Saturday, September 27, 2014

You Think God - Brahmacharya

Guruji always used to say, "You take practice, you think God."

As I look around, I see there is a lot of practice going on, specifically asana practice, which is great, and inspiring in many ways;  but somehow the second part of Guruji's teaching seems to have been forgotten, overlooked, or conveniently  omitted, and what concerns me that this oversight of "God thinking" reduces our practice to merely circus tricks.

Guruji also said, "Yoga is mind-control."

His words were simple, and hit exactly on point.
In many ways, yoga isn't actually about our physical practice at all.  Rather, it is concerned with controlling our mental-world, and specifically, how we direct our thoughts.  If we are really yearning to practice yoga, and seek to attain the ultimate goal of waking up our inner Divine Nature, then we need to take Guruji's words to heart, and continually practice directing our thoughts towards God.

This is also called: Brahmacharya.

Literally the word brahmacharya means, "the path that leads to Brahman" or "moving in Brahman."

Brahman is the fabric of the universe, Absolute Reality. It has nothing similar to it and nothing different from it.  It is Infinity.  In Vedanta philosophy, it is described as saccidanandasat (Existence absolute), cit (Consciousness absolute), and ananda (Bliss absolute).
(A concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy, John Grimes, 2009).

In his classic work entitled, Sadhana, Swami Sivananda states that there are three things essential for God-realization: constantly remembering God, cultivating the yamas (ethical codes of conduct), and making every activity an offering to the Divine (p.32).
He suggests that alongside ahimsa (non-injury) and satya (truthfulness) that brahmacharya is, without doubt, one of the most important virtues to develop through our spiritual practice.
I would go so far as to say, that without integrating a practice of brahmacharya there can be no hope of progressing in true Yoga at all.

This begs the question, how can we develop more in the field of brahmacharya?
I feel it begins by creating a clear intention to shift all of our thoughts, words and deeds into closer alignment with God.  This includes increasing our investment in all of the people, places, and things that encourage us to cultivate a more intimate connection to Brahman, and reducing our exposure to everything that pulls us further away.

We must start by developing our awareness around who and what are we surrounding ourselves with.  Are we generating positive thoughts or cycling in negativity?  What are we watching?  What are we reading?  How are we spending our time?  Are we wasting our energy chasing after fleeting experiences and momentary gratification?  Are we feeding our senses or our soul?

We need to examine and evaluate our mind, speech and actions to determine whether we are being propelled closer to the goal of Yoga - Self Realization, or driven by old habits of obsessive ego-gratification.  Is our yoga practice motivated by a desire for deeper union with "God," both within and without, or is it pushed by an insatiable hunger for the fickle affection of others, fame and fortune, or instant pleasure?

I practice asana because it is a very effective tool for directing my attention more acutely towards the Infinite.  I can see the direct results of this integration happening on a deeper level in my approach to life.  Taking the time to make contact with the pulse of this ancient life-force, even for a second each day, generates more internal positive energy then I can describe.  However, this is rarely a pretty process, neither is it a perfect one; frequently it is baptized through sweat and tears, and hardly ever do I have a practice that feels "YouTube" worthy.  It is a private sacrifice of my ego each day; and regardless of whether I'm crawling or floating, I know that I am aiming to align my inner world, and consequently, the rest of my life with Brahman.
And if I have nothing else to show for my efforts, at least I have that - an honest yearning for God in my heart.

David Williams is often quoted as saying, "Yoga is all the things you can't see."
I believe this to be true.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what your jump-backs look like, how long you can hold a handstand, or whether or not you can grab your ankles in a backbend.  How your practice looks on the outside is inconsequential, what matters is the effect it is having on the inside.

Yoga is a path that leads to God-Realization, and if it isn't heading in that direction, you are on a different path.

When we start to nurture our practice with the understanding of moving in Brahma, we begin to engage the world with an different attitude.  We start to experience the beautiful art of self-surrender: "I am Thine; All is Thine; Thy will be done." We begin to ask questions like "how can I serve" instead of "what can this do for me."

Often brahmacharya is defined as celibacy.  However, celibacy need not only mean sexual restraint.

The whole idea of creating a more celibate environment, is to purify not only one's body, but more importantly, one's mind, so that all faculties of attention can be one-pointedly focused in unbroken communion with the Source of all existence.  When we actually start to feel this Reality as the ancient Source of all things, pulsating both within, and all around, we can begin to practice yoga continuously, uninterruptedly, all day long, in everything we do.
Another one of Guruji's favourite quotes comes from Patanjali Yoga Sutras "sa tu dirgha-kala-nairantarya-satkarasevito drdha-bhumih" (1:14).  "Practice becomes firmly established when done continuously, without break, for a long long time, with sincere devotion." 

