of a Yoga practice – liberation from our conditioned patterns of thinking and behavior – freedom!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Naikan: The Cultivation of Gratitude for Everyday Gifts

Grounded in Gratitude

This past weekend, our sangha had their quarterly "Day of Mindfulness," a day-long 'urban retreat' that includes various forms of meditation including asana, deep relaxation, sitting and walking. Additionally, we often center our Days of Mindfulness around particular "themes" like "Touching the Earth" and this past weekend: "72 Labors: Cultivating Gratitude and Appreciation for the Everyday Gifts We Receive."

So I thought I'd share the core practice for this, coming from the contemporary Pure Land Buddhist tradition by sharing this article I wrote for Yoga Journal several years ago.


Count your blessings and you'll find that even an uneventful or "bad" day is filled with precious gifts.
By Frank Jude Boccio

At the grocery store, a friend was bowled over by the simplest act of kindness: A stranger let her step ahead of him in the checkout line. It was such a little thing, and yet it swelled her heart with happiness. What she experienced, she ultimately realized, was more than just gratitude for a chance to check out faster —it was an affirmation of her connection to a stranger and, therefore, to all beings.
On the surface, gratitude appears to arise from a sense that you're indebted to another person for taking care of you in some way, but looking deeper, you'll see that the feeling is actually a heightened awareness of your connection to everything else. Gratitude flows when you break out of the small, self-centered point of view —with its ferocious expectations and demands —and appreciate that through the labors and intentions and even the simple existence of an inconceivably large number of people, weather patterns, chemical reactions, and the like, you have been given the miracle of your life, with all the goodness in it today.
It is easy, as Roger L'Estrange, the 17th-century author and pamphleteer, said, to "mistake the gratuitous blessings of heaven for the fruits of our own industry." The truth is, you are supported in countless ways through each moment of your life. You awaken on schedule when your alarm clock beeps &,dash; thanks to the engineers, designers, assembly workers, salespeople, and others who brought you the clock; by the power-company workers who manage your electricity supply; and many others. Your morning yoga practice is the gift of generations of yogis who observed the truth and shared what they knew; of your local teacher and of her teacher; of the authors of books or videos you use to practice; of your body (for which you could thank your parents, the food that helps you maintain your good health, doctors, healers, and the "you" who cares for that body every day) — the list goes on.
When you awaken to the truth of this incredible interconnectedness, you are spontaneously filled with joy and appreciation. It is for this reason that one of the most transformative practices you can engage in is the cultivation of gratitude. Patanjali wrote that santosha (contentment, or appreciation for what you have) leads to unexcelled joy, while other yogic texts say that this sense of appreciation is the "supreme joy" that naturally leads to the realization of the Absolute. Thankfully, gratitude can be cultivated. It simply takes practice.
Love the Gifts You Get
If you're like most people, you notice what goes wrong more often than what goes right. Human beings seem hard-wired to notice how reality fails to meet some idea of how they think things should be. How many times a day do you sink into disappointment, frustration, or sadness because others haven't met your expectations? If you limit your attention to how life lets you down, you blind yourself to the myriad gifts you receive all the time.
You may, for example, have ideas about the "ideal" holiday visit with your family: where it will take place, who will be there, how everyone will act, what you'll eat, what kinds of presents you'll exchange. But the visit surely won't match that ideal. And that's when you're likely to act like a child who has his heart set upon a certain toy for Christmas: As he unwraps one present after another, not finding that one toy, he grows ever more upset and disappointed. Utterly dejected, the presents he has received lie unattended.
You can end this frustrating situation by mindfully shifting your attention. Begin by paying attention to the reality of what is rather than the desires you cling to. For the fact of the matter is, regardless of how dissimilar your holiday gathering (or any other moment in life) might be from what you had imagined, there is much to be grateful for.
Consider the effort it took for your family members to get together; the vehicles that brought you all to the same spot —and all the people who constructed and helped maintain them; the house where you've gathered; the trees whose limbs burn in the fireplace. Your food, whether vegetable or animal, was once a living thing and is now providing you with nourishment. And that food did not just magically appear. Before it was cooked, it required the energy of the sun, the minerals of the earth, the rain, the work of farmers, processors, truckers, and retailers —plus the cooks in your family —to bring it to your table.
It is, as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, the gift of the whole universe. When you stop and really look, you see that you are supported continuously in literally countless ways. This is the highest wisdom of yoga, the truth of interbeing, of no separation.
To begin to pay attention to how fully and completely you are supported, you have to break out of your constricted cage of Self. Once you have a more balanced view of reality, you are less preoccupied with what's not meeting your expectations, and more present to what is given. You grow more appreciative of what you have, and seeing how dependent you are on others, you grow in generosity, wishing in some small way to repay at least a part of your debt.
Thanks, Mom!
To begin cultivating gratitude, it helps to be aware of some of the most pernicious obstacles to doing so; often it is these very roadblocks that provide the opportunities for practice. One of the most obvious obstacles is the failure to notice what you have —a roof over your head, a family with which to share the holidays. As Joni Mitchell sang, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." So, the first thing you need to do is to start paying attention to what you have!
And here's where expectations can prove to be an obstacle. You expect your alarm clock and your car to work, your loved ones to be there for you. Once you come to expect something, you tend not to pay it attention. You take it for granted. Use your expectations as reminders to cultivate gratitude.
Another big obstacle, and therefore another opportunity to cultivate gratitude, is the trap of feeling entitled. Gratitude may not spontaneously arise when the garbage man takes away your trash, since he's "just doing his job." But the fact is, regardless of his motivation, you are benefiting from his efforts and can meet them with an expression of gratitude.
One formal practice for cultivating gratitude, developed in Japan by a practitioner of Pure Land Buddhism, is known as Naikan, which means "looking inside." It's a structured method of self-reflection that encourages an objective survey of yourself and your relationship to the world.
At its most profound, Naikan is practiced on retreat with trained counselors. From dawn until night, every day for a week, you sit and reflect on your mother —what you received from her, what you gave to her, and what troubles you caused her. You generally spend about two hours reflecting on your life from birth to age six, and then for each three-year period after that, meeting with a counselor after each session, until your whole life has been examined in relation to your mother. You then move on to your father, siblings, lovers, friends, and others. In such a situation, you are free to honestly look at how you have lived your life.
Naikan can also be done as a daily practice. The rewards will become immediately evident in the blossoming of a natural, deeply felt sense of gratitude and appreciation for your life and for all the gifts you receive daily —gifts that you realize were always there but that went unnoticed and therefore unappreciated.
The practice of Naikan can lead you to the realization that you are rich indeed, and that you are not only not alone but are truly supported by the universe! You may even come to see the truth in the exhortation of the 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart: "If the only prayer you said in your whole life was 'thank you,' that would suffice."

