Karen's Thoughts

My thoughts on anything and everything.

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Location: California, United States

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Little Bit About Meditation

When I tell people that I meditate, I get some strange reactions. Some people dismiss it as unprofitable navel-gazing and a waste of time. My devoutly Christian dentist gravely warned me about the spiritual dangers of “stopping thought” and “kandaluni”(I assume he meant kundalini.). When I told him I usually just focus on the breath he was much reassured: “Well, there's nothing wrong at all with deep breathing.” Mostly people find the idea of sitting on a cushion too daunting: “Oh, I can't do that. I can't concentrate that long. My mind wanders.”

The truth is, meditation is just not as complicated as all that. It's just going with the flow of the present moment. Musicians have told me something similar happens when they are into playing and going with the music. From what Jeff tells me, he experiences something like it while riding his motorcycle. You are totally “into” what you are doing. The object can be your breath, a mantra, an ideal, or just the field of sensation your body experiences. It can be devotional in nature, or you can just count your breaths up to ten over and over. Whatever the focus, you bring it to the front of your awareness. “Concentration” is really too harsh a word, because it implies a kind of force. As for “emptying your mind of thought”, that doesn't happen, so I don't know what folks are so worried about.

You don't even have to be sitting down. There are Buddhist schools where work is considered a meditation. (Remember Grasshopper on the show Kung Fu sweeping up the leaves in the temple? He was meditating.) You can also lay down or stand in a relaxed posture. The point is that you bring your mind into the present moment and try to keep it there.

This is where people think they are failing to do it right and that they aren't “good at meditating”. But the truth is that the moment when you are aware that your mind has drifted away from your object and has begun to tell its own story is very important. That awareness of what the mind is doing is part of the learning process. You just say to yourself “I'm thinking.”, and bring it back to the breath. And you do that again and again during the time allotted for meditation. Sometimes I'll give myself credit for having positive thoughts, if that's the case, although one should strive to observe without judgement.

It's strange that we think that meditation on a single object is “boring”, but if you pay attention to your thoughts you find that the mind throws up the same old stuff again and again. But for some reason, we aren't bored by that. Counting to ten is boring, but re-living that argument you had with someone last week for the hundredth time isn't boring. In fact, because the human mind is wired for self-protection, we think that if we keep re-living bad experiences, we'll be more ready to defend ourselves. Maybe we will, but in the meantime we're causing ourselves to suffer unnecessarily.

Meditation takes us out of all that, as well as out of worry about the future. It's just a tiny mini-break from the internal drama we create for ourselves. If I'm sleepy, I can exercise first or do walking meditation. There are times I'm just too wound up to meditate silently, and I try exercise or chanting. Sometimes I just have to cry. Other times I have to put my energy into resolving the situation that has me hung up – and there always is some kind of solution that will release that energy and return me to a calmer state. I don't worry much on the discipline aspect of it, as in setting a goal to meditate a certain amount of minutes at a certain time every day. I do the best I can with the circumstances I find myself in. Mornings are best, especially if my daughter isn't home and sleeping in my yoga room. If she is home, then I have to do things differently. One of the things that meditation teaches you is that life is constantly changing, and you're better off accepting that. And it's hard for everyone – I certainly don't have some sort of special talent or ability. But I do think it's worth the effort, because it gradually changes your attitudes even when you're not on the cushion.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Going to Sky Creek

The Sky Creek Dharma Center is supported by four different Buddhist sanghas that each have their own “take” on Buddhist thought and practice: The Monday night group is associated with Thich Nhat Hahn; the Tuesday night group does Vipassana meditation out of the Thai Forest Tradition and is associated with Spirit Rock Meditation Center; the Wednesday night group is Soto Zen and is associated with both Shasta Abbey in Redding and the Zen Center in San Francisco; and the Thursday night group calls itself “Dharma Buffet”, and I have read that it includes some Tibetan Buddhist practices. Since it was also once known as “Twenty-somethings”, I assume it attracts a somewhat younger crowd than the rest. I don't know precisely how the governance is done, but there is a board that has people from all four sanghas. Sky Creek also has a couple of non-Buddhist groups that meet there. I have recently been going to the Taoist Study group – not because of any philosophical preference, but simply because it's so much easier for me to drive to Chico on Sunday mornings as opposed to a weekday evening. We meditate 15 minutes, then discuss the Tao Te Ching for 45; early arrivers can do some Chi Gung practice to loosen up before meditation. I have been trying, as part of my practice, to learn deep listening, to focus on what others are saying rather than getting filled up with what I might want to say.

