Chapel Perilous • 14 June 2017

UCLA Sociology Building + Royce Hall

There is a seven-year pulse in the deep psyche. At least that is the rhythm of mine. This is my seventh year out of LA, so when my teacher said he was doing a week of yoga on UCLA campus in May, I turned my life around to get there. A wave of old conditioning has been coming to the surface; this was a chance to ride it consciously. When I bumped in to my PhD adviser on a plane to New York last month, and then we took the morning together, I got some taste of the integration that is possible here.

Los Angeles was heaven for me from age 24. It was so good, and so transformative, for so long, that afterwards it was painful to recall. I drove off UCLA campus at the end of 2009 (drove away is how you say walked away in Californian), and kept on going to Scottsdale. Then Marfa, then Nashville, then into the freezing lonely winter in Michigan. The sun went away behind Lake Huron’s permanent cloud layer, the toes I got frostbit in my teens went blue. For months I was heartsick, furiously cold, and missed salad. The sweetness of being-a-student had been taken from me and here I was exiled in a flat, conventional place.

Eventually the self-pity jag, addictive as it was, just got boring. What showed up next were purpose and meaning. The present moment got more beautiful; the whole pace and content of my everyday mind shifted; and I started learning to do honest work.

Love the world you’ve got. That was the first real decision. Not sticky fan-girl cheerleader like-your-social-media love. A love of I will listen to you and know you and accept you and not claw away at trying to fix your surface features.

Back in LA just now, I was reminded that presencing the past feels like science fiction, wobbly and surreal. Los Angeles itself is epic: thrilling, beautiful, vata-deranged, willfully shallow. At the center of all that: the oasis of UCLA, which holds the past selves that interest. And on top of that: led intermediate series in heavy A/C, and a hundred or two beloved old friends, and my teacher. I spent afternoons in the city and on the beach, and crashed in a pool house near the marina – a place my thoughts wouldn’t find me and neither would my friends. Sleep there was eerily quiet. It’s been a long time since I’ve slept without vivid dreams; it emptied me out to go without the night show. That plus constant déjà vu made the day show more vivid than ever. When the sensory information got to be too much, I’d sneak down to Venice and drop in to a puffy white void by the pool.

Otherwise, it was like this: morning circum-ambulation of the Sociology building before invocation in the gym. Dense sensorial memory, years of it stowed in me, now surfacing in response to full-blooming jasmine, jacaranda, and the cypress and sycamores. Tight lane-changes on the 405, one place besides Mysore where I enjoy the way people drive. The first classroom where I taught sociology, accidentally unlocked and empty, with the blackboard covered in notes on cooperation. People asking me at Whole Foods and Profeta and Sage if they knew me, not because they did but maybe because I got that familiar.

And… a visit to my chapel perilous, the grad library where I found the first threads of the esoteric and gnostic literatures 14 years ago, and where I took refuge following the initiation drama of my qualifying exams. That’s when my mind first broke open from some kind of days-long satori/vata derangement/dissociative episode. Nobody at the corporate yoga place saw the signs, so I tried to find my way back to ground in the library. Better than nothing. Robert Anton Wilson’s spiritual comics were where I first learned the grail lore term chapel perilous, and thank god, thank Thomas Merton, thank Gopi Krishna, thank Patanjali, thank every other spiritually mature guide who says don’t just stay there in your hall of mirrors and magic and woo; don’t fail to realize how siddhis and shamanism are just another way of solidifying the self.

The chapel perilous is any labyrinth in which your self inquiry takes you in circles and you either don’t know or refuse to be honest about it. Instead of getting insight, you get off. Over, and over, and over. The hits that keep you there can be the post-practice high, compulsive sex, addictive love, the teacher or scene you have to be together with all of the time, ceaseless knowledge accumulation, and so on.

For me, the chapel perilous went from being that library and what it represented, to a sentimentality for old spiritual highs. Falling back on remembered ecstasies. This too is spiritual materialism. But past is past. The consciousness I have now is the field of practice.

On campus this time, there was graduation glitter on the sandstone stairs that lead directly from Sociology to the ashtanga ritual at the other end of the quad. Conferences after practice communicated something true, not just factually true and contextually true but simple and direct enough to lodge deep. Seven years from now, some effervescent remnant of this weekend will resurface and then be gone.

The day I left, the Sociology building was empty. You’re supposed to have keys on weekends, but the door next to my old office was open. This is the door one floor above the department where Carlos Castaneda wrote his fake dissertation on his imagined shaman (he never did research, just hung out in the same library I did and plagiarized anthropologists who had gone to the field), and across the quad from the undergrad library where Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 about the future burning of books. That last morning, I walked the halls like a temple, then took the red stairs down to led primary with so many friends, said goodbye to the group with my eyes, and sped down the 10 Freeway to the Krishna Temple + Masonic Lodge of Culver City.

Krishna and the Masons sit together on a corner in the middle of film industrial zone, just down Venice Boulevard from the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I went to re-meet years of secret Saturday mornings. I don’t know the people who dance 5Rhythms in that temple every week, but I know them. The daytime rave scene is nothing new; it started 40 years ago with some of this crew. Aesthetically and culturally, their scene is about as close to my style as a pro football game. But secretly, what really excites me is process and play and experimenting and a little weirdness. So from the first Saturday I found the dance, I felt completely at home its chaos and tenderness and anonymity and intimacy. Just as I feel home in Mysore rooms. That spontaneity can be hyper-intelligent, bringing consciousness to ideas, knots, funny habits and pools of numbness hiding in my organism that don’t show up clearly anywhere else. Doing it every week, for years, exploded my creative life, ate away at my interest in professional stuff, and ended up being the thing I missed most bitterly when I left LA. (Until dancing by myself became the way to wake up every day here in the rust belt…)

These dance people, they show up every Saturday as a practice, without language, but without form also. I hear rumors that they are a bunch of screenwriters and therapists, but they don’t bring identities like that to the space. I was disciplined enough about the chaos to ghost all my comings and goings, so I never met them on the threshold; and if we saw each other around town we’d make fleeting eye contact and not talk, same as in the dance. As my Ashtanga got more fluid and gentle, dance became the only place I really sweat; and last week it was the same, brushing against bodies and looking in eyes I haven’t seen in seven years. Nobody rushed to greet me. They don’t have a name for this face and don’t want one – but they knew exactly what was happening when I surfaced among them. What was happening the rhythmic level. In terms of the seven year pulse. So many nods, so much recognition for what we all look like now and how differently we move, years on from our last time together. Recognition, gravity, chaos, again goodbye.

Everyone says LA changes constantly, and does not change. Many of my best places are gone now, but the freeways are the same; campus is the same. I know and love this city. Same and then some for my teacher. Put those two forces together, and the way that the city attempts to understand my teacher is a little weird. LA understands the value of an action by what it looks like on camera, it understands rock stars, it understands the pace and pressure of freeways, it understands always always always through charisma and image. Celebrity culture and yoga have mixed together here for a long time, but usually ashtanga has been too gritty and quiet to be the headliner. For the mundane long time practitioners, this is no glamorous practice. It is not a special event. You wear the same clothes on the same runway for for years and years, letting them become a part of you (cue Garth Algar). The non-industrialized practice is boring from the LA perspective. For which I am grateful. The culture of star worship is a whole other circle of the hall of mirrors.

………………………………………….

This March, I felt a return of the vegetable hours.

When I started teaching years ago in Michigan, to 4 or 6 students per morning, holding that room together took all the concentration I had. After, I’d collapse in their non-vegetarian sweat on my sofa, mind-numbed from concentrating so hard. They were trying to learn a complex concentration technique in a room where nobody but the guide really understood it yet. (At the time, they did not know how technically clueless they were, how much more focused their minds would become, how it would feel – later – to practice in a state of gentle undulation and a concentrated mind. Later, once they had owned it, they were glad they labored through the steep start and I respected them so much for it. Everything got easier after about 4 months of actually doing the work.) So building tristhana from scratch, without a gestalt of developed practitioners to support you through osmosis, is extremely hard mental work. When that first batch could transmit it implicitly to a new person, my formal teaching responsibility became lighter. New ones could walk in to the waves, become sensitive, and absorb the habitus. A technique this rhythmic – whether its done well, or done technically wrong – travels laterally.

But back to vegetable mind. It is concentration/reasoning fatigue in the extreme. It feels like you just took two standardized tests in a row. In the worst months of it, there on my sofa, it would take two hours of vegetabling before I could gather the will power for a shower.