Just Say Thanks
Set aside 30 minutes, preferably at the end of the day, to try this Naikan practice.

Sitting comfortably, with eyes closed, take a few moments to bring attention to your breath, mantra, or any other technique that you normally use to center yourself. When you feel settled, ask yourself this series of questions:
What have I received today?
Be specific and reflect on as many things as you can recall. It can be something as simple as your partner's smile, the sound of a bird singing at dawn, the driver who let you merge into the crowded freeway. Remember, the motivation or attitude of those who gave you something is not the issue. Maybe you were offered lunch because you showed up at lunchtime, not because your friend made a personal effort to make you lunch. The fact is, you were fed, and you can feel gratitude for that. The mere fact that you benefited from someone's actions is all that is needed to cultivate gratitude.
Notice which of these things you did not appreciate as they happened. Can you recall what was taking your attention when one of these acts of grace occurred? Were you stuck in problem-solving mode, thinking of your to-do list, or making judgments?
We often live as if the world owes us. As you reflect on what you have been given today, you will likely see that, if anything, you owe the world an insurmountable debt. This insight is more than merely humbling; you may find yourself feeling a deeper sense of gratitude and a natural desire to be generous in serving others.
What have I given today?
Go through the day's events in the same way, but this time notice what you have given to others. Be as specific and concrete as possible. As above, your motivation is irrelevant. What did you actually do? It may have been as simple as feeding your cats, washing the breakfast dishes, or sending a friend a birthday card. You may find that without great fanfare you contribute to the well-being of many people and animals —you make a positive difference to the planet.
What difficulties and troubles did I cause today?
Again, be specific. Don't overlook the seemingly insignificant. Your list may include things like "I backed up traffic while looking for a place to park" or "I chased the cats off the lounge chair so I could sit there." This question is often the hardest, but its importance cannot be overstated. It may bring up feelings of remorse, but its primary purpose is to provide a more realistic view of your life.
In general, we are all too aware of how others cause us inconvenience or difficulty, but rarely do we notice when we are the source of inconvenience. And if we do, we usually brush it aside as an accident, not that big a deal, or simply something we didn't mean to do. We cut ourselves a huge length of slack! But seeing how you cause others difficulty can deflate your ego while reminding you again of the grace by which you live.
These questions provide the framework for reflecting on all your relationships, including those with family, friends, co-workers, partners, pets, and even objects. You can reflect on the events of one day, a specific person over the course of your relationship, or a holiday visit with family.
Remember, what makes this a meditative practice is that you are not analyzing your motivations or intentions; you are not interpreting or judging. You are simply shifting your attention from self-centered thinking to seeing things as they are, and as all yoga traditions point out, in seeing, there is wisdom and liberation.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Georg Feurstein (1947 - 2012)

My wife and daughter are just back from our “sangha family camping trip” down to Patagonia Lake, where we spent the sweetest weekend possible with some of the most important people in our life: the Empty Mountain Sangha/Tucson Mindfulness Practice Community that we founded in our living room just over three years ago. The whole time I was there, thoughts of one of the teachers most influential upon my life were with me constantly.

