Is there life before death?

People spend a lot of time waiting for something to happen, for everything to be perfect, before they get busy living.  Yoga calls us to live in the moment, to create now, to live now.  

I am currently reading The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.  The author Shane Claiborne is a founder of The Simple Way, a non-profit Christian community, that serves Philadelphia and throughout the world.  The book is a memoir of Shane’s journey as a Christian, from church in childhood to the streets of Philadelphia and Calcutta through the founding of the Simple Way.   It is also an invitation to change the world through radical love.  I am excited that I will be seeing Shane speak this weekend at The Justice Conference in Philadelphia.  If you are in the area, check it out and sign up!  Otherwise, you can join through simulcast!

Chapter 5, “Another Way of Doing Life” questions whether Christians must really live a life apart, a life that looks different than those of non-Christians.  It begins:

We have not shown the world another way of doing life.  Christians pretty much live like everybody else; they just sprinkle a little Jesus in along the way.  And doctrine is not very attractive, even if it’s true.  Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.

…And yet I am convinced that Jesus came not just to prepare us to die but to teach us how to live.  Otherwise, much of Jesus’ wisdom would prove quite unnecessary for the afterlife.  After all, how hard could it be to love our enemies in heaven.

This might upset you.  It is meant to.  The path takes a turn, the world flips upside down, and you are left wondering, what now?

I believe Shane’s message here is two-fold:

1) We must stop waiting for tomorrow to start living.  I have heard it many times and many places, don’t put your life on hold until the until.  In high school religion class (I went to Catholic school) we read a poem about waiting at a train station, and when the train finally comes you switch your wait for the destination.  It is the message of the song “Cat’s in the Cradle”.

In yoga we are constantly asked to “stay present” or “be in the moment”.  We focus on the breath and stay with each pose.  Or we worry what the other people will think and stop ourselves from progressing until our hamstrings are looser or our arms are stronger.  In truth, the only way they will become different is to work on changing them.  Not through wishing and hoping but through the actual practice.

In life, everyone seems to be waiting for that perfect job, the right amount of money, the perfect city, the kids to leave the house, graduation, retirement… Waiting for that paradise, whether it be here on earth or it be in the afterlife, waiting.  When really, the paradise we are looking for is something we can create right here, right now (cue the music).  We are here to use this life we were given to help create the world that the ancients envisioned.  Jesus, Buddha, Patanjali and many others, along with their followers, all left instructions to live life in the moment.  They also left instructions on how to live that life.

2) That brings us to the second message.  It is not easy to live life according to the Bible or the Yoga Sutras or whatever precepts by which you lead your life.  Even when they are self-made precepts, they are difficult to follow one-hundred percent of the time.  No one is immune to hypocrisy.  It takes discipline and vulnerability to follow a spiritual path.  It also takes complete honesty with oneself.

These precepts were not meant to be easy to follow.  If they were easy, we would have all reached enlightenment already.  However, many of us want to get enlightened first and then live by the precepts of Yoga.  We want to wait to get to heaven to love our brother.

There really is no little nugget I can give you that will spring you into a life lived in the present.  There are no neat way to wrap this up.  But I can say,

Be present and live fierce.  

*****

I realize that some people may find my marriage of Christianity and Yoga unappealing.  I know that there are some who see yoga as something Christians should not engage in too deeply.  There are some yogis who might find the use of Christian language off-putting.  I was raised in America (a culture very heavily influenced by Christian symbolism) as an Episcopalian, went to Catholic school and started yoga in the midst of it all.  Christian doctrine and stories hold a lot of meaning for me and I believe in the fundamental teachings.  I do not find them entirely different from the fundamental teachings of Yoga.  And when they are conflicting, I get to ask why and delve deeper into my faith.

I remember reading a quote from a prominent Buddhist once, admonishing many Christians for jumping into Buddhism because they were unhappy with their own religion.  This is like eating hard-boiled eggs when you are tired of scrambled.  Different form, still an egg.  We must understand what it is that is making us discontent with what we already know.  I get that this will not be popular with everyone.

