Jul 14 2010

The Heart of Yoga: A Young Yogi’s Perspective

Matthew Foley

As I’ve begun my journey as a new yoga teacher over the past year, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the essence or heart of yoga. What is it exactly about yoga that makes me passionate both as a student and now a teacher?

It’s difficult of course to talk about THE heart of yoga, since yoga means many different things to many different people. One of the most noticeable aspects of the modern-day yoga community here in the States is the incredible diversity of reasons why people come to a yoga class. If you were to conduct a poll of people entering any given yoga studio and ask “Why did you come today?”, I think you would be amazed at the variety of responses.

Some are coming simply for a good workout. Some are coming for a personal oasis during the day – a chance to get away from the job, the to do list, the day-to-day grind. Some are coming to recover from injuries and wounds, both physical and psychological. And some come seeking the more spiritual aspects of the yoga tradition – to discover their true selves and perhaps find a little bliss along the way.

I think it’s quite a positive thing that many people are coming to a yoga practice from so many different perspectives. I think it actually speaks to (if you will excuse the pun) the flexibility of yoga in meeting a wide-range of needs of the modern person. Not bad for a tradition that’s been around for several millennia.

As I go into this question of the heart of a yoga practice, I realize that I can only really speak for myself and from my own experiences along the path. I am also a firm believer in the maxim “One Truth, Many Paths” – that there is a multitude of ways to express the same perennial truth. I realize that my words are, at best , mere fingers pointing at the moon.

Even though I can only speak of the heart of my yoga practice, I still think these thoughts may be helpful to someone at the beginning of their yoga path or someone interested in seeing things from a different perspective.

So, I come to this question: when I am teaching a yoga class to a group of students, what am I really trying to get across, what am I really hoping to share with them?

The heart of what I hope to cultivate in a yoga class – whether as teacher or student – is essentially an inner experience. It isn’t so important to me that I or anyone else perfects any one particular posture. I don’t think there is anything magical about an asana in and of itself – as if doing a perfect Virabhadrasana II is the mysterious ticket to everlasting nirvana. I think some people were born to do the uber-flexible advanced postures of yoga – but many of us aren’t.

I’m also not particularly interested in advancing a particular belief system. I think yoga’s current appeal in the West in terms of spiritual matters is that it offers a way of relating to spirituality – of connecting to the sacred, to the divine, to God – that isn’t about believing one particular way or subscribing to a specific dogma.

I believe yoga’s true gift (though it obviously doesn’t belong exclusively to yoga) is an inner experience of transformed awareness. In other words, yoga provides a radically new way of feeling our connection to the world and a transformed way of experiencing ourselves.

As we relax, expand, and open both the body and mind throughout the course of a yoga class, we clear a space within ourselves that is ordinarily cluttered by all the anxieties, fears, tensions, and doubts of our fast-paced lives. Within this cleared, open space, something else, something deeper, something more profound finally has the chance to speak.

If we are bold enough to listen, we find that it is our true selves – a self not exclusively rooted, however, to the narrow confines of me and mine, my story and my wants. This open, expanded self doesn’t necessarily reject what we feel we need and want in life, but it puts it all in a fresh, expanded perspective. I personally don’t subscribe to the notion that a spiritual practice is meant to help us transcend our earthly existence, as if there is something wrong with being a living, breathing human being on planet earth. In fact, my experience has been that a yoga practice helps us reconnect to the splendor of just being who we are, in a gorgeously interdependent world of plants, animals, sunshine, mountains, and all the wonders of life.

This newfound connection to life, brought about by the transformation of our consciousness, offers not just a solution to our modern sense of alienation and dissatisfaction, but also offers a blueprint for relating in a more ethical and responsible way to our fellow human beings and our ecological environment.

At this point, you may be asking: isn’t this a tall order for an hour-long asana class, often scheduled between one student’s business meeting and another’s commute to pick the kids up from school? Well, in my opinion, the heart of yoga doesn’t reside within the walls of any one yoga studio, nor does it always involve a yoga mat. Yoga is a transformative way of living one’s life, right here and now, whether you are attempting a headstand or folding the laundry, whether in deep meditation or looking into the eyes of your loved one.

I hope these thoughts bring some new inspiration and insight to your practice, whether you are just beginning or have been at it for many, many years. Yoga can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, so I share this not to convince you of the “right” way to do yoga, but to hopefully inspire you to find the heart of your yoga practice.