Just over a week ago, I got the message that Georg Feurstein, perhaps one of the most important yoga scholars that we have been graced to have among us, was in his last days. And ever since hearing that, I’ve held him and his wife, Brenda, in my heartmind with love, gratitude and appreciation. Today, I went online, expecting to find that he had indeed passed, and apparently he died last night, sometime around when I was sitting around the fireside with my sangha, thinking of Georg with metta held in my heart. And though there is so little we can be certain about in life, I am certain that within my heartmind there will always be this place held sacred for his memory.

Long before I met Georg, there had been a meeting of minds and a form of dharma transmission through my deep devouring of his books; reading and re-reading, writing long marginalia along his words, beginning a dialogue I know will continue for the rest of my life. I hasten to add, I did not always agree with what Georg thought, taught, and believed, and that was not what he ever required of those of us who studied with him; rather, it was his integrity and deep, strong dedication to the traditions he studied, wrote and taught about that moved me, and through this, his challenge to me (to all of us) to deepen our own exploration through deep personal inquiry. He often said, “enlightenment is a whole brain experience,” by which he meant, as I now put it, that both the conceptual and non-conceptual, the rational and the intuitive, the “ah-ha” and the “ahhhh” are present in awakening consciousness.

I remember in particular when we were studying Patanjali during the one and only YREC (Yoga Research and Education Center) yoga teacher training, when many of the students were perplexed by the philosophical dualism at the heart of Patanjali’s metaphysics, confused because they had always been taught that yoga was about “union” and non-duality by their teachers who were in fact teaching from a Vedantin perspective. Many of the students doubted themselves and their understanding because “this was Patanjali” and therefore he must be “right.” Georg said, “You know, you can disagree with Patanjali. You can think he was wrong!” With this "lion’s roar," he was telling all of us not to take the teachings as ‘gospel,’ but to question and think for ourselves.

Personally, some of my fondest memories of Georg will be both the late-night conversations we’d hold in the vestibule of the training hall at Mt. Madonna, where the YREC training took place during 2002/2003, and the early mornings when Georg would be at the front-center of the room doing his Tibetan puja, Jagadish, another of the students was in the back of the room doing his practice, and I (at the time deep into my Korean Zen training) doing my practice at the front left corner of the room. I’d be doing prostrations, or chanting with my moktok, Jagadish’s soft Sanskrit chanting coming from the back of the room, and Georg’s Tibetan bells ringing softly from the front-center of the room all blending in a sonic celebration of dharma.

Actually, other fond memories from that time include lying in shavasana, being guided by Georg’s stentorian, German-inflected voice in Yoga Nidra. Or standing outside with the whole group at sunrise, chanting the Gyatri Mantra.

It was during the training that I wrote my book, and Georg was gracious enough to agree to read the manuscript. I asked him that if he thought it good enough, would he be willing to write a short forward. After reading it, he said he’d be delighted to write a forward, and so I excitedly awaited what I thought at best would be a few paragraphs of endorsement. Instead, what I got when I opened the email attachment he sent me, was a four page essay that by the end of his second paragraph, when he referred to me as his “Dharma brother,” had me in tears.

The YREC training continues to reverberate not merely in my own life, but in the lives of all of us who were fortunate to share in the experience. Through the training, I met some men and women who have truly become family over the years since. Among them, several men who continue to nourish my appreciation that manhood can mean so much more than the hyper-masculinist pretensions of so many American men. These men, true brothers in spirit, Ted Grand, Pierre Desjarins, and Patrick Creelman continue to help shape contemporary yoga in ways influenced by Georg, each in his own unique way. And as for sisters, there are too many to name! But each, touched by Georg’s spirit, enthusiasm and integrity, continue to transmit that same spirit, in their teaching and in the way they choose to live their lives.

So, as trite as it may sound, another thing of which I’m certain, is that Georg’s work will continue to inspire generations of practitioners to come. Of course, most of that influence will come through his many amazing books, and the continued work of his wife, Brenda, through Traditional Yoga Studies. But also, no doubt, his influence will continue to flow through all those students whose lives he touched.

Oh, and back to the sangha I founded here in Tucson; after the publication of my book, I began to do a lot of air travel, teaching in various venues throughout the world. It got to the point where I was rarely home for two or three weeks at a time. When my wife and I were living in Eugene, Oregon for 18 months, I never met one person!  Georg wrote me a deeply moving, thoughtful email, asking me how it was that so many yoga teachers justified taking a group of privileged Americans to places like Costa Rica for what amounts to "yoga vacations" and the enormous ecological impact of air travel. He asked in the spirit of genuine inquiry, and it made me do some serious thinking. He ended his email by suggesting we teachers might have a greater impact by planting some roots and creating "communities of mindfulness."