Lara Land has been talking about brahmacharya all month, and wrote an exceptional piece on her blog, Adventures in Yogaland, at the start of September.  I hope you will read it.  There is so much to think about and talk about on this subject - that it might possibly take us a lifetime to introspect and put it all into practice!

One thing is for sure...  Ashtanga Yoga holds so much more promise then just the physical aspect of asana, and we must start to actualize All Eight Limbs in our daily experience.

This is where the growth is.  This alone, will take us on a journey of self-discovery and transformation.


Saturday, September 06, 2014

A Summer in Mysore India

As many of you may already know, we spent the past two months in Mysore, India, with a small hand-selected group of students who were chosen to practice with Sharath Jois for a special course focused on deepening our understanding of this authentic system of yoga.

I took this time as a sabbatical, and allowed myself to be absorbed into the ever persistent call to present moment awareness that is necessary for diving deeper into oneself during periods of intense practice and learning.  Thus, I'm only writing about the experience now.  I can feel myself beginning to speed up again to the pace of North American life, and the last two months is already drifting into some distant memory.  Time is funny that way.  Especially time in India.

I'm not sure I've really processed it all yet, as we have not even reached our home in Victoria, but as the lingering exhaustion of the twelve-hour time difference slowly subsides, I am aware that something within myself has shifted.

It is difficult to exactly put into words what has changed, but I seem to have a greater sense of direction and confidence.

I feel honoured to have been counted amongst such a prestigious group of practitioners and teachers from around the world, and to have had this allotted time to share with them in our mutual struggles and triumphs.  I now understand that the difficulties of transmitting this authentic lineage of teachings are the same all over the world, and that those students who grab hold of this practice and experience the transformation that it will inevitably bring, are unique seekers of truth and higher wisdom.  I see what a blessing it is to be amongst those chosen to pass on this practice in the stream of the parampara; and I feel it is my duty to be a pillar for those who seek refuge from the onslaught of quasi-yoga classes offered on mass in the West.

I know that more will reveal itself to me as time passes.
For now, this is enough.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

31 Days in May!

We've reached the end of May... the final day of my writing challenge!

Looking back I didn't do too poorly with it.  I actually surprised myself a little.  I only missed about eight days, so I guess I achieved somewhere around 75% of perfection!  More importantly, what this month has encouraged me to do is keep up with writing more frequently, which is a delightful consequence of challenging myself to write every day for the month of May.

I have received some wonderful feedback over that past 30 days, and I'm so grateful to know that some of my experiences, which were translated into words, have touched your hearts or lifted your spirits in some way.  So thank you for your support.  It really helped me through this month and motivated me to keep going.

We are in Ontario right now, somewhere north of Toronto sitting in a cabin over looking a lake.  It pretty much took us two full days (minus an overnight rest) to get here, but after a full night's sleep and a little time to take in the view, it sure was worth it!  This is a beautiful setting.  I'm feeling very Canadian sitting here writing, overlooking our natural landscape, and feeling the peacefulness of being completely immersed in nature, while listing to the morning birds sing and taking a deep breath of fresh, clean air.

We are here with Jeff's family, his two brothers, sister-in-law, their kids and of course his parents, as we're here to celebrate his parent's 50th wedding anniversary.  Now... 50 years - that's something to celebrate! 

Thus, in the middle of this vast and expansive scenery, we find ourselves in the midst of three generations; and it comes to mind that if our parents represent the past, and our children represent the future, then here we are in the balance of the two, weighing what has come before us, while trying to manage and shape what is yet to be.  We are the present.  It seems this is the key to everything:  AWARENESS of the PRESENT MOMENT.

As the month closes, I find myself contemplating time.  Time is slippery thing.  Forever moving.  Always elusive.  It is uncatchable; except perhaps, in those still quiet moments when we are able to sit in the seat of our own inner soul, and fully immerse ourselves in the present, when we become one with time per se, without thinking, analyzing, or judging - a moment of pure active observation: YOGA.

Life can feel overly full at times; but we are blessed with this unique opportunity to be on this planet, at this exact time in history, conscious beings, alive, awaking up more each moment.  I encourage you to make time in your day to seize those fleeting occurrences of calm, and remind yourself it is truly a gift to be alive!  

As Guruji would continually bring to our attention: "you are given, maybe, one hundred years, don't waste your time!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

But... Green is my Life!

Jediah and I were driving yesterday in our car, and I pointed out how the construction crew had cut down a whole bunch of trees in one area to make a clearing for a new road and bridge that they are building near our home.