For me, the best part of Sky Creek, better than any particular group or teacher there, is just the center itself. It looks like it was, at one time, somebody's “dream house”, built on a generous bit of countryside, with a creek running through it. I feel happier and more peaceful just to set foot there. The thing I missed, more than anything during my years as a Baha'i was having a place, that was there set aside for spiritual purposes – and now, as a Buddhist, I have it. And it's not so very complicated; some of the groups I mention above aren't any bigger in terms of membership than our Baha'i community in Red Bluff was. But they do work together with each other, and very likely had some support from their larger affiliates – or maybe they were just lucky in having some well-to-do members. However they managed it, they own the property outright, and to me it's a little piece of heaven right outside Chico.

Exactly how I made the journey from unenrolled Baha'i to Buddhist is kind of hard to describe. It's something that I never thought would happen, and was not at all my intent when I began looking for local places where I might find a group to meditate with. These groups don't get hung up on what you believe, specifically. The only question I have been asked is whether or not I'm a beginner at meditation – because the practice is the center of what you're doing there, not teaching or reaffirming yourself in a particular set of propositions. Even textual study is done with a critical eye – it's not at all uncommon for me to hear someone say that they just flat disagree with a passage in the Tao Te Ching. But it would be wrong to call it irreverent – it's a very respectful atmosphere. Nobody bows as much as Buddhists do. Sometimes I'm not all that sure what we're bowing to – the room, the statues of the Buddhas, the current teacher, each other, or just to the East. In any case, I could have retained Baha'i belief and meditated with these folks, and no one would have had a problem with it because beliefs of any kind are rarely discussed.

Anyway, the final collapse of my attachment to Baha'u'llah paralleled the collapse of my marriage, and I have the feeling that the two were intertwined, but I cannot precisely place either one as cause or effect. All I know is that by time it was over, my dance with the Divine Beloved was done, and I had a real-life romance going on, and my spiritual life was more like calming water than a roaring fire. This isn't something that I could have chosen earlier, although I've long admired Buddhism for its extremely practical approach. It took a change in my emotional life before I could change my spiritual direction. Now I feel like enough time has gone by that I can comfortably change direction in my blog as well, maybe to make weekly posts on what I've been studying and/or thinking about. It would be nice to begin writing again.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

What Regular Teachers Probably Don't Know About Their Sub

1. I have to take my house phone and my cell phone with me when I take a bath, because I might miss work calls. I’ve missed work calls because I don’t answer my cell phone while I’m driving, until I can pull over. Sub clerks want the spot filled, and aren’t going to mess with voice mail unless I’m specifically asked for by the teacher.

2. I have to get up at 5 a.m. or even earlier in order to fit in all my morning routines, before I have to leave for work. Sometimes things get skimped on, like my exercise program or breakfast.

3. I have to prepare myself for work, scheduling all appointments around it, even when it turns out that no calls come.

4. If I don’t get a work call, I don’t get paid. That means I get a tiny paycheck in July, nothing in August, and another tiny paycheck in September. January and February are also pretty lean because of Christmas break. Easter break and testing week can also disrupt the cash flow, although not so severely because there is some variation between school districts.

5. Rising gas prices will influence how far I’m willing to drive for a half-day.

6. I can get work calls so late that I already think I have the day to myself, and then have to shift gears at the last minute.

7. I like being scheduled beforehand, but few teachers do that, even when their absence was for an event planned months ahead of time. If you really want me in your class, call me early, otherwise you’ll have whatever sub happens to be available that morning.

8. One of the many skills I’ve acquired is the ability to figure out where tiny country schools are in the middle of nowhere, and where the portable buildings are for alternative education. I’m never given a key for the latter and sometimes have to wait in the rain for the aide to arrive. (An umbrella is in my backpack at all times.)

9. Sometimes the first challenge of the day is figuring out the little “trick” to unlocking the door. Technical difficulties in general can make a good day go down the tubes in a hurry.

10. Once inside the classroom, my first challenge is locating the lesson plans -- which may be on the teacher’s desk, on the overhead projector, stuck with a magnet on the white board, or on any table in the room.