As a result of that email exchange, I cut my air travel by two-thirds, and started the Tucson Mindfulness Practice Community. Three years later, we have 40 people participating in a nine-month study of the Buddhist Precepts, and sharing their time, energy and financial resources with the greater Tucson community. The travel I continue to do is all more deep 'training' based, and Georg came to understand what I perceive as the necessity of face-to-face relationship for the kind of teaching I offer.

And so, whether or not there are truly ‘afterlife’ states of existence from which one returns, as Georg believed, I know without a doubt that there is ultimately no birth and no death, and that Georg continues in all those who knew him, loved him, were touched in any way by him. And from my perspective, that’s one rich endowment indeed that he leaves behind.

In lieu of flowres and gifts, Georg had requested a scholarship fund be set up to enable incarcerated people the opportunity to participate in the Traditional Yoga Studies distance learning courses. More information about the fund will be posted at the website.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Whose Body?

We are all familiar with the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, but depending on how “sense” is defined, and what researcher you are speaking with, humans have at least four more, and as many as up to twenty-one senses.  For instance, the common definition of a sense as “any system that consists of a group of sensory cell types that respond to a specific physical phenomenon and that corresponds to a particular group of regions within the brain where the signals are received and interpreted” would lead us to conclude that pressure, pain, temperature and itch are separate senses since they involve specific receptor cells, while others continue to think of these as sub-categories of touch.

Those of us who practice yoga are all familiar with the following two senses:

Proprioception:  This sense gives you the ability to tell where your body parts are, relative to other body parts.  The “close your eyes and touch your nose” test given to suspected drunk-drivers is testing this sense.  This sense is used all the time in little ways, such as when you scratch an itch on your foot, but never once look at your foot to see where your hand is relative to your foot.

Equilibrioception:   This is the sense that allows you to keep your balance and sense body movement in terms of acceleration and directional changes as well as for perceiving gravity.  The sensory system for this is found in your inner ears and is called the vestibular labyrinthine system.  Without it you wouldn’t be able to tell up from down and moving from one location to another without aid would be nearly impossible.

Another sense, interoception is the awareness of the internal state of one’s body. Interoception informs us of emotions, pain, thirst, hunger, and body temperature. And, just as some of us have more developed or less developed sense of hearing or smell, people vary on how well they receive cues as to these bodily states.

Many have argued that (photoshopped, airbrushed) images of unusually thin people have contributed to the overwhelming instances of negative body image among women – and now increasingly so among men. In June 2011, the American Medical Association (never accused of being a radically progressive organization) released a statement that urges advertisers to stop the use of digitally altered photos after researchers found links among exposure to mass media, negative body image, and disordered eating.

Almost half of adolescent girls report being dissatisfied with their appearance, and one out of 20 Americans suffers from a clinical body image disturbance where people are plagued with thoughts about minor or imaginary “flaws” in their appearance.

That said and understood, the question becomes why is it that with all of us exposed to images of so-called “perfect bodies,” we don’t all suffer serious body image issues? In fact, this is the question that critics have lobbed against those who argue against the negative impact of the media. It should come as no real surprise that myriad factors – including environmental and biological – must arise together to create pathology. One of the potentially biggest biological factors is a deficit in interoception. This finding points to possible ways to treat these ailments and in particular the potential of hatha-yoga – when practiced as a mindfulness practice – to foster a more speedy recovery.

Interoception – the awareness of our bodily state – arises when receptors throughout the body send signals to the insula, a small area of neural tissue nestled in a deep fold of the brain’s external layer near the ears. Combined with external information, the insula would be that part of the brain that connects the searing sensation experienced when touching a hot stove with the red welt on our hand. It is this integration that forms our body image.

The greater the influence from interoception over external, visual cues, the better a person’s body image. For instance, a yogini practicing with strong interoception might be focusing on the sound of her breath and the rising and falling of her abdomen with her breath that would cue her to adjust the intensity of her efforts. By paying attention to her body’s functioning and experience, she feels good about it no matter its proportions. A yogini with poorer interoception, however, might be thinking about what others in the class think of her postural performance or whether her butt looks too big in her new stretch yoga pants. Because of the weakness of internal cues to anchor her sense of self, if she is practicing in a mirrored room, she may focus on small visual details reflected in the mirror, potentially diminishing her body image.

Distorted body image, clinically known as “body dysmorphia,” ranges from the so-common-jokes-are-made-of-it worry about whether these jeans make one’s ass look fat to the delusional misperception of body size seen in anorexia nervosa. Interestingly, people can have the reverse misperception. A 2010 study at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found that almost one in ten obese adults thought their weight was normal.

When tested, people with lower measures of interoception have increased levels of body dissatisfaction and more instances of disordered eating. Women suffering anorexia, scoring very low levels of interoception, also suffered more from depression and anxiety and significantly higher levels of body dissatisfaction. Studies have found that the insula of women suffering from anorexia tends to be unresponsive, measured by diminished blood flow shown in MRI scans.