At which point he says, with a very sad tone in his voice,
"but... Green is my life!"

I started to smile and as always, I was in awe of how profound, yet simple, the words of a three year old could be, and I replied, "it is true, Green is my life too.  Green is everyone's life."

We were on our way to the doctor, and at the office I was flipping through a magazine and came across this advertisement for It was incredibly effective, and since Jediah was there due to some trouble with his breathing, it seemed very synchronistic to our current situation.

It reminded me that we are so intricately connected to nature that sometimes it is easy to overlook how absolutely essential and necessary it is for our existence.  Everything we need and depend on is provided by nature - yes... even your computer and iPhone! 

For example, did you know that there is no living thing on this planet that can survive without water?
In an ideal environment, a human may be able to last a total of 12 days without water, but more then likely would die sometime around the five day point.

Here in Canada, we are championed in environmental activism by David Suzuki and his foundation. They bring attention to many issues, and also provide simple solutions that are easy to incorporate into your daily routine, and can significantly help to reduce our negative impact on this planet. You see, every breath we take, everything we eat or drink, and everything we own is derived from nature, even our homes are made from natural materials. We are completely dependent upon sustaining a harmonious environmental balance for our survival.

Here are a few quick facts from that you might find enlightening:
  1. At least half of all medicines in use worldwide are derived directly from natural components, primarily from tropical forests. Antiviral drugs and painkillers are among the modern medicines obtained from coral reefs.  Only a small fraction of tropical rainforest species have been analyzed for their medicinal properties. We may yet discover more cures in nature — if we don’t destroy them first.
  2. Most large, modern structures are made from concrete, glass and steel. All three are derived from nature. Steel making is one of the world’s leading industrial sources of greenhouse gases. In 2010, according to the International Energy Agency, the iron and steel industry accounted for approximately 6.7% of total world CO2 emissions.
  3. Most vehicles run on fossil fuels like diesel and gasoline. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are fewer than 1.3 trillion barrels of crude oil left in the world oil reserve, which at the current rate of consumption would last the world only 41 more years.
  4. Deforestation accounts for 20% of all carbon emissions, which is twice the amount that all the cars, trucks and planes in the world emit, combined.  That's pretty major, as there are more than 1 billion vehicles on the road worldwide, including buses and trucks, which are themselves, disproportionately heavy polluters.
  5. The production of one hamburger releases as many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as driving a car 10 miles.
  6. The production of one burger requires 7,000 liters (about 1,850 gallons) of water, the bulk of which is used to grow grain for cattle feed.
  7. Beef production uses about 60% of the world's agricultural land, yet provides less than 2% of the world's calories.
  8. Because cattle ranching requires large tracts of land, producers frequently clear-cut tropical forest to provide pastures for their herds. Extensive cattle ranching accounts for 80% of the amazon's deforestation.
  9. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil found in about half of all the packaged food products on supermarket shelves — not just baked goods and snacks, but also cosmetics and lotions, soaps and detergents, even pet food.  Palm oil is incredibly productive, producing far more oil than other crops on the same amount of land. Today, a third of all vegetable oil used worldwide is palm oil.  However, most palm oil is produced on large industrial plantations, primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia. Often, tropical forests are cleared to make way for oil palm plantations that are destroying the habitat for endangered species like the orangutan. This deforestation also releases carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, contributing to global climate change.

Not to overwhelm you with the issues at hand; but, knowledge is power, and it is important to understand what is happening so we can make informed choices in how to respond and protect the environment that supports us day in and day out.

Our yoga teacher R. Sharath Jois is also very passionate about the environment and protecting nature.  I found a shirt he made awhile back that has on the it one of his favorite sayings from that period in time:  Save Nature - Nature Saves You.  I have always admired this about him, the fact that he see this Ashtanga Yoga Practice expanding beyond simply the asana into how we treat our environment, the animals, and of course other people too.

Each day we should wake up with gratitude for all that we have, most of all for this beautiful planet that nourishes and supports us through the endless offering of herself.  That is the reason why Nature is conceptualized as a Mother, because she gives and gives without hesitation, without reserve, unconditionally loving and supporting us to the detriment of her own welfare, and will continue to do so until she is completely depleted.  Any mother understands this innate inclination of sacrificial offering and unlimited relinquishing of everything, for her children.

David Swenson was quoted in Yoga International, as saying "the definition of a yogi that I like most is this: A yogi is one who leave a place just a little nicer then when they arrived!"
I think this is a brilliant definition, much better then: "the one who can do the most handstands!" (that's another issue for another day).