11. Subs should not be required to do morning yard duty. They need that time to look over the lesson plans, and simply find where materials are in an unfamiliar environment. Also, bear in mind, I won’t know I’m required to do morning yard duty until I find the lesson plans. On rare occasions that’s happened either just before or even after the morning bell rings.

12. Next is figuring out the roll procedure. Even if computers are used, it is helpful to give me two paper lists of the class -- one to take roll on if I can’t get the computer to work; one to make sure all kids returned after lunch. (Subs have tragically overlooked a missing child -- remember, we don’t know these kids by sight.) I try to make sure I know how many kids I have that day, but late arrivals and early departures can sometimes get that number a bit confused. Besides that, having to huddle behind a computer takes me out of my “power position” in front of the class, which may be crucial in establishing my authority. (Remember, these kids don’t believe I’m in charge until I convince them.)

12. Please leave the lists and signs I need for any sort of drill or emergency -- by the door or some other very obvious place. I will call the office at the first opportunity if I can’t find them. Because I don’t know the kids, this sort of preparedness is even more crucial for me than it is for you.

13. Please let me know where the extra pencils are, and where I can find the type of paper needed for all assignments ( or leave out a stack). I’ve never yet been in a class where somebody didn’t need a pencil, and if I have to hunt for one, I’m not teaching, and impaired in my ability to supervise the class.

14. Seating charts are hard to read when you‘re trying to find out the name of that kid with the big mouth in the middle of the math lesson; names on desks are better; name tags that I can actually put on the kids are best. Leaving me without anything that identifies the kids is not a nice thing to do.

15. When writing lesson plans, please be aware that I might not be familiar with the materials you use. If you just say “Kids do their Flapdoodle”, I might not know what the hell you’re talking about. If the kids know, please tell me where it is (in desks, or stacked on the counter, etc.); it reduces my anxiety level.

16. If a lesson is incomprehensible to me, or just isn’t working, I will do something different. Overplanning is better than under planning, but I can pull a lot out of my bag o’ tricks if I have to.

17. Because I’ve worked in a lot of Special Ed classes, I can usually distinguish between the kids who have learning disorders and kids who are just being obnoxious and react accordingly, but it’s nice if you give me a head’s up.

18. If kids are 2nd grade or younger, I will let them go to the bathroom, regardless of what your policy is. (One girl and one boy at a time.) Accidents at school are no fun for any of us. The system I like best for older kids is giving one “Potty pass” per day, then having them suffer a consequence in exchange for any more than that.

19. Do not tell your aide to take over the class for the day. It’s insulting, and I’d rather be teaching than just following an aide around. Your class can endure minor variations in the usual presentation for one day.

20. Please give me a list of which kids ride the bus, which get picked up and which go to SERFF (the after school program). It’s especially important to tell me if a child is forbidden to go with a non-custodial parent. Remember, I’ve just spent a day with these kids and I’m lucky if I’ve got their name memorized; I don’t know their parents either by name or by sight. I have to trust the kids for that.

21. I’m usually happy to do your correcting for you, except for writing (I don’t know what your rubric is), or math where there isn’t a key (quickly going down a row of math facts is fine, but I’m not going to calculate answers to a whole page of problems). I usually won’t stay past 3:30 to do this, unless we have an exceptionally good working relationship. If your kids have been really horrible and my nervous system is fried, I might not stay even if you want me to.

22. I will give you a report about behavior -- if your class is really terrible, I won’t sub for you again until next year. My favorite teachers are those who put the fear of dire consequences into the kids should they get their name written down by a sub.

23. I will have a bad attitude if I see:

A.) Lesson plans that include the insinuation that I’ll do nothing all day but show movies and play games if not warned otherwise.
B.) School policies that threaten to take you off the sub list if teachers complain about you. Your principal will get any warm body with a credential in there rather than teach all day, and we all know that, so cut the crap. Besides, I resent the implication that I won’t do a good job unless threatened.
C.) Principals that create menial jobs for subs to do in order to keep them around until 3:30, even when I’ve taught 4-hour Kindergarten or on minimum days. By this I don’t mean clearly useful things like correcting and copying, but I don’t appreciate being told to rearrange bookshelves, sweep floors, or to ask if I might “help” in other classes (teachers always say “no” in the afternoon, and are annoyed at the interruption) just so you can feel like you’ve gotten the last ounce of work out of me for your money. It’s not like we’re paid that extravagantly. Any principal that tries this, by the way, eventually gives it up as more trouble than it’s worth.