Another fascinating finding is that when healthy women are shown photographs of themselves, there is a burst of activity in the insula, suggesting that the photo enhances a person’s experience of what it is like to be inside her own body, while no such activity results when a women with anorexia is shown photos of themselves. This suggests that women with anorexia lack the ability to link external cues about their appearance to internal knowledge of their body, which is likely to be quite low already. This helps explain how an emaciated women with anorexia can look at her reflection in a mirror and “see” herself as being fat.

What does this have to do with media? It turns out that deficiencies in interoception may make your body image more vulnerable to other, external visual influences! In one study, it was found that women with anorexia, having lower body awareness, are more easily fooled into the rubber hand illusion. The researcher on this study, Manos Tsakiris of Royal Holloway, University of London, thinks this implies that media images will have an exaggerated effect on those with little internal awareness.  Additionally, those with poor awareness of their internal state also seem to be easily swayed by the opinions of others. Cultivating greater interoceptive awareness could not only improve body image, it seems, but it could strengthen a fragile sense of self and self-worth.

And, as it might have been expected, numerous studies have found that mindfulness-based cognitive-behavior therapy has attenuated symptoms of disordered eating and body dysmorphic disorder, leading to an enhanced quality of life. Other studies have investigated the practice of yogasana – various forms of hatha-yoga, including vinyasa-flow – and found that as long as practitioners are reminded to focus attention on their breath and the various bodily sensations produced by the practice (basically, Mindfulness Yoga), the practice of yogasana does indeed get people more in tune with their body and their experience of the body. I would suspect that those forms of yogasana practice where students are exhorted to “push” or “ignore the pain,” might actually feed into the pathology by diminishing self-awareness of bodily sensation.

One study, working with adolescent girls suffering disordered eating, found that they were so out of touch with their body that they had great difficulty balancing on one foot. Through mindfulness practice integrated into their asana practice, they were able to find their balance easily in only eight weeks, while showing great improvement in all areas of eating disorder psychopathology.

It is helpful to remember that in the buddhist tradition of practice, the first two of the four foundations of mindfulness are the body and feelings. When practicing with the body, the main focus is the breath, and once focus is developed, mindful attention is expanded to include the whole body, it’s posture and movements, while paying attention to how the breath affects the body and how the body affects the breath. The second foundation, feelings, refers not to the emotions, but rather to the actual sensations experienced in, on and throughout the body – as well as the tone whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

As a new yoga teacher, back in the mid-90s, one of the first awakenings I had was regarding just how out of touch so many of us are with our body! With the advent of the internet, i-phones, i-pads and other technologies, I believe it’s only gotten worse! It now seems to me that many folk live from their eyebrows up! One of the most healing things we can do as yoga teachers and practitioners is to simply become more familiar with the felt experience of the body, and to help foster a safe, open and free space for our students to come home to their body, just as it is, here…now.

Further Reading:
This blog piece is a distillation of the article:
Inside the Wrong Body. C. Arnold in Scientific American Mind, Vol. 23, Number 2, May/June 2012

Just a Heartbeat Away from One’s Body: Interoceptive Sensitivity Predicts Malleability of Body-Representations. M. Tsakiris, A. Tajadura-Jimenez and M. Constantini in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Vol. 278, pages 2470 – 2476; August 22, 2011

Functional Neuroimaging in Early-Onset Anorexia Nervosa. B. Lask et al. in International Journal of Eating Disorders, Vol. 37, S49 – S51; 2005. Discussion on pages S87 – S89.

Friday, March 2, 2012

So, What IS "Mindfulness?"

Last night I had the pleasure of sharing an evening of discussion with psychoanalyst, Jeffrey Rubin at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Tucson. My “piece” was a summary of “mindfulness” as understood within the buddhist tradition and in particular how, with the mainstreaming of “mindfulness” in all sorts of psychological contexts, much of the subtlety of the concept is being lost. As several friends from the community there asked if I could provide copies of my notes, I thought I’d do one better and work them up into an essay. (My notes are – at best – little phrases and lists to jog my memory, written in a pocket-sized notepad!) So, here it is:

Research into “mindfulness” dates back at least 30 years or so, but it’s been only in the last decade or so that there has been a tremendous growth in interest, deeper research, application in various contexts (including therapies directed toward anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, eating disorders) and in marketing! It seems that many folk feel that if you can just slip the word “mindfulness” into whatever your packaging, you will guarantee greater acceptance of whatever it is you’re selling!

However, there’s a discrepancy between how mindfulness is described in the buddhist texts and how it is described by many contemporary buddhist teachers as well as in the psychological mainstreaming of mindfulness. Again and again, I read passages that describe mindfulness as “bare attention.” For instance, here’s how Sara Weber defines mindfulness in her essay, “An Analyst’s Surrender” from Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: “a cultivation of a moment-to-moment awareness of changing perceptions in a neutral, impartial way.” Carey Wong offers this succinct definition at the website: “Mindfulness is a type of meditation that essentially involves focusing on your mind on the present. To be mindful is to be aware of your thoughts and actions in the present, without judging yourself.”