Sutra Sunday: A lesson in Non-attachment

A little late… What completely destroying my cell phone taught me.

drstanusraikavisayavitrsnasya vasikarasamjna vairagyam

“The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.”

I completely destroyed my cellphone.  Annihilated it.  Sent it to cellphone heaven.  And I’m ok with it.

I had an iphone.  It was expensive.  I loved it.  It held all my appointments and contacts and synced everything to my computer.  I checked it a million times a day.  I was amazed at how efficient I felt while banking in a parking lot or emailing from the bank line.  Amazing what these smartphones help you do.  I quickly became attached.

The other day I dropped it on the floor.  I had taken the cover off to help the phone fit in a dock player at the yoga studio and hadn’t gotten around to replacing it.  I liked how little it felt without my big bulky case.  In a matter of seconds the screen was smashed.  Still the phone worked.

It was difficult to read anything on the screen.  The glass kept pulling up in small chunks, threatening to slice a finger.  So I googled what to do and found you could buy and replace the screen yourself.  I bought the kit on Amazon and waited the two days.

My dad helped me carefully take the phone apart.  It was almost beautiful to see how all the tiny little pieces sat inside.  It is truly wondrous how people were able to create such a tiny masterpiece (not quite as wondrous as the efficient function of the human body or the world ecosystems, but almost!).  I was having a good time.

Until the entire phone was apart, guts splayed out on the table and we realized that I had bought the wrong screen replacement.  Oops.  All that wrestling with the tiniest screws in the world, and no work to show.  We placed the old screen back on and had almost finished putting all the pieces back together, when we ripped one of the connector wires (well, my dad ripped the wire).

I said some expletive, looked at the damage and then decided to put everything back together.  When it was all back in place, I tested the phone, even though I was positive it wouldn’t turn on.  It didn’t.  By then I didn’t even care.  I had had fun taking apart the phone and putting it back together.  I had spent some fun time with my dad learning a bit more about electronics.  And I had learned that my phone doesn’t define me.  I mean, I knew this on one level, but it is easy to become attached to this metal extension of our brain.  Google is always with me and I can get anywhere, even if the directions are a little off.

I was disappointed that my phone no longer worked.  I was disappointed that I would need to get a new one (which I did).  However, I was ok.  I have lost or damaged a phone before, had my camera stolen, had a hard drive completely wiped of my photos and so on.  All of these things were important to me, but none of this is entirely tragic.

In these situations we tend to try to “look on the bright-side”.  At least I’m ok, at least I can get a new one, at least… This is a good way to start.  The yoga sutras ask us to go a little deeper.  In looking on the bright-side, we are still experiencing attachment to something.  I was more worried about the interview I had missed than my broken cell phone.  This made me feel better, but it was just trading one attachment for another.  I was trading my attachment to an object (my cellphone) for an attachment to an event (the interview) or possibly an attachment to a way I saw myself (as a trustworthy person).

Breaking away from these attachments is not easy.  It is a journey.  We are given many opportunities to work on our attachments, many lenses which to see them through.  Yoga is not asking us to have no emotion, but recognizes that attachment to the material world causes suffering.  We do not need to suffer in this life.

This is a subject that requires much study an contemplation and this small post only scratches the surface.  I am certain I will return to this subject many times.  Feel free to share below any lessons you have had in non-attachment, small or large!

Sutra Sunday: I cannot tell a lie

This Sunday I discuss Satya, truthfulness, one of the yamas in yoga.

सत्यप्रतिष्थायं क्रियाफलाश्रयत्वम् 

satya-pratiṣthāyaṁ kriyā-phala-āśrayatvam 

Once a state of truth (satya) has been permanently established, each statement will form the basis for a truthful result. 

Telling the truth, I mean really telling the truth all the time, is difficult.  Period.  There are big lies and small lies and white lies and black ones.  There are intentional lies and lies of omission.  We lie to our parents, our teachers, our colleagues and friends.  We lie to ourselves.  In the end, they are all equal.  They are all the opposite of truth.