24. I will have a good attitude if I see:
A.) Principals and staff that say things like “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”
B.) Secretaries that tell me that teachers asked to have me back.
C.) Kids who clearly fear what I might tell the teacher because they know they’ll be in big trouble when she gets back, if I give a bad report.
D.) Well-written lesson plans with the materials logically organized, including any teacher’s manuals and keys I might need. The best arrangement I ever saw had materials in piles labeled “morning”, “after recess”, “after lunch”, and “extra”, including everything that was needed for me and the kids for each lesson.


Friday, January 07, 2011

American Veda

I've been reading a lot of books lately about the history of yoga, and alternative spirituality in general, but I thought *American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles, to Yoga and Mediation -- How Indian Spirituality Changed the West" was worth a review. I don't usually review books here, but this one really grabbed me.

Goldberg’s main thesis is that what he calls “Vedanta-Yoga” has had a profound impact on American religious thinking. The book starts, as all books on alternative religion in America seem to, with Emerson, and traces the Vedic thread through New Thought, Theosophy, Vivekenanda and the Vedanta Society -- as well as a full chapter on the prominent intellectuals influenced by them, then on to Yogananda and his Autobiography, and the Baby Boomers and Beatles visit to India in the Sixties. There is also a chapter about the dark side -- the scandals associated with some of the prominent gurus in the ‘80s, as well as the deep disillusionment of their followers. Then, the impact of “practitioner/pundit” -- just as the best and the brightest of young Baha’is did in the same era, some of the kids that turned to Vedanta-Yoga became professional academics in order to study their new religion.

One thing is made clear from the beginning: We aren’t talking about normative Hinduism as it is practiced in India. Goldberg asked us to picture the situation if someone had introduced a Christianity into the East that was “ a mixture of the intellectual rigor of the Jesuits and the contemplative practices of mystics.” That is, it would be barely recognizable to its original adherents, and much adapted to the soil in which it was planted.

In fact, the teachers that brought Vedanta and Yoga to our shores made a point of telling us we did not have to abandon our Judeo-Christian heritage in order to benefit from them. One of my favorite stories in the book involves a Westerner who went to India to consult with a guru, who asked him if he prayed to Jesus. When he said “No”, that he’d left the Catholicism of his childhood behind, the guru slapped him in the face and told him that he’d just swapped one narrow viewpoint for another, and to start praying to Jesus again! Others who abandoned their churches (or synagogues) returned enriched by their detour through Hindu spirituality, with a renewed interest in Western mysticism. Along with putting Sanskrit words like “karma” and “guru” into the dictionary, Vedanta has influenced virtually every form of “alternative religion” in America, including the “spiritual, but not religious” trend. Every time you hear someone refer vaguely to “the Universe” or “Higher Power” instead of God, you’re hearing Vedanta. The idea that there are many ways to God is another popular Vedantic idea -- the one which led me to abandon the Eastern path for the more Abrahamic Baha’i Faith, which puts a very different spin on it. (Some of the ideas that Goldberg describes as coming from Vedanta are also found in Sufism -- which with Baha‘i has a lot of affinity, but there’s no doubt that it’s the Indian influence that has popularized them in the U.S.)

One of the most interesting points the book makes is that many times people aren’t even aware of the source, and may not have arrived at the door of Vedanta-Yoga through spiritual seeking at all -- a person could be just looking for relief from an ailment, addiction, or stress. Hatha yoga, certainly, is generally presented as a purely physical practice, almost completely separated from its roots as an aid to meditation, but nevertheless exposing practitioners to Vedantic ideas, however vaguely. And, it sometimes acts as a springboard into a deeper investigation of Hindu spirituality. Goldberg even talks about the appeal that Vedanta has in the scientific community -- a group which is usually thought of as being indifferent, or even hostile, to religion. Indeed, one of the major advantages that Vedanta-Yoga has is that it does not require one to take scriptures literally even where they conflict with science. It’s very pragmatic -- you try it yourself and experience the results, much like a scientific experiment.

One thing that Goldberg mentions is changing is that younger generations, while still interested in Vedic religion, are far less naïve and less inclined to give themselves over completely to a guru. In fact, my guess is that some of the scandals emerged as the Baby Boomers themselves matured enough to say “Hey, that behavior’s not o.k.” and were willing to blow the whistle. One thing I’m seeing, that Goldberg doesn’t mention is that more overt adherence to Hinduism is becoming acceptable, especially with women seeking feminine forms of the divine. On the Internet, I’ve found comments like “Lakshmi is my home girl” and “I’m so glad Durga came into my life.”