Note the common understanding that mindfulness embodies “present moment awareness,” and holding a “neutral, non-judging, impartial” attitude or perspective toward experience. Yet, this is not quite how mindfulness is taught in the earliest buddhist texts! In fact, this description more accurately fits the definition of another term, manasikara, which simply means “attention” or “mental engagement.” This would be the initial moments of bare cognizing before recognition, perception and conceptualization. This “bare attention” is actually considered a “neutral” mental factor, neither inherently wholesome or unwholesome.

The word that we generally translate as mindfulness in Pali is sati, which is a form of “recollection” and “non-forgetfulness” which includes: retrospective memory of the past; prospectively remembering to do something in the future; and a present-centered recollection as the unwavering attention to a present reality.  This kind of mindfulness may be used to sustain bare attention, but nowhere in the basic texts do we find mindfulness (sati) equated with bare attention (manasikara).

Indeed, for “right mindfulness” to be present, sati requires the concomitant presence of “clear comprehension” (sampajanna) which is a form of introspective awareness that includes: precise knowing (a knowing of discrete moments of experiencing); complete knowing (seeing impermanence, the not-self nature of phenomena; the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of phenomena; liberation); and balanced knowing (the observation of all phenomena with sati). In the Satipatthana Sutta (a key text on the practice of sati), the three factors of recollection (sati), clear comprehension (sampajanna) and ardency (atappa) together make up “appropriate attention” or “wise reflection” (yoniso manasikara).

Sati is understood as a wholesome mental factor that clearly distinguishes between wholesome and unwholesome mental states and behaviors, and is used to then cultivate and support wholesome states and behaviors and to counteract and diminish unwholesome states and behaviors. Nothing “impartial” or “neutral” about that!

When buddhist meditation is reduced to “bare attention” – as it so often is by many contemporary teachers and by almost all in the psychological community – what often gets neglected are ethics (sila), and practices such as the immeasurables. While “bare attention” as a calm, non-reactive awareness plays a crucial part in samatha (calming or tranquility meditation), it can also lead to profoundly liberating insights – but generally only for those with a fairly developed practice and understanding. An often-repeated story from the sutras is when the buddha tells a student “In the hearing, let there just be the hearing; in the seeing, let there just be the seeing.” What is overlooked is that this particular student was already highly advanced. Such an instruction for a beginner would be meaningless and not at all helpful! As it is often said of meditation in general: simple but not easy. Nothing could be “simpler” than “just hearing” or “just seeing,” but the difficulty of doing so is tremendous!

The potential danger of “bare attention” is that by itself, while it can suppress unwholesome mental factors, it can also prevent wholesome factors from arising. Remember that sati includes remembering the pain that a past action caused (for yourself or another), and prospectively remembering that you do not want to repeat such an action in the future. Such recollection would be impossible with “bare attention!”

Also, the four immeasurables: friendliness (metta); compassion (karuna); joy (mudita) and equanimity (uppekha) which are seen as wholesome mental factors to cultivate (bhavana, the word most used to refer to “meditation” in the early texts) can only be practices with mindfulness, not “bare attention!”

So, in an integrated practice of buddhist meditation that would include samatha (calming) and vipassana (insight), samatha would be the primary method of developing sati (mindfulness); then one would move on to vipassana, applying sati and its discerning intelligence to each of the four foundations of mindfulness (body; feelings; mental formations; dharma).

Briefly, the recollection of the body begins with the breath; and goes on to include the whole body; the postures of the body; the activities of the body (and nothing gets left out including shitting and pissing); the parts of the body; the elements of the body; and finally, the ultimate reality of the body: it will be a corpse!

The recollection of feeling investigates the felt sense of experience, seeing how all experience is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, arising physically or psychologically and that such feelings lead to reaction if sati is not present.

The recollection of mental formations includes emotions, discursive thinking, perceptions, etc. And the recollections of dharma investigates and categorizes experience according to aspects of the teachings of the buddha, including the five hindrances, the seven factors of awakening and the four noble truths. Alternatively, this can take the form of investigating the impermanent nature of all experience until the insight into not-self leads to “letting go” or “awakening.”

Again, its important to contemplate the fact that a sniper is practicing “bare attention” as he prepares for his kill. From the buddhist perspective, when mind is engaged in an act of harming, it is not even capable of sati (mindfulness). As the sniper waits and prepares, there will be heightened attention, vigilance, concentration and energy, but with an intention to cause harm, these factors are all under the sway of unwholesomeness. Free from its ethical matrix, mindfulness becomes “bare attention.”

For mindfulness to become “right mindfulness,” it requires the ethical and wisdom aspects, along with the meditation aspects of the eight-fold path. The eight limbs, divided into these three trainings (ethics, meditation, wisdom) are the yoga taught by the buddha.