…………………………………………….

When I got home to Michigan from Mysore in March, just being in the country felt like those mornings on my sweaty sofa.

The level of ambient mental static was overwhelming, with huge amounts of misinformation and disinformation and generalized mental disturbance screaming through the air. It was extremley hard to concentrate, to reason, or to hold to a stable point of view. The internet was moving fast and people were on it way more than before, fully hooked up to the machine with a push notification drip. Emotion was everything: people would say “I feel x about y” in context where they should be describing what they see or what they think. Their eyes would dart around. There was more alcohol, and more people getting strong prescriptions to take the edge off. Conversations were disorienting, with mismatched thoughts/emotions, incomplete ideas, and a tendency to take the opinions of dramatic commentators as one’s own without thinking them through. There was a messianic feeling around both politics and commercial yoga. In both spheres, there was one brutally clear road to prominence: condemn some group of people, and perform witch hunts while talking incessantly, and illogically, and pointing to a brave new world of safety and promise. From vegetable mind grows cult mind: this how it works when logic goes away, emotions dominate, your reasonable friends lose their ground, and people are too exhausted to hold a single line of thought. So we rest our minds in demagogues. Demagoguery doesn’t have a political valence; it’s just a storm of victimhood and unreasonableness and drama.

It has gotten a little better now. I saw and felt the mental endurance all around me strengthen so much this spring. In response to a strange new challenge, some people stop knowing what to do. And, some people get very clear and creative and strong. The strategic ones have found reasonable friends, instituted some mental hygiene around screens and social media and the so-called news, toned down the substance use. Among them I sense a weird new interest in personal accountability, responsibility, and being really honest. Brilliant. What an amazing dialectical move to take out of collective insanity. This is not droll, old-school logic. It’s spiritual warriorship for our wild new zeitgeist.

Before I got this glimmer of hope that some minds would get stronger and clearer in these times, I was afraid to even name the vegetable mind. Instead, I just shifted the entire focus of my teaching this year to the subject of yoga for mental health and discernment.

That focus remains. It may remain for a while.

It will help to learn to be uncomfortable with uncertainty in a new way. There are stories behind the so-called news and we won’t always be able to see them. The options for dealing with the pain of that are to (A) join a reality silo or a cult, or (B) stop living in the world. These are the hall-of-mirror options. Or (C) we can come up with ways to to deal with incomplete information without that breaking our spirits or making our emotional bodies hyper-reactive.

The stakes are high. In addition to everything moving really fast now, people and psychopaths smarter than the rest of us are trying to scramble our minds. What they want is this: they want all the natural allies in the world to fight among ourselves over dumb things. So they can proclaim the loser. And they want the real battles to happen behind the scenes. My gut has gotten pretty good, but it still takes me time to know when a person doesn’t have a conscience. To that end, it seems helpful to notice who is in the business of proclaiming losers, being a savior, and making you feel awesome for agreeing with them or being their friend. These actions meet some primal human needs, in a dark way. Psychopaths are 1 or 2 per cent of the population. They like politics, the business world, and spiritual/religious scenes – arenas in which they can play with people. Please don’t let’s be divided from our neighbors over small differences. There is more important work to do.

Discernment. Discpline. Pattern recognition. The people around me who are getting it together are the ones with a systematic mind training practice. Something dispassionate and daily that establishes a baseline of stability. Yoga doesn’t always do that. Sometimes it’s just dissociation and entertainment. But again, there is more important work to do.

Yoga’s Not Property • 12 May 2017

YOGA is

I’m on the Indiana dune shores of Lake Michigan, east of Chicago and south of the especially-white-supremacist zone of Michigan state. Three days alone to read and write and vision, between walks in the forest. There’s a lot of reality to catch up on: world events the past month, emails from anyone who’s not a student, life-plans for anything beyond the monastic day-to-day of carrying a Mysore program. A reading retreat rather than an inner-contemplative retreat.

Indiana explains some things. This woodsy airbnb sits on the grounds of a radiant green nature preserve, walking distance to views of the Michigan City nuclear reactor on the shore. A million frogs are mating; their lewd evening loudness is a different kind of quiet. The people who live here grow vegetables together and practice cooperative governance. Their buildings are minimalist and sustainable: mid-century modern meets doomsday prepper. Sadly, I like that. Surrounding the preserve is the heaviest, rustiest, most depressed and racist post-industrial America I’ve found. Everything is decayed and for sale. Billboards dominate the ghost-landscape and are written for second-grade literacy. Land of Pence; land where the political lie of re-industrialization means everything. The lady at the vegetable market said “why did you come here?” Sometimes I imagine I understand this country through strong ties to poor rural Montana crossed with a lot of time agitating or studying history in west coast cities… but there’s such dramatic socio-economic change going down that I feel I don’t understand this country’s trajectory at all. We are destroying the land, and our own minds, in ways it is so hard to make conscious. I intend to try.

……………………………………………

About the monasticism of stewarding a shala. It’s like this: very long mornings in the Mysore room, the peaceful administrative hours, cooking at home, sitting practice, email, and evenings walks in the woods behind my house. If the job description is just to support one’s students, then I guess it’s right that slowly my capacity to show up for others is increasing. From four relationships in the first year, to three times that in the second, and so on up to a limit. The quality of my show-up is determined by the quality of my mind. Like on formal meditation retreat, during the teaching week, there is an incredibly nourishing rhythm to the days; the radiant, slightly tired, super-embodied, energetically hyper-sensory vibes around all of this activity mean that things go a little dim in my pre-frontal cortex. Things the monasticized life does not include: TV, film, push notifications, social media feeds, dinner, eating weird, public gatherings, running errands, keeping up closely with friends. These things are nice at times, but they just don’t fit in the teaching week.

Everyone sees that digital connectivity is fragmenting our minds and making relationships shallow, but I also think that the social-entertainment industry meets (to excess) a human need that’s beautiful: our need to hear and tell stories. Some of this is degrading, sure. Political life reduced to cock fights; channeling of our drive for transformation into violent team sports; everything related to celebrity, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong: story-less-ness is the main thing many of us are discovering in yoga. Emptiness. How to drop the narrative, and the problem-fixing, and the explaining, and the compulsive search for something to happen. But also, in the very long run, practitioners are on some sort of a path. Sadhana is not static. Sadhana changes you. Usually this makes for a few big stories to share – stories that express the growth of consciousness, and that do give energy to others.

Twice this month someone said this: You must write a book of the stories of people who come to this place. It wasn’t always like this, but yes, the last couple years the shala has felt like a dense, deep narrative feed. Epic realization and transformation all over the place. Apparently, a long-run Mysore practice might also anchor personal revelation, prophecy, acts of courage, self-mastery, extreme synchronicity, demon-hunting, dragon-slaying, rapture, confession, realization, completion. The practice changes minds, changes bodies, clarifies realities. I am buffeted now by these storylines playing out for the people I see every day. I hear TV is good now, but this probably beats TV.

It’s like I get to stand off to the side of the stage with a finger holding up the background where a lifeworld plays out. Events, ripples in consciousness, rise and fall. They must, because we’re humans. This involves suffering, but from a certain standpoint it is still extremely beautiful.

The people we trust with our privacy are the ones who really listen closely, but don’t hang on to a detail. The trust-worthy know that next year you will have a different mind, and they won’t hold on to anything but compassion for your future past selves. So there will be no notes, no books, no stories at all outside the cone of silence that is this Mysore room. My role is to witness with soft eyes and then forget. Poof. And then, without disrupting the stability the work requires, to find some space-time for my own rising and falling action. Because no human really stands outside narrative. Otherwise we’re dead.

The time in monastic/teaching mode has gradually taught me to live a state of flow. Literally. A long-term, deliberately constructed, disciplined life-practice eventually normalizes states of deeply concentrated, non-fragmented activity. Somehow this embodied, embedded version of a “newsfeed” has the opposite effect of my fragmenting twitter feed. It is deepening the experience of being in a stream of consciousness.

……………………….………………………..

After two days here in the woods, I’ve slogged down to emails from from late April, raising the question of who is the rightful heir to the yoga method I practice. Sounds like there were some good internet debates about this.

Ok. Who is the rightful heir. Rightful. Heir.

Rightful heir is the language of primogeniture and legitimacy.

Primogeniture is the medieval M.O. of property.