I found the whole book fascinating, and found myself clicking my Kindle highlighter every few pages in some chapters. And, I couldn’t help but think about the impact that the phenomenon had on my own spiritual development. I was introduced to it at the age of 14, by my uncle -- he’s at the older end of the Baby Boom generation, and I’m at the youngest cohort (depending on how you define it). I read, and still have a copy of the Isherwood translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. The idea that God allows souls to come to Him through many paths was an exciting revelation, and a principle I continue to hold to after all these years. But I eventually abandoned Eastern religion as a dead-end , attributing the nightmares I had to my meditation practice. Even more significant, the way Vedanta was presented to me back then was very intellectual, and in my heart I missed the devotional and emotional side of spirituality -- a history that made me an almost perfect candidate for conversion to the Baha’i Faith.

But the more I read about alternative religion in America, the more I have to confront the depressing truth that Baha’is are barely a blip on the radar. (That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to non-Baha’is, but when you’re in the Faith, it seems like the whole world.) Not only has Vedanta-Yoga permeated American culture to an extent that even the non-religious are influenced by it, the Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (HIMMs) started by individual gurus had more initial success, more long-lasting and stable communities (in spite of some rocky moments), and more American followers than the Baha’i Faith has ever been able to achieve, in spite of nearly constant effort for the last 120 years. I don’t suppose the Baha’i administration will ever ask itself why.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Foundational Yoga Books from Yoga Vidya

I’ve been asked to review four foundational yoga texts from Yoga Vidya. Brian Akers saw my blog post on Yoga history, and liked it well enough to send me copies. Which is a surprise, because I’m neither an expert on Dharmic religion nor even on hatha yoga -- outside of practicing it every day. My curiosity about how hatha yoga became transformed from an obscure, often secret, practice into something that soccer moms do at their local gym is just a quirk of mine -- I’m always interested in the history of whatever I happen to be into. And, of course, as all my friends know, I love to read books on religion and religious history. My only claim to expertise is the two journal articles I got published on the Baha’i Faith, which were very specifically focused, and a far cry from examining medieval spiritual texts.

Undaunted, however, I decided to begin with the oldest, and most familiar of these books, the Bhagavad Gita, which I first read back in high school -- as many others did -- in Christopher Isherwood’s translation, which is still on my shelves.

I compared Lars Martin Fosse’s translation with the one I have, and found, to my surprise that a whole phrase out of one of my favorite verses had disappeared -- or rather, the earlier translator must have invented it to make it sound more pleasing. In translation, there is always something of a trade-off between eloquence and literal meaning, and Fosse, as he says himself, leans towards the literal -- although his translation is quite smooth and lucid. The Sanskrit original is there for comparison, for those who know it -- or become inspired to learn it.

Fosse‘s introduction is definitely worth reading, to understand the history and context of theBhagavad Gita, as well as its place in the classic scriptures of the world. Again, I found myself fascinated at the interplay of ideas between India and the West, and how, as in hatha yoga, they have become not simply “Eastern“ or “Western“, but a product of several exchanges between the two.

The word “yoga” occurs nearly 150 times in theGita, but we are not yet talking of any form of physical culture, but a type of mental discipline, based upon knowledge, selfless service, or devotion. One could almost use it as a synonym for “spiritual path” or “spiritual practice”. So, in this sense, we can see the book as a foundational text -- maybe *the* foundational text, for yoga.

It seems to me more practical to consider the three hatha books together, since there is a good deal of overlap between them. Unlike the Gita, which has been read as sacred scripture in India for over a thousand years, and has been a source of inspiration for spiritual seekers in the West since the time of the Transcendentalists, these medieval (dating between 1300 and 1700 C.E.) hatha texts were meant to be secret teachings for spiritual aspirants that worked with a guru, and are not particularly well-known even among the millions who practice yoga today.

Westerners are accustomed to an asana-based practice i.e. mostly consisting of physical poses, with maybe a little easy pranayama or a few minutes meditation, depending on the teacher. These traditional texts relegate the asanas to only one section, giving equal or greater prominence to meditation, pranayama, cleansing practices, etc. Seasoned yoga practitioners who are at least familiar with the idea of these practices will find these books interesting. They would be overwhelming, even shocking, to beginning yoga students, or those who think of yoga as primarily a tool for fitness and relaxation.