May 25 2010

Mind/Body Harmony

Matthew Foley

I had a really phenomenal experience this past Sunday morning teaching a yoga class to a dance group at the College of Charleston. About a dozen people showed up for the class, which took place in a beautiful dance room located inside the brand new Cato Arts Center on the CofC campus. In preparing for the class, I did a lot of thinking about what a yoga practice might offer people who are passionate about dance and creative movement.

One of the central aspects of yoga is cultivating a harmonious relationship between mind and body. Such harmony is of course essential to creating beautiful and graceful movement in dance. In many Eastern spiritual paths, the mind and the body are seen as equal halves of an integral whole. This is the philosophy of yin and yang: things that appear to be opposites – light and dark, tall and short, earth and sky, spirit and flesh – are in fact inseparably connected with one another.

In Western culture, however, there is a very rigid division between mind and body. In the last year, I’ve stumbled upon a number of brilliant Western thinkers who have addressed this division and the disharmony is creates in individuals.

The first is Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on human creativity, who gave a brilliant address at the 2006 TED Conference on creativity in children and whether or not educational systems around the world do an adequate job of fostering that creativity. (The whole talk is worth watching, but the part I’ll be focusing on begins around the 9:00 minute mark).

During his talk, he spoke about the fact that almost all schools around the world tend to place a great emphasis on language and mathematics over the arts, particularly drama and dance. He says: “As children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist-up. Then we focus on their heads – and slightly to one side.”

He goes on to describe what type of person this emphasis on head-only education creates, particularly in the form of the stereotypical academic professor: “They live in their heads. They live up there – and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads. It’s a way of getting their heads to meetings.”

Another brilliant thinker I’ve come across in the past year is Alan Watts, who came to popular attention during the 1960’s as an interpreter of Eastern spiritual traditions (especially Zen Buddhism) for Western audiences. In one of his talks featured on YouTube, delightfully illustrated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, he addresses this split between mind and body that exists in the West and how it shapes our sense of self.

“I’ve always been tremendously interested in what people mean by the word “I” – because it comes out in curious lapses of speech. We don’t say: “I am a body.” We say: “I have a body.” Somehow we don’t seem to identify ourselves with all of ourselves. We say “my feet,” “my hands,” “my teeth,” as if they were something outside me. As far as I can make out, most people feel that they are something or other about halfway between the ears and a little ways behind the eyes, inside the head. That’s what you call the “ego.” That’s not what you are at all, because it gives you the idea that you are a chauffeur inside your own body – as if you your body were an automobile and you are the chauffeur principle inside it.”

The point that both Robinson and Watts are making is that when we identify primarily with our mind and our thoughts, we disconnect ourselves from our bodily existence. The results are usually disastrous, particularly in our modern culture. We stuff food into our mouths that are deeply gratifying to the mind (products high in fat and processed sugar) but which are nutritionally disastrous to the body. On the opposite extreme, we flock to gyms in order to sculpt our bodies into an idealized mental image of what we should like like – usually based on digitalized media images of the super skinny or ultra buff.

What is lacking is a deep listening to the wisdom of the body. Oftentimes, we only start to listen when we are forced to, usually as a result of an illness or life-threatening condition. Many people then realize that they must flip their entire life-style upside down and start living from a more holistic understanding of themselves.

Many of these people, of course, find their way to yoga classes and meditation retreats. A great deal of the popularity of such practices as yoga, tai chi, and seated meditation are found in the fact that they help cultivate a holistic way of looking at the world and our place in it. These practices are based on the realization that the mind and body form an inseparable wholeness – just as each individual human being, animal, or plant is an integral part of the interdependent environment in which they live. The process of yoga, in my mind, is a process of extending the feeling of identity outwards, away from the narrow confines of our egos, and connecting with our bodies, our communities, the planet, and the universe.

In the yoga class I taught to the dance group, I continually encouraged the participants to focus on their breath. The breath is an incredible tool for helping us cultivate mind/body harmony. Mindful breathing helps us turn down the volume on our mental noise so that the wisdom of the body may begin to be heard. A yogi or dancer can then begin to truly feel his or her body. They can begin to discover where they are tight or sore, where they hold anxiety or stress, in what movements they feel confident or terrified. This deep listening to the body can give us insight into the ways we live and in what ways we may need to change.

