Category Archives: Swadhyaya

Book Review: I Am That, by Nisargadatta Maharaj

I just finished all 531 pages of I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj, translated by Maurice Frydman. I started reading it in late May and just finished now in mid-September. Why did it take me so long? It certainly wasn’t that he used complicated words. Any high school student could understand it if they have the patience to decipher some the Sanskrit terminology that can be found in the book’s appendix. It certainly wasn’t long drawn out chapters. The book contains 101 chapters which are two to four pages long. It took me so long because the concepts in the book, when thought about and considered, are among the deepest one may experience.

The book is in the the typical question and answer format one reads in most of the non-dualist genre. Nisargadatta Maharaj gave satsang, or spiritual teachings, based out his Bombay (Mumbai) apartment until his death in 1981. He wasn’t a typical yoga practitioner. He made a living making and selling cigarettes on the street and chain smoked them as he gave his teachings. He liked to argue with his disciples, and would kick them out if he felt they have overstayed their welcome after receiving the essence of his teachings. He only spoke in Marathi, and would employ translators for Westerners.

In all of his eccentricities, his teachings get to the heart of the matter: we are not what we take ourselves to be, we are the very universe itself. He foremost rejects that he is his body which is repeated ad nauseum in this text. He rejects that he is his mind, which he says belongs to the body. “As long as one is burdened with a personality, one is exposed to its idiosyncrasies and habits.” He says he is that which does not change: the purusha. Purusha can be translated as “soul” but Maharaj gives it a much more nuanced and textured meaning throughout his book.

His basic teaching is summed up in this dialogue:

Maharaj: How can an unsteady mind make itself steady? Of course it cannot. It is the nature of the mind to roam about. All you can do is to shift the focus of consciousness beyond the mind.

Questioner: How is it done?

Maharaj: Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought ‘I am’. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally without any interference on your part. (page 17)

This may sound a lot like the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Maharaj’s teachings are very similar with the exception that Maharaj was not silent the way Ramana Maharshi was (Maharshi said very few words to his devotees). But by using his preferred format of argument, the teachings of Nisargadatta yield more concrete “instructions” that are well suited for the Western mind.

I would recommend this book after one is familiarized with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, as many of the concepts draw from that classic text. In fact if you struggle with the Sutra-s in terms of how prakriti and purusha interplay, I Am That offers elegant explanations and possible solutions. To read this book properly, I wouldn’t advise taking on more than a chapter a day (3-4 pages), and really think about the words. You won’t be the same after reading it.

Linked below is a pdf of the book, and also a video which can be viewed as a primer to the teachings.

http://advaita.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/1-I-Am-That-Nisargadatta-Maharaj-Resumo.pdf

 

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My wish for Yoga in 2016

It has certainly been an interesting year in the yoga world. We have seen an unprecedented rise in the selfie craze, commercialized yoga websites, and disturbing trends of mixing alcohol with yoga practice.

In all this craziness, some good has come out of it. There are more people than ever practicing some form of yoga and the practice has been absorbed into mainstream Western culture. And there is more access to yoga information now than in any other time in history. You can simply find and read the main yogic texts online from where you are sitting without paying a dime.

That is both good and bad. Because information is now so readily available, we tend to assign less value to it. There used to be a time when knowledge and information was something you had to work hard to get. The trick was that when the information was obtained, the actual information did not matter as much as the process to get it. It is one thing to gloss over the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, but another to commit them to memory in Sanskrit.

One of the authors I “grew up” with in my spiritual path was Carlos Casteneda. He has since drawn much criticism about being a sham. However, in my opinion his writings reflect the true hardships of what is needed to attain spiritual knowledge. He says:

A man goes to knowledge as he goes to war: wide-awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to knowledge or going to war in any other manner is a mistake, and whoever makes it might never live to regret it.
Read more at http://www.quoteoasis.com/authors/c/carlos_castaneda_quotes_2.html#5QdDoVc6cbGrXrAC.99
and..
Nothing in this world is a gift. Whatever must be learned must be learned the hard way.
Read more at http://www.quoteoasis.com/authors/c/carlos_castaneda_quotes_2.html#5QdDoVc6cbGrXrAC.99
We are now in an era where one can be a yoga teacher less than a year after walking into a studio with no experience. Old teachings are being devalued in this information age. “Learning the hard way” is now becoming outdated in this time where everyone gets a medal for participating, and people are quick to take offense. There is even a movement to devalue yoga as “modern and postural” from people who don’t even practice.
So my wish for Yoga in 2016 is for people to simplify their practice. Go back to the old texts and re-read them. Study with teachers with over 10 years of experience. Relearn the poses in the front of the book, and don’t be in too much a rush to do the fancy ones.  Don’t get caught up into the social-mediaization of yoga. And most importantly, remember Yoga is a deeply internal practice…a practice designed to destroy the ego, not bolster it.
Many blessings in 2016!

Required reading for the student who is new to Yoga

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I was watching a video of B.K.S. Iyengar during the 2013 Guru Poornima, which is an annual observance and celebration of all of our teachers. In the address, he showed two books that were recently pressed from the Institute. He commented that when he started Yoga, there was no written material on the subject of Asana. Now it has gone the other way. There is now so much information about Asana on the internet and in books, that a new comer to yoga may be easily overwhelmed.

I often reflect on the reading materials that I first encountered when I came to Yoga and what continues to guide me on my path. The clear text would be introduction in LIght On Yoga. It is not just written well, it draws from a series of classical Yoga texts and digests it into an easy to understand essay coupled with Iyengar’s experience.

One does not need to be an practitioner of the Iyengar style to appreciate this text. Renowned Ashtanga Yoga practitioner Chuck Miller writes:

One day in 1974, I was in a bookstore and picked up a copy of Light on Yoga. A girl whom I’ve never seen before just looked over and said, “That’s the book.” I took it as a sign from above and bought the book. I went home that night and read the introduction, fifty-five pages, and it blew my mind. It changed my life. I felt I had my hand on the operating manual for the human being.  – From Iyengar, The Yoga Master 2007 Kofi Busia Shalamba Publications, Inc.

One of the gists of the text that I remember every day is that he views the ability to work as a gift. He draws this concept from the Bhagavad Gita, and links it wonderfully to how we integrate our daily practice as our dharma.

He also gives a brief overview of the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (the classical eight limbs from Patanjali Yoga Sutras). In subsequent texts, The Iyengar family asserts that Ashtanga Yoga is the ABCs of Yoga, and that the other forms like Hatha, Laya, Jnana etc. need a firm rooting in Asthanga Yoga before other forms can successfully be commenced.

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar also gives a brief overview of the obstacles on the path and how to overcome them based on the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Iyengar had many obstacles that he overcame in his lifetime including childhood diseases, poverty, the early death of his wife, and two auto accidents just to name a few. He practiced Yoga up until he passed away last year at 95 years old.

Keep in mind that Iyengar Yoga style was not my first choice when I started Yoga. I went though many of the different systems until I have decided to pursue Iyengar as my path. Perhaps you may have another system of preference. But there is one common agreement among many practitioners is that the introduction of Light On Yoga is one of the classic passages.

Several approaches to the eight limbs of Yoga

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When one first reads the eight limbs in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, there are many questions that arise. Are the eight limbs practiced sequentially, like rungs in a ladder, or are they practiced all together? That really depends upon your point of view and also which tradition you follow. This post assumes one has read the eight limbs. If not here is a link to review them. I will provide a few points of view from my training and personal practice on following the eight limbs.

Say like you are a sincere practitioner and want to follow the eight limbs sequentially like a staircase–not proceeding to the next limb until you have “mastered” the previous. Then you meet a formidable challenge like the Yamas. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-harming). On your way to your practice, you accidentally step on a bug, injuring it. Can you proceed to the next limb? What about telling the truth (satya), not stealing (asteya), staying sexually continent (brahmacharya), and not being greedy (aparigraha)? Then what about the Niyamas of saucha (internal and external cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (ardor for practice), svadhyaya (self study), and Ishvara pranidhana (complete surrender to God)? If you had to master one limb before proceeding to the next, it would most likely take several lifetimes to qualify for Asana!

We have to keep in mind that the aim of Yoga is to still the citta. So living in observance of these ethical guidelines is highly conducive for stilling the mind. Imagine doing the exact opposite. What if you harmed others, lied, steal from others, had multiple sex partners, and were stingy and greedy. Your mind would be all over the place.