Here we find a hatha yoga that is presented as a necessary foundation for Raja yoga , so they would be of most interest to those who are pursuing yoga as a spiritual path.

I found myself rather put off by some of the extravagant benefits promised the hatha yogi -- that this or that pose or breathing technique will destroy disease, grant magical powers (known as siddhis), or even conquer death. Any Western reader is going to find some of the practices bizarre, like Khecharimudra, which encourages the yogi to lengthen his tongue by various means so he can stick it into the hole behind the soft palate, where, it is promised, he will find sustaining nectar. (Nectar? More like post-nasal drip.)

However, to be fair, one would be hard put to find any religious text that isn’t jarring to modern sensibilities in some way. Christian gnostic texts can get pretty weird in places, too, but this does not negate their value. Unlike earlier translations, those published by Yoga Vidya don’t omit the less appealing passages.

I found it interesting just to compare what I was reading with the yoga I’m familiar with -- for example, I had no idea that a one-legged forward bend and the shoulder-stand were considered mudras, not asanas -- I thought mudras were hand gestures that were used in meditation. But other things strike me as being quite familiar -- the dietary advice, for example. All three books have black-and-white photos demonstrating the asanas described, and like Yoga Vidya’s translation of the Gita, the Sanskrit original is also included.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the best known of the the three, Yoga Vidya’s version is translated by Brian Dana Akers . The Pradipika was written in the 15th century by Yoga Svatmarma, who describes asanas as the first step, which enables the practitioner to gain “steadiness, health, and lightness of body.” Some of these poses will be familiar to even the most casual yoga student; others are extremely difficult and way out of range for anyone who hasn’t been practicing for many years. My guess is that Svatmarama assumes that the aspirant will be guided by his guru as to preparation for these advanced positions. He regards Siddhasana, sometimes known to us as “Half-lotus“, to be the most important asana of all, reinforcing the purpose of hatha yoga as a physical preparation for mental discipline. After asana, the book presents pranayama (breathing practices, bandhas(energy "locks"), mudras to movekundalini, and finally meditation to attain samadhi.

I was also pleased to see in the Pradipika a recognition that women can also be yogis, or more properly called, yoginis. Most of the time, these classical writers assume the practitioner is male. In the West, most yoga students are women.

The Gheranda Samhita was composed around 1700; Yoga Vidya’s version was translated by James Mallinson. “Gheranda” is the teacher in the text, the author is unknown. The book presents a sevenfold path, instead of the familiar eight levels outlined by Pantajali (None of these hatha books spend any time on yamas or niyamas, i.e. the restraints and observances that constitute the ethical part of classical yoga.) I found the Gheranda Samhita to be very comprehensive and clear -- indeed, of the three classical hatha books, I enjoyed this one the most. It begins with purification practices, then asana, mudras, pratyahara, pranayama, meditation, and samadhi. The chapter on meditation (dhyana) includes specific visualizations that the aspirant should practice.

Before reading the Gheranda Samhita, I had been wondering exactly how yoga was tied into Aryuveda medicine: Well, here it is; various cleansing practices are said to balance the doshas, a concept that seems to me akin to the “humours” of medieval Western medicine. I also have enough trouble trying to maintain a healthy diet without being told that a kapha type like myself should eat more beans and avoid nuts; I’m still trying to get as much plant protein as I can. But that’s my own bias -- Aryuveda seems to be growing in popularity among those interested in alternative medicine, and the Gheranda Samhita would be useful for them.

I’m afraid that the Shiva Samhita was my least favorite of the three. Besides being badly organized and confusing at times, it also has more elements that are going to seem odd or even repulsive to most of us. The book is framed as a conversation between the Hindu God Shiva and his consort, Parvarti. The first two chapters are philosophical explanation. Even when it does get around to presenting yoga practices, this book has the least emphasis on asana practice of the three hatha books. On the one hand, it insists on devotion and obedience to one’s guru, on the other it will promise that some of those practices will allow the aspirant to avoid any penalty for sins, even those so heinous as killing one’s guru or sleeping with his wife. While reading it, I couldn’t help but think it’s no wonder that hatha yoga had such a bad reputation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, because there seems to be a clear thread of yogic thought that holds you can sin all you like as long as you perform the proper asanas and mudras. Then, the book will turn around and tell us that the greatest obstacle to liberation is “enjoyment.” This muddling is due to the book being a compilations from several authors, and there seems to have been no attempt by any of them to explain these contradictions.