Property is the machine of kingdom, and class, and caste, and capitalism. Where there is a property claim, often there is violence or the threat of it.*

This question – who is the yoga’s rightful heir – is serious, but not because of the answer. It’s serious because the question itself solidifies the dominant assumption that yoga is property. Most conversation and activity around yoga now is already turning yoga into a commodity, and therefore into property. This brings on important questions about ownership, transmission, appropriation and legitimacy. This extreme question – who is the yoga’s rightful heir – throws light on to all of that. Excellent.

Fast response: Yoga’s not property.

What is the “yoga” that this question refers to? Hmmm. Thinking this over highlights for me that, for now, working definitions of “yoga” fall in to three big bins.

1. Yoga is something that is yours, or part of a personal identity. It’s property.

2. Yoga is something you do. It’s practice.

3. Yoga is something that happens to you. Yoga is a state of consciousness.

This is not to say that yoga’s a “floating signifier,” (a term coined 57 years ago to show how the meaning of symbols changes constantly, based on the power of those using them; I’ll shut that rabbit hole because what happens down there often obscures exactly that – how power is used – by focusing on the diverse, un-pin-downable nature of meaning). What I’m saying is descriptive. This is meant to clarify assumptions, and consequences, of the ways we use ideas. So, YOGA has three extremely different meanings among people I interact with. And there are three worlds that surround each meaning.

Details on Yoga1, yoga = property. This yoga is a noun. It can be inherited. Claimed. Stolen. Mis-represented. Rescued. Authority is key in this life-world because it legitimates property claims. A lot of the activity in this zone involves performances of authority and legitimacy, and rituals that solidify one’s identity as a member of the property-holding group. The people who own more of this yoga are more special. This is measured, as in all of capitalism, by counting. Material mind commodifies, and then it accumulates. Asanas, students, money, followers, friends, anything you can boil down to a hash mark.

Yoga1 has won. This definition dominates all discourse on yoga. It just won the whole 21st century. Yoga1 created the yoga industry. Yoga1 is defended by a nasty invisible army (the imperative of increasing profits) and it is now so successful that it’s hard to even see anything else.**

I guess the hazards of the yoga-is-property mindset are obvious. There are a few notes in the typology graph. The easiest way for me to think about this is to observe the long-term effect of commodification on planet Earth. The key activities here are property claims, separation from nature, resource extraction, isolation of certain elemental qualities into quantites and their sale as commodities. There is a loss of beauty and natural intelligence. Property is the one concept that drives the capitalist mindset. It drives the colonizing mindset.

In the typology I included benefits and hazards of all three definitions, and want to note that Yoga1 is brilliant in a way. Accepting yoga-as-property enables those originally oppressed by that definition to push back against it. Strongly. This is keen co-optation, not so different from women who love women taking back the language of “dyke” and filling it with personal power. Dyke is a kettle bell, dyke is a cannon ball; similarly “yoga” as intellectual property, “yoga” as patrimony, has that kind of weight. A Yoga1 backhand gets colonialism where it lives. Like this: “No yoga is not yours. It’s ours. You stole it and in so doing you propertified it to make yourselves rich, and now we will rightfully claim our property.” Nice! This is a smart way to resist, and when property is being used to accumulate massive amounts of power/wealth for a few, and oppress anyone else, it’s the best strategy.

But Yoga1 also keeps a mind in a defended, tightly bounded place. If yoga is property, most people I connect with, well, we are not super involved in said yoga. Because the property mindset isn’t epistemically generous unless you’re fascinated by marketing. It does not breed much learning for people who know the next two yogas. This conceptual poverty is a peaceful means for a worldview to die. Not because it gets defeated. But because it gets boring. May we all be increasingly bored by the bling. OM.

Which leads on, into the dance of Yoga2 and Yoga3. Oh god, this is where the yoga lives. Or lived. Before Yoga1 dragged us off the dancefloor. Yoga1 is exactly that, a drag.

Quickly on the Yoga2 (practice), and the Yoga3 (transcendence).

Yoga2 is a verb. It is what you repeatedly do. But it’s not anything you do – please let’s not go down the side track of on how folding laundry occasionally is “practice,” or sitting on a meditation cushion thinking about other people is “practice,” or drinking beer consciously is “practice.” No; well-theorized and grounded practice – praxis – which you systematically show up for cannot die these deaths of a thousand qualifications. Yoga2 is a whole living library of techniques that address human imbalance, and delusion, and self-congratulation, and proceed to heal and clarify the mind and body. This is a big topic. My life-work is about it. This blog is about it. Yoga2 is above all consistent, dispassionate, equanimous. However, if practice is all yoga is, ever, it’s a long, dark night of routine.

Yoga3 is not a noun or a verb or any other part of speech. It’s a syllable, is all. Yoga as OM is nothing more or less than, um, OM. You can’t own unity consciousness. Can’t even practice it. Oneness happens. OM. There. Yoga3 sometimes asserts itself over all else and pretends nothing else matters. That’s just Shiva’s devotees being cheeky, and they don’t mean it. He knows, and we know, that OM, it comes and goes. And the thing is, if we’re even talking about pure empty awareness, it’s because oneness has gone off hiding, poised to re-infiltrate the spaces between the letters.

Yoga=practice and yoga=transcendence bring up a ton of good trouble. On one hand, yoga is what you repeatedly do! Dirga kala to the core; D(iscipline) to the D(edication) to the D(etermination) to the D(evotion). But no, on the other hand it’s easy to see that this emphasis on “works” is just a trip. Yoga isn’t the doing; it’s the light and the nothingness that shows through it. Yoga is only oneness. Stop talking already.

OHHhh!!! for godsakes this is so rich. Go ahead, make an argument that one of these two is primary. If you want to put more life in your practice, and drain more energy off the experience of Yoga as I-Me-Mine, go find the debates on sadhana versus sadhya. Live them out. Inhabit that space between abhyasa and vairagya, discipline and non-attachment, between works and grace. The epic narratives, the transformation arcs that go beyond the shallow stories, all of this experience cycles through the vibrating space between practice and pure consciousness.

You can’t wake up today and exult that yoga is only consciousness (!!!!!), only something that happens TO you from BEYOND you, if you didn’t wake up YESTERDAY with the glory of nonreactive rhythmic practice on your lips. And if you didn’t ALSO keep practicing, without attachment, right through the rapture. It is DOING that begets BEING, and being doing, on and on and on until some humans finally invented concepts like the dialectic and the lila pandava. These are maps of the space between action and consciousness, wherein all the true stories arise.

Process and destination, abhyasa and vairagya, consciousness and manifestation. All of this is the Yoga2 of practice and Yoga3 of OM. Practice without OM is a brittle old noodle. OM without practice is the water on the edge of a ripple, waiting for some reality already.

Put the two in relationship and you have electricity. Breath, emptiness, devotion, passion, mistakes, prana, sunshine, new moons, awkwardness, brilliance, newness, remembering, learning, discovery, LIFE. We’re actively forgetting this vitality. Distracted from the dance. We make yoga an identity ritual, a life style, a career, a body size, a legitimacy trip, a pair of pants. Dammit, this is just not alive. It’s just not interesting. Consciousness at play has no agenda except its own expansion.

To study the history of property is to see how it makes us dull and sad and selfish. So in response to the question of who owns this yoga, I guess I have to argue, as far as I honestly can, against the notion that yoga can be owned. The rightful heir is no one because yoga is not property. Its understanding “belongs” to those who actually practice, and who know well because of the emptiness that this action doesn’t make it theirs.

Conscious Relationship • 14 April 2017

Hanuman, bathers

April full moon, I wake up to shapes. Phosphene geometry traced into the backs of my eyelids in hypnopompia, making the jump into the waking state of consciousness. Same as last year at this time, I go in the 5am dark to my desk, sketching out the dream-image on scrap paper.

It’s a faint chain of octagons, each one separated by quadruple morse code, dots in rows of 8.

Back in the dream, we’re in a sweaty Mysore room and the shapes are a language my assistants are using to communicate with each other while they silently teach. The shapes are their animal language, transmited mind to mind. Extra-sensory asanas. I don’t know what they mean. I’m just watching them teach –their bodies fully express the spirit of the practice. They communicate it through touch and movement to the others, and then hold the space for it to mature.

I stop by imaginary Mysore rooms most nights. Usually the practitioners of dream-body ashtanga are sea mammals. It’s adorable, yoga as a porpoise. Nobody has to fuss with foot-behind-the-head. The social nervous system is ultra-conscious, drawn together in self-intelligent pods and schools. We are fluid. And, being sea mammals, we are more evolved versions of ourselves. We communicate through song, and through pictures traced in the collective mind’s eye.