This past week, I missed an interview.  My mom came to ask me about my day.  It was 5 o’clock and I suddenly remembered that I had an interview at 2.  I had missed it and there was nothing I could do.  I decided to send an email of apology asking if it were possible to reschedule.  I wanted to lie.  I wanted to make up a story about my car or a family emergency.  I wanted to say anything other than, I forgot.  I wanted to… but I didn’t.

As a yoga practitioner, I would have felt icky walking into an interview for a yoga teaching job based on a lie.  It would have felt icky to write it.  So, I wrote him a cleaned up truth explaining that I had not put it in my calendar correctly.  In the end this might have hurt me, he might not want to reschedule with someone who is not well-organized enough to get to an interview.  It might have hurt me, but I did everything I could.  I acknowledged my wrong doing while still holding to satya.

It wasn’t easy.  It made me angry as I was writing the email that I could not make myself type a lie.  I so wanted to cover my ass and get a second interview.  Not because I so desperately wanted the job, but because I do not like to make mistakes.  To me, satya is most difficult when facing my mistakes.  It is then that I struggle the most, but when I come out on the side of truth it is there I reach the most growth.

Telling lies has never come easy for me, though whenever I did decide to tell one, I was fairly good at the deception.  It always made me feel disgusting and in the end I never really gained anything.  I usually ended up telling the truth, even years later.  Now it is just easier to tell the truth and face the consequences.  It is faster.  I do not always tell the truth, as sometimes I do not want to face the consequences.  When I do tell the truth, though, I do not need to waste my time worrying about being found out.  The damage is done.

That is the beauty of satya.  Truthfulness will start to set you free from a self-imposed prison.  Truthfulness lightens the load of worry.  When paired with the first yama, ahimsa/non-harming (to be discussed in another addition of Sutra Sunday), satya has deep power.  You will start to see that there was no need to lie in the first place.  Whatever happened does not change because you told a different story and most people will be able to accept the truth.  If they cannot, you accept the consequences, which you most likely would have accepted either way.

Try for one week to be conscious of the lies you tell, big or small.  Notice where you omit information in order to avoid lying or telling the truth.  Try for that one week to focus on satya, on telling the truth.  As long as your truth will not cause harm to another, go ahead and tell it.  How does it feel to be free from the shackles of lies?

Sutra Sunday: Practice your practice

Book 1 Sutra 14

“Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.”

This sutra from Patanjali reminds us to practice our practice.  Whatever you choose to do each day, whether it be meditation, pranayama, asana or chant or most likely a mixture of all, practice it each and everyday.  And practice with earnestness; with sincerity and conviction.

This is common sense.  To become a doctor, one must practice the principles of medicine and be fully present when practicing to keep your patient alive.  Doctors practice for years before they are fully allowed to do surgery on their own.  They need a lengthy history of learning in order for it to become second nature.  The longer their practice, the  further they advance.  We would not want a surgeon who had been on a three month leave to cute into us without brushing up a bit.

As yogis and yoginis, we have the same responsibility.  We approach each day as a new opportunity to put our words into action and go deeper into the practice of yoga.  We must practice for a length of time before the principles become second nature.  At the start of the practice, everything feels new and difficult.  It is only through time and full commitment to the practice that we find ease in the principles.

This is not easy.  Everyday there are challenges that can keep us from the mat, or our meditation pillow, or whatever time and space you have carved out for your practice.  These obstacles are very real and they do get in our way.  However, everyday we get to choose to take the time.  We can always find time and space, even if it is only 1 minute in the car before running into the coffee shop.  This constant practice is what it takes to go deeper.

So find the time to practice your practice.  Practice as much as possible.  Approach it with your full awareness, with earnestness.  This is the start of the path to enlightenment.

yogasutra 1-12*image from Patanjali Yoga Theory

Sutra Sunday: What is yoga?

Your weekly dose of Sutra wisdom.  Finding the deeper meaning of Yoga through the text.