There is a detailed explanation of meditation on the chakras, so a person interested in this approach might be interested in this book. I also was intrigued to notice that the schedule recommended for pranayama (morning, noon, evening, midnight) is exactly the same as one of Sivananda’s early books that I recently ran across. So, in spite of its faults, the Shiva Samhita is a historically influential hatha yoga text -- and the historically-minded may value it simply for that reason.

Overall, Yoga Vidya has done a terrific job in making foundational yoga texts more accessible to the Western reader. I hope to see more from them in the future -- maybe a translation of Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Yoga History

Ever since I’ve got my Kindle, I’ve been spending a lot less time surfing around online, and a lot more time, reading -- reading actual books, instead of drifting through snippets of information here and there. It’s a higher quality experience. I’d mentioned in an earlier post that I was curious about the history of hatha yoga, and I’d been unable to find very much online about it, but I’ve just finished reading Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. This is a scholarly book, published by Oxford University Press, which answered a whole lot of things that I’d found confusing in my own poking around in used bookstores and the Internet on the subject. His main thesis is that there is no evidence of an asana-based yoga practice existing before the 20th century. He says “Posture-based yoga as we know it today is the result of a dialogical exchange between para-religious, modern body culture techniques developed in the West and the various discourses of “modern” Hindu yoga that emerged from the time of Vivekananda onward.” It isn’t news that today’s yoga practice mixes Hindu tradition with Western ideas, but what’s really fascinating in this book is that the mix of West and East began in India itself, where groups like the YMCA who believed that virtue could be taught through physical exercise sought to enlighten a people they regarded as backward and feeble. It is this mixture that was brought to American shores as “Hatha Yoga”, and explains why, when I bought Yogi Ramacharaka’s 1930 book on the subject I did not find the familiar asanas we know today, but gentle calisthenics. What Indians did was counter this condescension with fitness regimes of their own. The familiar Sun Salutation(Surya Namaskar), that some Christians object to as sun worship, was created by the Raja of Mysore, purely as a fitness regimen that wasn’t even associated with yoga until later.

Now, of course, some of the poses are old, from the hatha yoga tradition. But a close reading of the medieval Hatha Yoga Pradipika reveals that cleansing practices (called kriyas) and pranayama are given more prominence than the physical poses, and half of those described are sitting meditation poses. All of the standing poses, with the possible exception of Tree Pose, are 20th century creations. I’ve noticed that even some older yoga systems created for Westerners have few, or even no, standing poses. You can, however, find standing poses that modern practitioners would identify as yoga asanas, in Western books on “harmonic gymnastics”, which was a spiritualized form of exercise for women in the early 20th century.

Another thing that had puzzled me, when I went looking for the roots of American yoga, was that the first books on yoga, at the turn of the last century, by Vivekananda and Blavatsky, did not so much as mention physical postures, but were books on philosophy and meditation. It turns out that these early yoga teachers distanced themselves from hatha yoga, which was associated with charlatans and ascetics with bizarre practices. This association was quite justified -- hatha yogis in India had, historically been religious fanatics with a penchant for violence. Under the British, they drifted from town to town, gaining money for doing astonishing postures and tricks. One objection Vivekananda had was that hatha yoga was done primarily to gain physical immortality and magical power, which he rightly did not regard as spiritual goals. The picture of the ash-covered disheveled yogi holding one arm up so long that it withered, or the mountebank contortionist was an object of morbid fascination and revulsion in the publications of that era.

Even as late as 1969, Richard Hittleman thought it necessary to distinguish himself from this stereotype in his book Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan: “those groups of people of the Far and Near East who do strange things such as walking on hot coals, sticking needles into their bodies, allowing themselves to be ‘buried alive’ and so forth are known as Fakirs and are never to be confused with Yogis.” (p.204) But, in 19th century India, the terms ‘fakir” and “yogi” referred to pretty much the same group of people (Fakirs were Muslim and Yogis Hindu, but these religious lines were often crossed), and there was no such thing as a physical yoga practice that, as Hittleman claims, was “designed solely for the development of human potential.” This also explains why ‘Abdu’l -Baha’ was so disdainful of yoga, and the Indian gurus that taught at Green Acre; he had some solid basis to dismiss yoga as “superstition” in 1912. The irony of it is, of course, that although yoga teachers were shoved out of Green Acre, which remains a Baha’i school to this day, it was yoga -- in its revised form -- that became a major influence in the lives of millions of Americans.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More Calories Out than In? It's Not that Simple.