(The dream knowledge thing works like this. But if you want, here’s a quick & crude way in. When you fall asleep, think I remember my dreams. Set three alarms, one for X:00, one 3 minutes later, one 2 minutes after that. When the first alarm goes, shut it off, return to your last sleeping position, and carefully collect images in the butterfly net of your waking mind as it weaves itself together. This may be hard at first. It’s a skill.When the second alarm goes, note the images in a physical notebook. Go fast. Deveolop a shorthand and reconstruct the details if you want later, after you get the first catch down on the page. At the second alarm, it’s time to get on with real life. Note with awe, or humility, or some other edifying emotion, the mystery that is consciousness. This whole process takes 5 minutes and leaves your mind extremely clear. It’s not about analyzing dream content, but about developing the kind of mind that (1) can look at itself with curiosity, and (2) can jump easily between states of consciousness. I find this efficient and mystical, and an intriguing way to wake up.)

When the chair of the Sociology Department was trying to lure me to Ann Arbor from LA, he told a story of the dream springs of the Midwest. This town has been frozen and dark for five months, then one day there’s a break in the cloud-blanket that’s been stretched between Lakes Michigan and Huron all this time. Thousands of over-productive depressed people see the sun. Farmer’s markets exuberate. Life explodes, he said, from the earth with the force of five months of repression. It’s true.

The first full moon every April, there’s a night-time luminary festival downtown. Main Street outside the shala fills up with dancers and drummers and people carrying glowing sea creatures on sticks. Angel fish, octopus, shrimp. Jellyfish make great light sculptures. The ocean theme is a natural, I guess; LEDs + vellum looks pretty well bioluminescent.

The luminary party this year was adorable, but not innocent. The dream world here remains beautiful in darkening times, and there is a kind of activist commitment to bringing it forth.

Once we get to April, Sunday mornings become a little wondrous. I don’t teach until 8, so sleep late and go to the shala at 6. It’s still as I walk in with flowers from the farmers market. There will be led class in a couple hours in the big back room, so I start practice alone in the small front room facing Main Street, facing east. I sing and chant and burn things, then take samastithi.

Directly beyond my thumbs are the superhero sigils at the comic book store across the street. They’ve had the batsignal lit for months. Vande gurunam. Two buildings to the north, our state’s insane governor – the one who let Flint’s water be poisoned and yet somehow remains in office –apparently sleeps in his penthouse. Samsara halahala. It’s around freezing on the other side of our leaky Civil War era windows, so I dress for spring skiing. The silk baselayer I wore on the slopes in 90s is perfect for gentle Indermediate Series at 55 degrees. Pranamami Patanjalim.

There’s sunlight in the east by the end of the surya namaskara, and by kapo I have company. It doesn’t work to ask someone in the fourth ashram of life to wait until 8am to practice. Ashtangis in the 60-80 age range are wired well before sunrise, so on Sunday mornings a little crew assembles. Me plus the sweetest hearts in the shala.

My experience with these folks is that they are extremely grateful about having a body, and extremely interested in the present moment. These are sanctuary-type emotions powerful enough to pack our small room with awe and wonderment.

So that’s how the weeks start now on Main Street – superheroes, Jedi septugenarians and the sleeping demon governor. Practicing like that during Sunday sunrise is doing this weird thing where it takes my relationships to time and to the body and pervades them with peace.

………………………………………….

About dreams, there’s one that keeps coming through, since January when a dear friend first took me to the Gosai Ghats, on Karnataka’s River Cauvery.

This is real: I was born in a 100-year-old ranch house on the edge of a creek in Montana. In a grove of cottonwood trees so large that by now half of them have cracked and fallen in the changed climate’s wet snow. The house is a low stucco cube with terra cotta roof tiles, and a root cellar out back from before there was electricity. What was my little bedroom fills the southwest corner, and has window seat overlooking over a steep green slope down to the creek. That seat, barely heated by a fireplace in the next room, is where I learned to read, and to build pillow forts.

In the dream, my brother and parents and I move back to the ranch house. It’s a museum of curious objects, like the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Everything’s a supposed heirloom, the leavings of our lineages within the shared psyche of the family.

Suddenly there is a basement. The house has a whole new underground where my brother and I live. His room opens on to the Cauvery River, with a broad view over a delta filled with waxy green plants. It flows north. Everything glows. Clusters of floating plants approach us and keep flowing out of view, like this.

I find my room. It is the same, but the window seat is a veranda, and the creek is the Cauvery. There is a stairwell going up. The light is golden and so warm. My parents are distant voices upstairs, moving heirlooms around. I call up to say there is not room to bring in more mementos. The house is full. My parents say no, you are mistaken. There is space. There is an increasing amount of space. In the dream, they’re right.

My mind comes out really clear on nights I dream of the house. Whatever else it may be, the house is a restorative pocket in consciousness. When I am roaming around at night and want to find it, I look around for a stream of warm light.

…………………………….

I left the shala a little early a few Thursdays back, to go to New York. My brother had artwork in a show there, so it was a few days in an alternate world I’ve contacted through him for 20 years. Michigan is the deep heart of red America, but you can finish work on Main Street a bit before 9am, fly out of DTW, and be in Manhattan no problem for lunch. I walked up to the 10:01 as they were closing doors. Someone at the desk was trying to get on standby. She had big silver hair and a big Brooklyn accent, and a joke for me about us boarding late.

Ohhh shit. Just me and the chair of my dissertation committee. A thrilling personality, brilliant and productive as hell; a radical historian of the working class, and my devoted advocate. I had not seen her since 2009 in LA. After that, I went another way without a meaningful explanation. In academia, it’s not great when one you’ve championed leaves the scene.

She was stunned to see me, then made a crack about the yoga industry. Touche’. Then we were in our seats, before I had time to say anything. Oh well. It’s not for me to defend my choices. Her view is right in its way, and if she thinks I set aside questions of social justice to buy in to an industry that gets energy from social inequality, in this case it’s not my business. I thought over my relationship with her and the rest of my committee for an hour, noticing what it shows me to see through their eyes. Then we were on the runway at LaGuardia next to the president’s airplane. Duhn-duhn.

And then at the end of the terminal there she is, waiting for me, asking if we can travel into the city together. I’m overjoyed by the gift of 45 minutes in a cab together, but she turns it in to a roving, 2.5-hour, New York party. “Let’s take public transit.” She escorts me to the East Village, on a super-crowded bus, a walk through the snow, and a few links on the subway. So much movement and emotion and eye contact is shared. So much has happened in her life in 7 years. Our views and understandings of each other are remade, now that we are two humans not the least bit entangled in each other’s decisions. We cover so much ground.

I savor the togetherness without trying to push back on that that original comment about the yoga industry. But at the end, there is this gift. She kisses me and says she’s happy to see me happy, and so glad that I am doing good work. Woah. What she taught me, the time we had and the advocacy and the knowledge, they were not for nothing. A massive open loop in my psyche closes, and energy begins to circulate there. Mutual recognition happens, and I experience this as one of the greatest blessings of my life.

…………………..………………..

I want to get up the nerve to write about conscious relationship. About the different forms of student-teacher relationship I’ve experienced through yoga. About how meditation is when you can stay conscious as you see the personality arising. About the idealization of the others – perfect woman, perfect man, perfect teacher, perfect mate – and how we have to give that up for ultimate prize of friendship. About Husserl and Buber before the War, and how they gave western minds ways to see through projection.

And especially about the relationship to self and other that comes up in the act of being a student. For me, this has the most intensive year of being-a-student, in Mysore and everywhere else. There is so much revealing itself about my personal and human programming. A desire to be recognized. A desire to have something special with a teacher. A desire to have epiphanies with teachers who I want to believe can read souls and orchestrate personalized learning experiences. And what it takes to not be led around by these desires, to let things be spacious. To deconstruct thoughts, instead of try to gratify them. To take responsibility for my own awareness. There’s more here for another time.

For now, just this. There’s a flip I can do to make relationship conscious for my own purposes. It’s to be a student, instead of being right. If I want to get something from another, or get them to see something, then my energy isn’t so much on learning. Any moment someone goes in to obvious projection, I get to flip or not. Do I push back on that, or do I stop and just study what that does to me inside? If the projection is overly positive, I’ll probably push back. If the projection is everyday negative stuff, maybe it’ll sort itself out through relationship that has no agenda. And if the projection is of the really warped kind, it’s best not to engage with it anyway. So that’s two out of three reasons to stop and flip.