When the body and mind begin to move and function as one, we become more effective in what we do, we become more graceful and effortless in our actions, we become less worried and anxious in our inner lives. This is obviously helpful not just on the yoga mat or on the dance stage, but in all aspects of our lives.

So the question is… What might your body be trying to tell you? And if you start to really listen, what changes would begin to happen in your life?

~ Matthew Foley

May 17 2010

Tequila Upanishad

Natasha Alexandra Akery

           On Friday evening, my husband and I went to Voodoo Lounge for their delicious tacos during happy hour.  Mattie had a few beers throughout the evening, but I do not drink.  Over the years, I found that my yoga practice actually taught my body to reject alcohol in most forms.  On special occasions such as weddings or New Year’s celebrations, I will have a small glass of champagne.  For the most part, I steer clear because my body tells me to do so, but tonight was different.  For some reason, my body said, “Tequila.”

            The last time I had tequila was over two years ago at a bar downtown.  I used to love tequila; it was certainly my liquor of choice.  I always preferred it to everything else, beer included.  Our last encounter was messy and was a red flag – my body just did not want exposure to the stuff any longer.  So, why was tonight different?  What was going inside of my body that made me desire tequila?  After a short discussion about varieties with the waitress, I finally decided.  Within moments, there it was – a shot glass of clear liquid.  My body taught me for so long to run the other way.  I figured there must be something to learn.  Perhaps my body wanted me to experience this differently and in light of my practice.

            There were about a dozen lime slices on a couple plates in front of me.  My husband looked on surprised and concerned; he knows I do not drink for anyone or any reason.  I said to him, “My mother told me once that tequila makes you brave.  It is not like any other liquor in the world.  I wonder why that is?”  Mattie replied, “I hate the stuff.  It makes me shake.”  I brought the shot glass to my lips, took a deep breath, and sipped.  I did not throw it back.  There was a lesson inside the tiny vessel and I needed to pay attention.  My tongue recoiled and the heat went down my throat and erupted inside my chest, as if encasing my heart in a sauna.

            I thought: “This is why I do not drink.”  The tequila felt like an invader.  It felt like spiritual oppression.  It felt as though the sip was someone I allowed into my body to overtake it, to ravage it, to harm me.  But this small voice inside encouraged me to continue.  Each sip was terrible – yes, awful.  I bit deeply into the limes and felt respite there.  I had never used salt or lime in the past.  After taking the invader into my mouth and then biting deeply into the lime slice, I realized that my body craved that natural fruit.  The taste was soothing and peaceful.  Tequila was a predator.

            I said to Mattie, “So, tequila comes from blue agave, a plant that grows in high altitudes and dry, sandy soil.  I wonder if its effects upon a person are similar to those conditions.”  My husband is in mid-bite, wondering why I am trying to justify my alcohol venture with a deep discussion.  He just wants to eat and drink his beer, but I am truly thinking this through.  If I were in an arid climate with high altitudes, I would feel a little loopy.  I would follow a thought process not typical of me.  Over time without much water, I would feel my body ration out every last bit until all that was left of me was – well, a hallucinating mess.  Is that why it makes you “brave”?

            The very last sip of that shot glass made me giggle involuntarily.  Mattie could not believe his wife was wasted after a shot.  I wasn’t, but I was different.  I was affected.  That small amount of tequila reminded me so much of why I practice yoga.  Pranayama and asana have the opposite effects of alcohol.  When I practice, I am protecting my mind, my body, my spirit, and my heart.  I gain control over the physical aspects of self in order to harness the others.  Alcohol wreaks havoc on my efforts.  It is a thief.  I sat in that booth in Voodoo Lounge, practicing my yoga with greater ferocity because an enemy was in my body.  I allowed myself to succumb in order to be and to learn.

            On Friday night, tequila was a slimy guy in a bad suit, whispering sweet nothings in my ear.  There was a battle inside: tequila enamored me, but also repulsed me.  It soothed me, but also terrified me.  I think that is the nature of things that contradict the yogic practice.  They have very similar results, but deep down one can feel the betrayal of self and of Divine Truth.  Tequila can be an escape much like yoga, but the difference is that the latter shows you reality.  The former pulls you deeper into illusion.  Nonetheless, tequila taught me an important lesson, that all things and all people can teach you so long as you sit near and listen.

Peace be with you,
Natasha Alexandra Akery