My friend Lara Land started a movement to encourage more awareness of bringing our practice into every aspect of our day both on and off the mat.  It's called All Eight Limbs and you can read more about it on her blog Adventures in Yogaland.  I think this is a wonderful idea, and I am excited to support her in reminding all the yogis out there that our practice has to be about more then bending and stretching, it has to be about transformation, of not only for ourselves, but for our whole planet!
(aside: I'm pretty sure that our world doesn't need more handstands; rather, it needs more people making the world a kinder, and more sustainable place for every living being).

So, as you go, try your best to tred lightly on this planet and leave it a nicer, cleaner, happier home for everyone, because Green is our life, whether we want it to be or not.

Let's bring our yoga alive - and start living our practice - All Eight Limbs!  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Moving Beyond the Practice Plateau

When I first came to the practice of Yoga, like many, I immediately fell in love with it.  The sensation of lightness and clarity I had after my first class was like nothing I had experienced before.  It blew my mind.  I was hooked.  Each practice brought with it a sense of euphoria, and the changes in my body and mind were both obvious and exciting. 

I've seen this same initial passion for practice in many students over the years.  At the beginning it is encouraging to see all the visible transformation happening, and you might even get to taste a little bit of bliss, an aftereffect from this practice, which is distinctly different from any other activity you might have dabbled in.  

However, after some time, maybe months, if you're lucky it's years, the fascination and exhilaration wear off, and all that's left is you and your practice day in and day out.  

The changes become imperceptible, and the overwhelming sense of well-being that was so novel at the beginning becomes your new normal; and it's around this time that the practice starts to get hard; consequently,  I would argue that this is when the real yoga truly begins.   

Unfortunately, it seems that it is also around this time that one starts to hit a wall or plateau and many students head for the door and start to look for the next best thing to entertain their minds, bodies and senses; some fall back into old patterns that work against the practice, while others move onto something more gratifying to their ego.  
For those who decide to stick with it, many obstacles and challenges come up along the way that act to deter or sidetrack us from keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the goal of liberation or Self-realization.  

Personally, I found that difficulties often arise to keep my ego in check.  They are obstacles disguised as life-lessons and opportunities to go deeper into what Yoga really is all about, and what it's calling us to become.  They are like a spur that urges me to get unstuck from that universal habit of stroking my ego with pride about some physical or pseudo-spiritual achievement.  They help me to refocus on what is important, and identify less with the things that are not real and do not ultimately matter.  

Over the years, I’ve become very conscious about trying to remain unattached to the fruits of my practice because in the past, it has seemed that whenever I started to feel a little bit high on myself it never takes very long for the great fall from grace to come, and I have to pick myself up and start from the beginning again.  

Once we start on the path of yoga it can be a long journey back home to our True Self.  

One of Guruji's favourite quotes from the Yoga Sutras was: sa tu dirgha kala nairantarya satkarasevito drdha bhumih  
"Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated without interruption and with sincere devotion over a long long period of time." (Yoga Sutra 1:14)  

This is the recipe for a successful yoga practice.  It must be sustained without interruption and with love for the practice for a long long period of time, likely your entire lifetime, and possibly several lifetimes (if you believe in that kind of thing).

I often compare the relationship we have to our practice with a marriage.  At the beginning it is all rainbows and butterflies, excitement, passion, and adoration; but after some years, your spouse becomes so close to you that at times you barely notice them, their presence is your new normal as the titillation of unfamiliarity is replaced by routine.  

You might not even realize how integrated that person is into the very fabric of your soul until they are gone.  In many ways they start to act as a mirror for you, to see all of your own stuff, both good and bad, and all the areas you need to work on, if you are to evolve spiritually and become a better person.  Interestingly, if you can see this, and respond positively, you will figure out a way to keep that spark alive through the test of time, and your relationship will have the space it needs to grow, and change, and move through all the different phases of life together.  
You will be able to adapt and overcome all the obstacles and struggles that undoubtedly will come up along the way because you are open to giving your whole self, without reservation, and your love and connection will become deeper then you ever could have imagined.  You verily become One.  
You are yoked - this is also Yoga.

It is the same with your yoga practice.  Over time it will go through different stages and phases. Growth will not always be in an upward moving linear projection.  Sometimes we have to go back to the beginning to understand the inner workings more deeply, to get reestablished in something we missed the first time.  The practice also acts like a mirror showing us our areas of weakness and the places in our lives where we need to let go.  Ultimately, if you stick with this practice through the good periods as well as the less enjoyable ones, it gets interwoven into every moment of your day.  
 It becomes your time to connect intimately with the Divine.  

It becomes your very heart.