When I’m awake enough to just watch an impulse towards being right, instead of acting on it, that is when I get surprised. It’s when experience can un-pattern itself and get weird in a good way.

Awkward, Cwoissants • 11 March 2017

Ganesh in plastic

It’s a time of contradiction. I’d say paradox, but paradox is cute.

Watching America from India this winter was like seeing a glacier calve on the internet: rumbles in a little box on a screen, representing a centuries-old formation melting all at once into the sea. The bureaucratic shock-and-awe swallowed up my words.

This week it was a bumpy transition from India to Michigan. An emotional goodbye to Mysore, with uncertainty about when or how the Ashtanga scene there will resurge. Two long haul flights, 12 hours’ rest at home, then back in to teaching and running a yoga school. My bones are still glowing, but the flesh is in pain. My emotions are high, but the mind’s a little scrambled.

The internal weather system was like this. It’s the end of the hardest practice trip I’ve ever made, and by far the most peaceful and loving. Some ego-programming has been brought to light, and I’m not the same person I was. I’m less hopeful; more just generally in love. Less buoyant; way more michievious. More accepting; but super- impatient with mediocrity. I’m filled with love for my friends, coursing in profane delight about indomitable spirits and the forces of nature, trying to tap these strong emotions down into sattva. Unusual phenomena, all of that.

So, America. It looks worse up close: what it looks like is the massive flatbed trailer trolling the university campus, covered in anti-immigrant, anti-woman signs and possibly guns and knives (there are sharp objects and streamers, anyway) while blasting Born in the USA. Yet somehow America feels better than it did from India – it feels like a lot of people being honest and brave and caring for each other. Mining trauma for purpose and verve. It’s fascinating. America 2017 is one epic backdrop. One would have to be so white to deny its immediate evil. And one would have to be ignorant of history to pretend it’s all gonna be ok.

Back in Mysore, the shala is also epic in its way. Take 300 intense/disciplined people from around the world. Teach them the same rarified movements, and the same half-whispered legends. Put them together in a pressure cooker. Doing the same actions, in the same place, with the same people every day. It’s a toss up: one either (a) turns into an asana-bot, bent on whatever arbitrary objects signify status in this scene (attention, postures, start time)…. or (b) one does some yoga. Status-acquisition and learning yoga are competing motives.

In Mysore, weirdly potent learning happens when life gets mixed up in the method. Like this. My teacher stops class to make an example of someone’s bad attitude. Or that person you used to get along great with shows up, but now for some reason he makes you self-conscious and not in a good way. Or some uncanny coincidence befalls you, as they tend to do inside a vortex, and suddenly you understand it as an omen. Or old memories or emotions you haven’t had time for surface with a vengeance, and you’ve got no choice but to ride them out. This is studying the self to forget the self. Studying the old story to forget that story.

It’s awkward. Awkwardness being the ricochet of self-wareness within the boundaries of a self. It leaves an impression. A dear friend says, “My practice is between me, my teachers, and god.” I feel the same, though now my practice is between those parties plus my students. And apart from just breathing around them, one way to get my expreience across is through these capsules of memory. Through the stories that practice brings up.

It’s hazardous. But I think we can learn how to make meaning deliberately rather than habitually. It takes originality, strong values, and a strong mind. During retreat, we get repetition and random chance and relationship and and synchronicity; and with these raw materials some start figuring how to construct symbolic universes and spiritual pathways. Then we go home, and we either merge back into a mainstream that says build yourself up, consume, and act normal, or we do the creative work required to live by a more interesting code. We decide to work for something other than fame and power and highs and money. We tell better stories. We create culture.

On practice retreat, my teacher uses my awkwardness (as defined above) a lot. It’s systematic and brilliant. I’m left with so many memory-capsules I could turn in to stories if I wanted. And with these, privately, carefully, I stitch together a learning process that will hold me stable in this insane world.

Nihilism is thrumming in the background here in America. Out of that you get exploitation, relationships in which it’s ok to use people, work based on short-term gain. Intellectual subtlety is decreasing; crappy aesthetic taste is increasing. Popular culture tastes like carrier oil for elite domination, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

So it’s gonna help to be able to make meaning on scorched earth. Construct symbolic universes that can stand over that which is stupid and flat. With subtlety, secret kindness, and the sort of truth that has nothing to prove. Because my God more now than even we need a counter-culture. I don’t know who better to talk to about this than semi-nomadic yoga people who eat mostly seeds and chant to Patanjali.

I’m tempted to drink on the weekends. I’m tempted to sit with my neighbors and smoke my face off in the afternoons. That’s the background nihilism getting into me. What practice gives, in addition to the knowledge of how to make meaning out of nothing, is access to the other altered states – those that bring perspective. Sitting practice. Ironic prayer to no one and everyone. Time in the forest. Reading history. Singing. Breath. These are a different direction of relief – consolation through perceiving more of the present moment, not less.

Madness is present. If I stop being nihilistic, then the madness is fascinating. How many people have you witnessed in psychotic break already this year? How much collective confusion has clouded meetings and organizations? Meantime the thoughts of a super-concentrated mind are nothing less than spells. For the people with a practice, the intentions and motivations we cast out will help determine the world. I’m not joking about hacking one’s way to a higher mental clarity. This feels more than ever like the time to guard the awareness, and to nourish it like mothers, because there are ways in which awareness is all we’ve got.

……………………………………

Another contradiction. What I learn through practice is so specific. But also impersonal. The habit patterns of the mind, the tricks it plays, the longings it rests in.

There is this desire to be understood. We want so badly to be with another consciousness that GETS IT. And yeah, sometimes there are moments when recognition arises. Sometimes there are people you can fully behold, and there are moments that you are truly beheld.

And sometimes the perception of that is just the illusion we create out of our longing. There’s a lot of this in the student-teacher relationship, and in the relationship to spiritual leaders and politicians. This longing for the perfect parent.

So with the yoga, it’s great to leave students alone if they’re going deep inside themselves. To back off instead of reminding them you’re there. Sometimes practice has to be impersonal. Teacher’s pet energy comes on in us so easily – that longing for the special connection. I studied it in myself but had to teach for a couple of years before I could see that sometimes I still get played. Students are wonderful, but it’s not helpful to let things become so personal.

One place I’ve learned to catch it: when we treat assistants differently from the big kahuna. Sorry, monkey. Everyone’s the Buddha, everyone’s No One, everyone’s the Christ.

I’ve also learned to scan for the “specialness” vibe in groups. Charisma is a property of a crowd, not of individuals (Max Weber first said this). Strange things happen when people gather before a stage. People who speak to groups know this – a few obsessives in a crowd, trying to make a special-secret connection with the speaker, will affect the whole room. This is where academic divas come from, and also celebrity yoga teachers. Teacher’s pet energy is “you see my soul,” or maybe “I’m your special monkey.” No. Everyone is a special monkey. There are no special monkeys.

This, at least, is something subtle for the mind to turn over. The impersonal intimacy of relationship. The impersonal awkwardness of practice.

…………………………..

More than once here at home, a student has joked that they’d like to practice with a bag over their head, to cut the self-obsessive delusions that the practice was building up. (This request delights me, but I won’t let it charm.) Charlie Brown style.

Ok, yes, but only if your bag is not special. Only if there is a pile of bags at the door. Touch the threshold, bag yourself, touch the threshhold again when you leave, and bin the bag.

Only problem is, sweaty paper sticks to your face when you’re heavy-breathing. (Tried.) How about if we do it like this. Every one gets the same costume. A body. Without a bag. Without a bag for now.

But that’s a bag too. Sometimes you just have to show up and be a self in some life postures. The awkwardness of being in the world is great for those of us who think we can do everything in an invisibility cape.

The funny thing is, yeah, when we joke about practicing in paper bags we definitely understand each other. Life, death, breath, eyes, energy, love, adoration, gratitude, longing, laughter, yes. That’s it. We all get it. That’s having a self. It’s just the madness that doesn’t understand.

…………………………..

I grew up on a ranch in a rural red state, and drove in to a nearby city to attend high school. At school, there was one French class, an elective, attended by kids who could perceive and appreciate certain things I could not. “That high culture is not for me,” I thought wrongly, along with just about everyone else.

Each summer the French students had an opportunity to go on a group trip to Europe. While the rest of us stayed home and drove combine for the summer, or worked construction, or babysat. I clerked at the video store, and gardened rhubarb and zucchini.