My point of view is that the first four limbs of Yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama are things one can do externally to still the citta. The next two limbs: pratyahara and dharana are things one can do internally to still the citta. The last two limbs: Dhyana and Samadhi are what Yoga does to the practitioner who correctly and steadfastly practices these concepts.

The first four limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, are called the bahiranga (the pursuit of external purity), pratyahara (detachment form the senses), and dharana (concentration) are called the antaranga (the pursuit of internal purity), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (illumination) are called the antaratama (the pursuit of the Soul).

In the West we like “goals.” Rather than viewing the eight limbs as a goal with Samadhi being the prize, I like to view the eight limbs as a toolbox one can use to get the mind to quieten. If there are any sincere “goals” of yoga, they would be to practice daily, and not be attached to things of with the ego identifies itself (abhyasa and vairagyam).

What if you were not able to practice Asana? Your practice would be to follow the Yamas and Niyamas to create stillness in the mind. What if your mind was too busy to focus on Pranayama?  Your practice would be Asana. These are examples of slotting in and slotting out limbs like gathering tools from a toolbox to quiet the mind.

Can you practice several limbs at once? Of course! When doing a sincere pranayama practice, you are already following the Yamas and Niyamas easily. You are in supported Savasana or a seated position and are therefore practicing Asana. B.K.S. Iyengar used Asana as a focus point to amplify the other limbs, just as Gandhi used the Yamas of ahimsa and satya to liberate India from the West.

The take home message here is whenever the mind is not quiet, Patanjali says you have access to many tools to make it quiet. Then you can see your true self and all your splendorous radiance.

Have a great weekend!

The pranic body revisited

Alex_Grey-Psychic_Energy_Sy

Artwork by Alex Grey

 

B.K.S. Iyengar was a genius. At the time he reinvigorated Yoga as a legitimate system, he eschewed talk of chakras, nadis, vayus, and other aspects of esoteric Yoga anatomy. Iyengar saved Yoga from becoming an antiquated esoteric practice by putting it into contemporary terms using the physical body as a starting point.

That is not to say that his system stopped using terms referring to esoteric anatomy, it is just not used for students who cannot comprehend them. What Iyengar did was to instruct movements of the physical body to facilitate movement in the esoteric body. For example, instead of calling it a “jalandhara bandha” to the raw beginner, Iyengar instructors teach the student to move the sternum toward the chin to get the “action” of Jalandara Bandha. Instead of basing instructions from the different vayus, instructors teach movement from tangible body parts to create an effect in those areas.

jalandara bandha

I learned a very important lesson recently: because of the gross movements in asana, the subtle body is also receiving the benefit. Let me try to explain from my limited perspective.

First we turn to artwork to see the subtle body. I am a big fan of Alex Grey’s artwork. In his artwork, he successfully fuses the physical anatomy with the esoteric anatomy described in yogic texts. In his Sacred Mirrors series, the viewer quickly understands that there is a physical body and a subtle, energetic body.

sacred mirrors

Artwork by Alex Grey

 

Recently in my practice I have been reflecting on the Earth Element as I am looking for more stability in my life. While in my poses, I recite the sound form “LAM” which corresponds to the Muladhara Chakra which corresponds to the Earth Element. When I breathe out the sound form, I notice a distinct awareness in the areas of the pose that make up the base.  Furthermore, I have noticed after my practices lately, I feel more “grounded.”

muladhara chakra

Muladhara Chakra

 

Is this hocus pocus? Some may think so. But practicing Yoga for me lately has been more of a laboratory, where I am integrating concepts from my readings into my practice. My experiences are perhaps too subtle to describe in this blog post. Although I am not in an authoritative position to describe my experiences accurately, I do notice a difference in my Asana practice when I do the sound forms versus not doing them.

I don’t always practice with the sound forms. Most times I just do the bread and butter practice to address my physical issues that come from driving in Honolulu traffic all day. Sometimes I just go to classes to learn more about Asana (which I have much much more to learn). I may even be overstepping my bounds by practicing with esoteric concepts. But after 16 years of practice, I am always seeking methods to move toward evolution. The practice of Yoga is so deep, I have not even scratched the surface.

LAM