Finally, I’d like to briefly touch upon the process behind the cultivation of mindfulness. It all begins with the arising of consciousness based upon the contact between a sense organ and a sense object. In buddhist thought (generally, there has been deviation from this understanding in some forms of buddhism such as much of vajrayana and zen) there is no “pure consciousness” that exists outside of causality. It always arises interdependently! And, there are six consciousness: one for each of the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting) and then mind consciousness.

This consciousness is understood as the mere cognizing of sense object by the sense organ. Then, supporting mental factors help to create meaning from this raw cognizing. For example, my tongue makes contact with chocolate and a feeling arises. I find it pleasant because of many factors, not least of which is my conditioned response to chocolate based upon previous experience.

Contact, feeling, perception, intention, attention are “universal mental factors” that arise in every moment of consciousness. Meditation doesn’t begin until we apply the initial application and sustained attention, supported by energy to keep us “focused.” Three ethically variable or neutral factors also are generally present while meditating: conviction or confidence; joy; the impulse to act. There are said to be “variable” because as you might imagine, these three factors can equally arise when doing something unwholesome!

But, with all these mental factors present, I may be meditating, but it won’t be “mindfulness meditation.” Sati is a wholesome mental factor which only arises under special conditions. It cannot arise in the presence of any unwholesome factors. If envy is present, for instance, there is no mindfulness. BUT, in the very next moment, there can be recollection (mindfulness/sati) of the previous moment that we can investigate. But only if we are well-trained and have developed this skill.

With mindfulness, the arising of eighteen other wholesome mental factors is said to arise including among them: equanimity; non-greed; non-hatred; self-respect; respect for others; tranquility; lightness; and malleability.

Finally, to the surprise of many when they hear this, mindfulness alone does not inevitably lead to liberating wisdom (panna). If mindfulness is not linked to the mental factor of insight, it will not in and of itself lead to any significant change in your understanding and behavior! This helps explain why so many long-term practitioners seem not to have the ‘breakthroughs’ that others may speak about. It’s also why even great teachers can so often fail to live up to their own teachings!

Real transformation comes from exposing and uprooting the deeply embedded tendency to project ownership onto experience; to take any phenomena as being “I,” “me” or “mine.” A key contribution to the larger yoga tradition is the buddha’s insight that meditative stabilization must be combined with the liberating discernment of the not-self nature of phenomena.

An old analogy has mindfulness being like the hand that takes a sheaf of grain in it’s grip and wisdom the hand that holds the scythe that cuts it down.

May all beings be free!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Shadow of Anusara?

Whew!  The following post has certainly caused a stir -- not just here but on Facebook! Considering that most of my posts garner no comments, and the most any ever did get were something like six, I got to kind of assuming no one was reading!

After reading through some comments on Christina Folosono Sell's Facebook page, I thought I would do a bit of a re-edit, both because I can see some further clarification may help, AND because I do agree that I used some terms that do not reflect "Right Speech." Worse, those terms seem to have derailed the more important point that I still heartily endorse: contemporary hatha-yoga, and Anusara in particular tend to foster a denial of duhkha and at times an almost aggressively "feel good" Pollyanna-like myopia.

For the record: I acknowledge John Friend as one of my teachers publicly, even mentioning him in the Acknowledgement section of my book, and indeed he has been an inspiring and influential teacher for me. I was a participant of one of his first Teacher Trainings as well as one of his first Yoga Therapy trainings. I attended workshops with him for several years after that and I've taken Immersions with Amy Ippolliti in New York, and with Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis in Tucson (where I also teach meditation).

Oh, and perhaps it is relevant to know that I am not a Buddhist.