The French kids would come back from Europe obsessed with cwoisswants. They didn’t know, like the rest of us, how great it is to drive an F350 on Montana back roads, to skip school and ski the headwalls of Beartooth Pass for free, ride 4-wheelers through pastures after a thunderstorm. Maybe cwoisswants are what you long for in Montana when you don’t have a taste of your place’s own wildness and luxury.

Or maybe I need to step away from the masala dosa. Step awaaaay from the story – the parts of the zeitgeist that are killing us. Step outside of the self who is overwhelmed by this new reality. There is a slight reconfiguration of my being in this world, and a trans-valuation of my values. In these times how could it be otherwise?

We live in the most interesting times. All the more reason to make them interesting on our own terms.

Love in War Time • 7 February 2017

IMG_6062

Here in Mysore, the two big god-towers are covered in scaffolding. Deconstruction time. Chamundeshwari Temple on the hill, and Philomena’s Cathedral in the middle of Muslim town: you can linger on the grounds outside each, but the inner sancta are covered in dust. The gothic awe you’re supposed to feel as you lift your head and release the soft palate, gazing up at the spires, has been replaced by a neo-noir vision: caged churches rising out of human ruckus.

From halfway up the Chamundi Hill stairway you can stop and look down on Philomela’s in the distance, a pile of hazy hash tags out there on the valley floor. I tend to climb the Hill on rest days with friends, and go to Cathedral alone on hot weekday afternoons. Philomela’s catacombs are cool and evil. The walls are etched in thousands of names, European names, a record of violence and colonial memory. Big donors, I suppose. I dig my fingers into the grooves of the familiar surnames, re-archiving some of their black grout-dust under my nails. How do you get here from the teachings of Jesus? At the lowest point of the catacombs, there is a Rube Goldberg situation where you can roll rupees down a ramp, through a fence and under a Philomela mannequin in to some kind of secret bank below. I usually send Philomela a fiver.

On the new moon I climb Chamundi with a friend who is 13 years old. At the top we circumnavigate the scaffolded temple. Middle-aged men in joggers do push-ups behind the building, and a bull chews plastic in a pile of trash. There’s a rikshaw with one of the new Hanuman decals, a menacing orange half-face in an oval. She says he looks like a demon.

I agree and mention the super-demon Ravana. Hanuman setting his tail aflame and swinging it through Lanka like numbchucks, burning the demon city to ground and springing sex-trafficked Sita out of captivity. One of us free-associates from there to Jesus in the temple, his divine rage at the money-changers. Then we jump back to Hanuman’s clarity (Ram doesn’t know himself as a god, but his buddy Hanuman can spot the play of Vishnu on contact). Then we note the awkward moments in Hanuman’s devotion. Monkeys do funny things.

The idea of the divine having many faces would have freaked me out at 13. But the planet is growing smaller and time is growing shorter. Those facing superdemons need all the resources we can muster, and god knows Hanuman is one. On the drive home from the Hill, I sing his song in Hindi. Like any poem with power, the Chalisa is a spell, and this trip I’m learning its forty verses by transmission over forty days. That’s also the duration of Jesus’ test in the desert (and thus of Lent), Moses’ on the mountain, and of kundalini repatterning rituals. Forty days seems to be is a base metric in philosophical time, maybe because that’s the time it takes a nervous system to burn out a nasty samskara, or to build a new one.

In other words, for better and for worse, 40 days is the duration of normalization. It is in itself a spell. We must be so careful about that now.

……………………..

A few winters back, I returned home from Mysore with a weird new ability to say the word anus. Anus. Big toe. Shoulder. Ear. Anus. A hidden linguistic-associational puzzle piece recovered.

Now I’m recovering an ability to name delusion. To name evil. We are facing serious sub-cultural taboos and blocks here. (Consider the whole “see no evil” trip, which is a great insight for a different epoch.) I will return home after 40 days and then some less shy about naming psychopathy, and seeing ecocide for what it is. This rests, for me, in a practical everyday commitment to feeling intimately the delusion, and the capacity for going to the dark side, within myself. Feeling it, and not acting from it.

The sweet side of this is resting in the heart motives and letting them cultivate themselves. Adoration, gratitude, compassion, courage. That’s my shortlist-of-the-spirit anyway. Simple, not simple.

Svoboda says America is now “Rahu world” – the nation such as it is has entered into an epoch (dasha) of special delusion – the kind in which ideas are detached from bodies. Hate and lies are empowered. So, those who get energy from hate and lies rise up. It is extremely easy now to be deceived. Time gets scrambled. And, in these ethers there is also room for rapid growth for those who are cultivating the mental clarity and emotional honesty to work with delusion directly. Viveka – the ability to cut through delusion – becomes the central skill.

For years I studied the history of epic social change, wondering all along about human love in times of Big Crazy. What forgotten beautiful connections have pairs and small groups lived out while their societies upheaved around them? Persecution, financial crisis, plague, extreme weather must always have contained within them humans’ secret devotion, heroic risks, epic sacrifice, character-defining courage. When times change, stuffy social norms drop away. Good people stop investing energy in self-promoting agendas. Connection and creation accelerate.

Maybe it’s like what happens when you make your own death a contemplation: love and joy and meaning amplify. You’re so much more alive in every moment. Keeping endings close to mind, if it’s done in just the right way, can be the most edifying and beautifying force for life.

Quieter than the crazy fear and anger, I suspect that all along and everywhere the heart motives have set a secret tone when lies and violence have appeared to surge. Adoration, gratitude, compassion, courage. No wonder so many people are crying at random. Let’s not say we are mourning. Let’s see that hearts are on the move.

……………………….

I leave America at New Year’s, as that country enters the Upside-down. All the demons crossing over from the dark side, showing themselves, going in for their kills. Our planet is so small – 35 hours of travel and I’m on exactly the other side. There is usually much psychic distance between India and Michigan, but not now. All poles are present; all developments are happening now; everything counts to me as real. I do what I can with the limited mind I’ve got, and with the years of preparation the yoga cave has given it. All our caves – these have been perfect staging grounds for what could be a bumpy ride.

Halfway to India, there is freezing fog at Charles de Gaulle. The pilot keeps explaining the weird weather as we roll along the tarmac on the 5:25 arrival from Detroit. The ground next to the runway looks like stalactites under billows of dry ice. Why is there no sunrise? Why does the ground have teeth? He says it’s just the freezing fog.

For a decade, the last day of the year has usually begun here on a plane. Seeing first light over Paris as we land. And then, another long-haul and 4 French films later, I’m fast-forwarded into the next day’s sunrise on the Mysore ring road. First light hits just as we drive under the aqueducts. By this point I’m always euphoric. I’ve consumed nothing in 2 days but Emergen-C and two quaffs of jet fuel, and now I’m back inside this city I love.

My brother nicks my old ipod each Christmas, curating sound for the new January. Offering my consciousness a medium in which to temper new experiences, and to deposit them deep in my tissues. Soundtrack : zeitgeist :: ghee : spice. I let him choose the annual mood, as long as he always leaves the Jayashree and the Jack White. Usually he offers a swath of new electronica, though one especially good year the soundtrack was Middle Eastern hip hop. Another year, it was just a funny-brutal Bollywood/Hans Zimmer shuffle. But those times are done. The spirit of this trip is something else entirely.

This year, I’m looping Arca’s Perdida when we reach the Mysore aqueduct. My airplane-addled mind invents original lyrics. This life is not forever. This scene is not forever. I will remember this light on the day that I die.

It’s true. There is no more waiting to see what will happen. Climate change is here. Economic change is here. War is here. Evil – not that evil is so shocking – evil is here. But also, peace backgrounds almost every moment if I’m awake for it.

Thirty-eight days later, that’s today, I’ve logged many many new hours of cranial-sacral therapy practice. Dwelling in this work is a gorgeous way of living out my evenings in this place, when the light is gold and everyday sounds take on the quality of a movie set. Like they’ve all been assembled for effect. Maybe later, words will surface around what this season of the cranial practice has taught me. For now there’s just a weird lot of stillness. There is something extremely subversive about the stillness…

By stillness I don’t mean the moments when the evening light, or a blank spot in the mind, presents itself just right and generates a nice aporia. Rather, this stillness is a marked physiological-perceptual moment when the constant tiny movement of the spine just. Stops.

This is potent as hell. Holding the paradox of human violence and absolute peace, both being the case, neither having monopoly on my mind. Mysore mornings and evenings, the adoration of them, are written in to me now. When I die, I will re-experience their numinous nectar-memory as the light leaves my cells.