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥ २॥

yogasgcittavrttinirodhah

“Yoga is the process of stilling the distractions in our heart-mind.” – Nicolai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras

This is what yoga boils down to.  Yoga is a method by which we begin to muck through all the messages and clutter (vrittis) that have entered into our mind since birth.  Whether you do this through breathing, meditating, standing on your head, singing, walking, laughing, yoga is the path back to our sacred being.

We are all born with a pure heart-mind (citta).  It is the source of intuition and our connection with every other being on earth.  I would go so far to say that when scripture asserts we were “made in God’s image”, it is one and the same.  Others might equate it with spirit.  Whatever you call it, the heart-mind dwells within each of us.  However, it becomes clouded by earthly desires, dis-eases and sufferings.  It can become so clouded by these vrittis, that it is unseen, yet it is still there.

In teacher training, our teacher explained this through a simple demonstration.  She suspended a clear plastic heart into a vase of water.  This was to represent the heart mind, the water was our physical mind.  She began adding dyes and other liquids to the water.  The “mind” became cloudy and unclear and the heart-mind disappeared into the murk.

Now it would have been awesome if she had had a magic water cleaner that took out each dye and brought the water back to perfect clarity.  This is what yoga does for us.  It nirodahas (excuse me for completely bastardizing the sanskrit as an English verb, but it gets the point across).  Yoga blasts all the murk away and let’s our heart-mind shine through into the world.

If we could all live from the heart-mind, the world would be a better place to live.  Next time you step on the mat or sit in contemplation, begin to focus on the heart-mind.  Visualize light radiating from the heart and shining light onto all the dark places that cover your soul.  Blast yourself open from the inside out and bathe in the warmth of the connection that you have made with the universe.

 

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Sutra Sunday: Not just a fitness plan

I thought every Sunday I’d pull out the trusty Yoga Sutras by Patanjali for some deeper guidance. I do not claim any expertise or direct dialogue with a Higher Being, however through contemplation, careful study of translation and commentary and further contemplation, I have come to begin to understand the deeper wisdom of these philosophies. Today I will start by introducing the idea of the Sutras.

When I first came to the mat it was for the health benefits, namely weight-loss.  A senior in high school, I wanted to look good, so everyday I came home and popped in my MTV Yoga VHS (remember those!?!).  I flowed through the poses and I found a physical activity I loved doing for the first time since swimming.  I enjoyed it AND it made me feel great.  It wasn’t until later that I discovered yoga is a deep well of ancient philosophy and tradition.  That’s when I became hooked.

Asana is wonderful. It gets the blood pumping, the body moving and bring strength and flexibility in equal measure. It is wonderful. But it is not the only “yoga”. It is part of the yogic journey to enlightenment, a part of a whole that together link mind, body and spirit. but yoga can be about so much more.

Yoga can be broken into parts.  Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga are what I will focus on today (there is also Bahkti Yoga and Karma Yoga, which I will cover at a later date).  Hatha Yoga is the one we are all familiar with in the west.  It is the bending and stretching.  This practice is meant to help one in the real practice of Yoga, mastery over the mind.  “The actual meaning of Yoga is the science of the mind.” This is Raja Yoga.  (Satchidananda)

The primary text of Raja Yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, sutra a Sanskrit word meaning thread.  One popular and well known book of sutras is the Kama Sutra, the threads of knowledge left by Vātsyāyana in the 2nd century CE describing in detail human sexual behavior.  The YOGA Sutras are threads of knowledge recorded around the same time by Patanjali.  (Wiki)

The Yoga Sutras make a handbook of gathered wisdom meant to help guide yogis on their path to enlightenment.  Parts of the sutras are shared among other ideologies, such as Buddhism and Christianity.  Though it is not a religious text, it is an important book to practitioners of yoga looking to deepen their relationship to their mind.  According to the sutras, I, and no one else, have power over my thoughts and therefore my words and action. Is there anything more powerful than that?

Namaste!

Join me next week for another Sunday Sutra.  Please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions, concerns or requests.

There are many different translations of the Yoga Sutras.  I currently read and study the translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda.  Click the image to view on Amazon.

sutras cover