I wrote the following sometime last week, and decided not to post it because I figured maybe folks were getting tired of my talking about my diet and exercise thing. However, I ran into this and now I can’t resist. In the comments section a lady talks about her experience:

I invite you to come and spend a week with me, while I weigh and measure and record every GD thing that goes in my mouth; while I walk, swim laps, or ride my bike and also do resistance training WITH a personal trainer (who is also a nutritionist) EVERY DAY EXCEPT SUNDAY (that's the day I do a spring water fast).
I also invite you to observe my weekly weigh ins, which, sadly, produce nothing in the way of LOSS--which confounds my trainer, but even SHE is slowly coming to the realisation that NO, you can't just necessarily change your body with sheer will power and self control--something she and I argued about a lot our first couple of weeks.

But, as this woman mentions, when an overweight person says this, we are assumed to be lying. No matter how healthy we claim our diet is, it is assumed that we are like the guy in the song “Junk Food Junkie” -- presenting a pious face to the world while secretly pigging out on Ding-Dongs. So, here’s my take:

Everybody knows the drill about weight loss, right? You have to burn more calories than you take in. One pound equals 3500 calories that you’ve not used and stored away in that spare tire around your middle. To get rid of it, you’ve got to exercise more or eat less -- preferably both.

Now, I’ve been working on this for the past few years -- initially, I was quite successful and took off 30 pounds, and to date, have kept them off. I’m still, however, medically obese -- which is a lot thinner than what is generally thought to be “obese”. I’m not, nor have I ever been over 230 pounds. I’d have to get down to 170 to be medically just “overweight”. (Just picture me shouting “Hooray! I’m overweight!”) That’s a weight I haven’t seen since my mid-20s.

According to Nutrition Data (which I really like and recommend), a woman of my age, size, and activity level is burning between 2300 and 2600 calories a day, depending on what exercise I happen to get done. I eat between 1600 and 1800 calories per day, pretty consistently. That means, if the formula of “burn 3500 calories to lose a pound” works that I should be losing a pound a week, at least. I’m not; I’m stuck in the same 5 pound range I’ve been going up and down in for the past three years. This is not the notorious “diet plateau” -- this is the weight I’ll stay at, unless I start going to starvation level calories. The depressing thought that torpedoed dieting in my youth -- that in order to be thin, you have to eat like a Third World famine victim for a lifetime-- turns out to be actually true. And who but an obsessive-compulsive would voluntarily starve themselves for longer than a few months? My husband thinks I’m already obsessive enough. .

However, every number other than the one on the scale is great. My last blood sugar test results were “excellent”, according to my doctor. My blood pressure and cholesterol are down where they should be -- with the help of medication. (The blood sugar I control without meds.) Nutrition Data, which tracks your actual nutrition as well as calories, shows me that I’m eating a very healthy diet, chock full of protein, vitamins, and minerals -- and where there are gaps, I supplement. (I’ve discovered one reason you see 2000 calories as a standard is that it’s almost impossible to get all the RDA of your nutrients from food alone unless you eat that much.) I almost never go beyond the recommended amount of fat, and seldom go over with carbohydrates. I really can’t eat healthier than I’m eating right now.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think any of the diet or nutrition experts really know all that much about weight loss. My doctor once told me, in another context, that if you have a dozen remedies for a disease then it’s a sure sign that nothing really works. God knows there’s more than a dozen contradictory theories about what will make people lose weight permanently.

So, maybe a little kindness is in order. I get a little resentful of the “just stop stuffing your face and get out and exercise once in a while” attitude you get from the obsessive types who think that if you don’t run five miles a day and totally renounce any form of dessert you aren’t really trying. My injured back muscles won’t take running for five minutes, and I‘m working on healthy ways to satisfy my sweet tooth. Even when I eat something “bad”, I’m very careful to have only a small portion. In fact, one of the major changes I’ve made is that I never “pig out” any more.

But I’m not losing weight. Nor will I, unless I eat a diet that is less healthy than I eat now.