This timeplace will be my arca perdida. One among many.

It is so tender.

Resilience • 3 January 2017

Ganesha, Darth Buddha, Whiskey, White Rose

Mircea Eliade called his book Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. In other words: Samsara, I got this. He was the first westerner to do serious scholarship on Tantra and Hatha Yoga and, surprisingly, Immortality and Freedom still reads as fairly sensitive respectful writing, able to half-transmit ideas across the gap from Indian to Western and ways-of-knowing. Here is Eliade’s one big idea at the end of all that work: yoga is technology that enables people to tolerate living in history. Yogis live in the world and in time, without being totally defined and defeated by those two conditions.

When I first read it I thought he was confusing yoga with Heidegger, but now I don’t know. The ten years since actually have been an exercise in “being in time” through yoga. Getting as clear as possible about what our collective historical moment really is, and thus taking action in this particular time, in this particular body.

Allright already, Samsara. I see there is no cave to escape to, no alternate universe, no next planet to colonize, no altered state of consciousness that makes this moment go poof. This, right here. This is the kind of freedom we get.

Freedom, if you can call it that (and Patanjali would not), arises from aliveness in time. The new year is not going to make climate change and racism go away. But some of us care about all that is vulnerable. If so, more strength and more love and more clarity will be required. Spiritual bypassing is a way out of this historical moment, but that ain’t yoga. Yoga is being and acting with consciousness in the time that we have.

Dark things are going down on this particular planet, and for now we are in it together. My heart melts when I contemplate the self-destructive power of my species. Petty disagreements and the need to be right fall away. I am not right. My whole species and I are wrong. Clarity on this feels like the way of love.

Alternatively, there is the way of domination. Here in Mysore, even though I’m not on instagram and miss 99% of my twitter and FB feeds, I feel in our human collective a strong pull to leadership that reproduces the zeitgeist. What does leadership look like in 2017? Collect followers and dominate their attention. Place yourself at the center. Shrug off accountability. Rule the internet. Why? Because leadership is not service in 2017; it is the position from which you suck another’s milkshake. Authoritarianism has a yantra – it is the shape of the Matrix. The power is at the parasitic center; everyone else gives it their own life force in the form of consciousness/attention. This is rulership, which is the opposite of energetic transmission. No problem. Yoga is full of tools to systematically train ourselves out of the inherent human weakness that makes us want to give our power away.

It’s so clear, now, that the many of us who teach have a responsibility to empower students. There must be a hundred ways to do so. Here are three…

(1) Ask them to learn lie detection, to use their brilliant bodies to sound out the deceptions coming their way. This is a little bit of freedom.

(2) Seek accountability in a subculture that says all that people on a growth-path need is praise. See if embodying the way of accountability doesn’t have an effect on those we work with. Might be radical.

(3) Suggest that we all learn to love privacy, to love spiritual practice that is for nobody but oneself, that has nothing to prove, that is more real for the fact that it is not advertised. Show by example that the most epic lives are the ones that never get documented. Really, let us all discover (or remember) the ways of being alive that are just too damn cool to need to be seen.

And therefore too cool to be archived by the NSA. Hi.

Here is where I’m focused in these times – on clarity, beauty, and care for others. I feel strongly that I must keep a line on the ecstasy of the everyday, or I will lose my feeling and energy for life-in-these-times. So my program for this year is one part beauty in everyday things, two parts love over fear, one part building a better bullshit filter.

What interests me is yoga as a tool for getting us through. But also, the I think that maybe we can get yoga through. Our practices could be just another casualty to a way of life that is ending. Or yoga may get stronger when it’s more punk. Because historically it’s been the shamanic outsiders who found their way to so-called “Immortality and Freedom.”

……………………………

It is 10 years since I started writing in this space. My academic advisers complained that my papers were suspiciously well written (science should not rhyme), so my brother made a blog to channel my frustration with that system. Blogging stopped being a thing, and 5 years ago I began putting all my creative energy into teaching yoga, but this remained as a practice space to keep me in relationship with the written word. Publishing as accountability.

It is 7 years since I moved from Los Angeles to Michigan. We did a solstice gathering at the shala on the 21st, and that anniversary hit me hard. We have done some things together as a shala these 7 years. A year and a half ago, I started sharing about that process here, because I felt a paradigm shift was coming, though I didn’t understand how hard and how fast. The shala model that we evolved on the outskirts of America’s first broken metropolis (Detroit) is post-capitalist, post-celebrity, and pro-community. It is survivalist, in an extremely abundant and relaxed way. It is an ecstatically connected social nervous system. It is a source for safety and care with the capacity to nourish great strength in any sort of challenging time.

In sum, it is just a student-driven yoga school. It’s an organization designed for a future in which there are – thank the gods of creative destruction who are upon us – not so many yoga stores.

Immortality and Freedom? I don’t know about that. What I can articulate is “decouple yoga from capitalism” (a taste of freedom) and “use yoga as a centralizing force for intelligent life” (an experience of being part of something much bigger than oneself).

The chapters of the shala cookbook are as follows.

1. May 2015. The Yoga Bio.

2. August 2015. Safe Space.

3. October 2015. Notes to a Young Teacher

4. April 2016. Yoga + Alienation

5. June 2016. Deep Local

6. July 2016. Vetting Teachers

7. December 2016. A Sentient Collective
…………………

Those are my trade secrets. I’d love for you to use whatever’s useful. The time to do so would be now.

And, now, I’m a little lost in this space.

Sometimes someone emails to say “please write about x.” That is exactly where the cookbook came from. I am not an initiator and never have been. I respond to the right kinds of invitation, and initiation. (That’s not unfeminist, it’s just one of the weird truths self-study has revealed about this self’s particulars.)

If you’ve been reading here a while and you have one of those “write about x” inclinations, please respond individually to the newsletter or say something in the comments. I am open to questions I can’t answer. And really to whatever unexpected idea arises from you who have some relationship with this particular – changing – voice.

Love, and thank you for forgiving my awkward moments over many years, and for enabling me to be a little useful at times. Bring on the New Year. X0v0

A Sentient Collective • 2 December 2016

solstice 2015

The start of September, I faced my students for the first time in two months. While I’d finished my own practice in a side room, the main space had filled silently, with all these people I’ve known for years. Touching the threshold my fingertips buzzed in contact with its tiny nails. I called us to attention with a body full of excitement.

There’s an invocation we say to begin. It gets the body’s hidden drums (pelvic floor, diaphragm, soft palate, falx cerebri) vibrating together. It’s a poem to summon a line of teachers from back in time, finally describing a wild jungle shaman with cosmic tools who purges the poison of conditioned existence. I had been away in India, chanting call-and-response, but back home we do it in unison. I’ll never be a guru and thus don’t lead the rites: I teach it to beginners, and then we as a group co-create each ritual new. But that first day in September, my system was in the rhythm of following my teacher. After the first line, I forgot what to do next and stood there, facing them, empty. Not noticing I’d fallen silent, the student body filled me in. Putting Patanjali in his place.

That is the collective becoming intelligent. A flit in time, easy to miss, easy to dismiss. But there are so many of these hints of collective sentience now. They’re tiny but not trivial, because it’s not just social connection that is arising – it is a kind of intelligence I want to affirm. It shows up not just as shared resonance and esoteric knowledge reproduction, but as aggregate selfless action, collective health care and food sharing and safety, and the lateral transmission of energy in the form of inspiration, hormones and technical know-how. This becomes a group that can radiate altered states (a meditation we call tristhana) to the new folks without my saying much on day one but “breathe like the room.”

My hands know the hormonal cycles of these bodies, the ways they generate focus and pheromones among each other. Young women driven by western culture to amenorrhea (this is a hidden epidemic) recover a lunar rhythm. Secret stewards organize mats, and feed parking meters, and leave mundane/beautiful offerings at the altar. People stay home when contagious, because the health of the group pre-empts the fix they get from collective practice. The currently eight pregnant people connect in hidden ways. Those who are better off in a material sense know when and how to give housing and food to those who need to close a gap.

I bring faith, technical and historical information, a bit of planning, and the right sort of predictability. They trust me to be strong for them if there’s a breach in safe space; some tell an old story about exactly what that looks like. There is also the matter of embodying, after semi-deprogramming from western mind, our lineage’s acutely peculiar relationship to time. (Ashtanga time is nonlinear but absolutely exact, mystical, hyper-intuitive, and dotted with retrograde cycles where you age in reverse and the tides of transmission turn and flow out to sea. Long story.) Beyond bringing them these things, six years in, I’m a center that does best to fall silent.