Recently, the "exodus" of several senior Anusara Yoga teachers (including the two above-mentioned) has caused a bit of a ruffle among the wider yoga "community" (if one can even be said to exist). I am not interested in speculation nor in what it may or may not mean for John Friend or the "Anusara Kula."
What I would like to respond to is the following comments made by Elena Brower, one of those who have recently left the Anusara fold, the "defectors," as it points to something I have long felt to be a "shadow" of the contemporary hatha-yoga world, and in particular of Anusara culture -- and perhaps one that merely reflects John Friend's own shadow. Elena writes:
"What I found is that I wanted more, I wanted to know how to feel as amazing in my house as I’d felt on my mat. As expansive, as calm, as beautiful, as connected, as real. I couldn’t link my behavior at home to my composure in my practice, and I needed other ways to learn how to be more remarkable as a Mama, an ex-wife, a girlfriend, and most importantly these days, a daughter. My practice was giving me feelings of fulfillment but they didn’t last, and I was still going home and acting out of alignment with my yoga, which was getting painful."
I recognize this pattern! That disconnect between "practice" and "daily life;"  the lack of integration of practice and the rest of life. Here is what I wrote in my book, Mindfulness Yoga almost ten years ago, about something I experienced back in 1976:
"I began to notice that while I left the yoga class feeling the divine bliss of heaven, by the time I got off the train in Flushing, I was back in my own private hell. In fact, the bliss I was feeling in yoga class seemed ever more remote and alien to the rest of my life. Even after I had started to practice the postures and breathing exercises at home, I continued to find that whenever I wasn't "doing yoga," the peacefulness I felt while practicing continued to elude me."
What brought me to a deeper understanding was the following passage where the Buddha himself describes a similar experience he had with his yoga teachers:
"Though one may momentarily be secluded from the cycle of suffering, the watcher remains as a seed of rebirth. As soon as the situation changes, rebirth easily takes place again. This is just what happens now when I get up from meditating. No matter how profound my absorption, after a short time I get caught up again in the world of the senses. The basic causes and conditions for rebirth have not been extinguished. Complete liberation has not been achieved."
When I first read about the Buddha's dissatisfaction with the failure of his practice to fundamentally change his experience of daily life, I instantly recognized the similarity to my own experience -- how wonderfully calm and peaceful I felt after yoga practice, and yet how all too soon I fell back into the suffering of craving and aversion. And when I became a yoga teacher, I saw how many students seemed to have similar experiences. They would leave class blissed out, but as soon as they got "caught up in the world of their senses" they found themselves back amid their anxious lives -- from blissed out to stressed out. This is the "rebirth" the Buddha was talking about. The question became how do we stop this apparently ceaseless cycle, this endless emotional and psychological roller coaster? In our very lives generally, and in our own practice of yoga specifically, we can see the process of samsara, the cyclic process of "birth and death" over and over, moment by moment!
In my experience, contemporary hatha-yoga in general, and Anusara Yoga in particular, are permeated by a willful denial and ignor-ance of the reality of duhkha. I've had this "argument" with John Friend twice. Once, after I had lectured a group of Moksha-Yoga Teacher Trainees for over a week on mindfulness, buddhist meditation, and the philosophy and history of the Yoga Tradition, John Friend came to give a talk, and the very first thing he said was, "I know you've just had a Buddhist scholar here, and they are always talking about duhkha. But I come from a place of bliss." His talk degenerated from there! I was happy to hear one of the students respond to him, saying: "Frank spoke a lot about joy, but also made the point that the way to joy was through nobly facing and engaging with duhkha, not denying it or turning away from it."
Afterward, John actually did acknowledge to me that he had overstated his case, had gotten carried away, and had reduced Buddhism into a caricature. This did not stop him from, only a few years later, in my presence at one of his workshops, stooping to the same caricature.
And this is the shadow I have long seen in Anusara. Everyone is exhorted to aggressively "shine out with Shri" and it's all about bliss -- poorly understood as a super "feeling good" when the Tantric understanding of bliss is so much more subtle than that, and ultimately not reliant on feeling good at all! The bliss of the tantrika transcends the polarities of pleasure and pain. The Rainbow Body of Peace needn't be pain free. By definition, if it needs to be pain free, it is bound by those conditions and is therefore NOT freedom!
The "culture" of Anusara (echoing the culture of contemporary mainstream hatha-yoga) is fearful of the "noble truth of duhkha." A kind of hiding one's head in the sand is encouraged with lots of feel-good, empowerment/motivational speaker kind of new agey pablum designed to soothe and pamper egos so often desperate for validation. I've heard more applause at some Anusara workshops than I might hear at a concert! I've been invited to teach at ashrams where the brittleness of forced happiness, the plastered on smiles and the shying away of any discord is truly suffocating. 
So, I am glad that Elena seems to have broken free from the forced glee-club of Stepford Wife yogis from a culture that seems to have demanded of her this kind of consensus myopia, and found a way to integrate the freedom and peace found in yoga into her life, learning, as she says, "that I can finally look at my behaviors head-on, and not flinch, but instead, HANDLE them. Talk about them. Apologize for them instead of being too proud to address them. And then – most importantly – SHIFT THEM."
It is noble and ennobling to face duhkha, to awaken from avidya (ignore-ance) and denial. A greater ease with life, the "full catastrophe," arises when one no longer HAS to feel all "shri" and happy-faced! The radical acceptance and unconditional regard we seek cannot come from denying such a fundamental aspect of life as duhkha! This is not to say that that is all there is to life! What I am saying is that in turning away from duhkha, one turns away from the path leading out of duhkha. To deny duhkha IS duhkha!

And, to rectify mis-understandings, duhkha is NOT "suffering" and the Buddha did not say "Life is suffering." He said "there is duhkha." Face it! Though mental anguish is duhkha, that is not all it is! Duhkha is the fact that sometimes you lose what you like; you get what you don't like. Duhkha is the simply fact that happiness is not to be found in circumstances!

Now, some Buddhists seem to forget that there are Four Realities for the Noble, and that acknowledging and facing duhkha is only the first. Kind of like the first step of the 12 Step Programs, it's merely the beginning! Joy and Happiness are two of the Seven Factors of Awakening. Make no mistake: the Buddha was no kill-joy! He just wanted us to understand where happiness was truly to be found.

frank jude