So this is not a teacher-centered collective. But here they are, offering astonishingly refined energy back to me. Go to minute 10:10.

Listen. There are crowds, and there are collectives. The crowd is not compassionate. The crowd is not smart. I’m a rural right-wing preacher’s kid from one of the poorest counties in the country, exiled and reconciled to her roots. I love where and what I’m from; it is humble heartbreak territory. And I won’t lie to you about the primal side of me. Of us all. No the crowd is not compassionate. And no it is not smart.

But the collective that can congeal anywhere, anytime. The collective that practices. The one that is designed well, and then freed to create itself. That collective may be compassionate, and that collective may be go far beyond smart.

This ain’t politics. It’s a matter of what kind of information can travel through a social nervous system. For now, care, compassion and radical creativity are not the default in a human complex system. In these times, you must be deliberate if you want them to come about.

And now we are here. Pure uncertainty. Don’t tell yourself you can ride out what’s coming on without a new paradigm. You’ll waste your strength trying to hold an old reality together. Every day each of us will be deciding. What to perpetuate, what to join. And what to generate.

…………………………….

The last two years, I’ve tried to integrate the learning from my 20s into my work now as the director of a yoga school. In that past life, I studied cultural and economic history in a sort of salon, the Historical and Comparative section of the UCLA Sociology Department. Dear friends who shared those years remember them as our golden age, getting schooled hard in Marx by Maurice Zeitlin and the sources of social power by Michael Mann, learning to read a book a day. Our crew of of international intellectuals would debate for hours on my Santa Monica balcony at night, and then I’d get up and do corporate asana at Yogaworks Venice or Beverly Hills, practicing next to Tobey Macguire or David Duchovny (two of the few then-celebs whose sweat smelled good). I disowned all that because ashtanga was eventually just better. Better than golden ideas and sunshine and brilliant friends. Yoga subculture really is that good. (And yoga subculture is also potent; we can redirect what we’ve got to be far more awesome than we’re being now). I let that old life go to seed until last year, when I realized that yoga teachers would do a lot better by their students if we dropped the promotional capitalism frame that westerners take for granted, finding more fertile models in grassroots social movements and complex systems.

The writing on this topic has been called scholarly. (As an insult.) I’m so sorry to alienate anyone. Honestly I know how weird it can feel when a girl plays in the masculine domain of macro-economic, historical knowledge. I also get how it’s nasty to openly undress consumerism. But some say my attempt at integrating these two lives offers them new resources. That’s enough. And for what it’s worth, there’s a new cache of techniques below.

Timing matters. Before now, I couldn’t say this: in the arc of socio-economic history, financialization of the economy and devastation of the environment have for years been rotting capitalism and the nation state. Crisis of land and economies is cyclic. In the past, history has kicked up depressions and fascisms in response to paradigm-rot; but at other moments humans have generated communities of care, radical spirituality, and waves of ecstatic solidarity that leave western rich kid festival culture in the dust. I spent 1999 and 2000 in post-Sandinista Nicaragua and Jesuit El Salvador getting a feel for that ecstatic solidarity, albeit not embodying the selflessness that was manifesting because my life was never in danger. To this day I can only half-appreciate the power of their radical collectivist Christ – what that entity did to rewire social nervous systems and define the meaning of life for generations.

This is a different time. A pulsing metaphor can be a key resource, but there’s more. Post-fossil fuel technologies, a fall in many production costs due to 3D printing and such, the benevolent death of consumerism, and social media can change the game. Yoga can absolutely change the game.

For the last two years my intention has been to show that carefully designed, non-commercial collectives are most nourishing for yoga in these times. Such collectives will endure, and will give birth to more of the same. (Why “careful” design? Because de-programming takes so much clarity of consciousness. Consumerism is in the water, and we’ll drink it down if we don’t filter it out.)

Teacher-centric yoga (personally-branded, consumer yoga) is not bad. Yoga is an entity and has its own intelligence. For twenty years it used the consumer machine to spread a thinned-down image of itself. Like a virus. Good job, yoga. Now everyone has some idea of you.

But the consumer yoga of my 20s is not helpful where we are going. We need collectives that are independent of the sick parts of our society – of which consumerism is the very sickest. Put yoga in restorative economies and generative cultures, and watch that marriage of intelligences go wild. The compassionate, creative kind of wild.

Restorative economy and generative culture are abstract terms, and like the other abstractions in this series I use them to point to rabbit holes you can find online. The grassroots are in full ferment right now. Compassionate, intelligent collectives are arising everywhere.

Here are some pieces of practice. Or praxis, as the ecstatic Marxist Christians of end-of-the-century Central America would say.

………………………………………………

The shala here has come to life in two overlapping phases. The first was conscious design by a director, collaborating with a tiny group to build a foundation. The second is a selective stepping back, so the collective has more space to become self-intelligent. In this phase, I trust the group to generate goodness that I alone cannot.

Phase 1 – RAW MATERIALS.

I’ve said a lot about this, but here are some more techniques that helped us foster a grassroots group without much consumer mentality in the mix.

FIRST. Recognizing relationship as foundational. Regenerative and creative culture arise from connection. Far better than consumerism (where energy exchange is inherently exploitative) a relationship-based paradigm is a natural match for a tradition based on student-teacher relationship and long term commitment. You can’t sell inter-subjectivity. You can only develop it.

Consumerism disposes of people as objects; but in the open space beyond that paradigm, one can see how broken relationship is a very deep loss. If there are lies or abuse, perhaps it must happen. From the perspective of safe space, it is good to filter out such energy from the start. The shaucha of healthy boundaries is indispensable in a collectivity. Still, when it’s clear that relationship is what we have, reconciliation and forgiveness become high spiritual skills. If a story is being used to create hardness of heart, this degrades material, energetic, mental and spiritual resources. Relationship narratives that stabilize healthy connection breed strong energy economies.

Big picture, it’s important not to be story-poor. Not to let the imagination fail us.

SECOND. The banality of capitalism says a little consumerism is no big deal. “That’s just how things work.” Mmmm hmmmm. Suddenly you’ve got an underpaid front desk person, a retail space and a group-on. Commodification is the inexorable inner force of capitalism, and this is how it worms in. I respect it. And I see within my mind how easy it is to turn yoga in to things – an approach to practice based on postures and tricks and one-off marketable experiences where there is no sustained relationship of teachers and students.

Resistance is possible. But it’s easier to do things an entirely different way.

THIRD. Marketability meh, accountaiblility yes. For example, seeing how lazy I can be, I’ve set myself up in relationships where I am forced to grow. This originally began as a funny counterpoint to the capitalist imperative of constant profit growth. I chose students whose arc was steep and strong, so that I myself would be forced into spiritual growth. As it has turned out, that has usually meant staying in the super-inspired headspace of beginner’s mind myself.

Meantime, workshops are the yoga consumer item par excellence. So far I’ve found it undermines consumer mentality if I only teach them in places where I have a long-term student-teacher relationship with the director, and if I commit to coming back repeatedly to support the group’s and my own growth. I can’t recycle content on them; I have to keep going deeper. With repeated contact, and sincere mutual investment in relationship, the creativity gets more interesting every year.

FOURTH. Ownership. Students here like that some of them pay more, or less, or in the form of service outside the shala. What’s important is the agreement, the recognition that we live in an unequal society and for our group to be egalitarian the contributions need to vary in both quantity and kind.

This leads to a sense of ownership of the shala that undergirds the ownership each person has of her practice.

By the way, if you wanted to make sure ownership/stewardship of one’s practice or one’s collective do not arise, shame students. Shame is emotional napalm. Shame is scorched earth. Shame is cheap control, and it’s not helpful if collective intelligence is the intention.

FIFTH. Understanding that story organizes collectives clarifies that awareness of scapegoat/martyr mind is key. It is easy for shaming/blaming mind to take over entire movements. The easy discourse of “I’m shall now make an example of you” excites the witch-hunter whose potential we all carry.

Think yoga people are beyond this? No, we love it. To exemeplify an exemplifier, think briefly of M. Remski. Yum. This mode of meaning-making cannot exist without a yoga damsel in distress– from the drifting everywoman at the start of his Gita essay, to the wife he finds when she comes for astrology expertise and her reading reveals she is just the right quarry for the magistrate himself (*important – see FN in the comment below), to the deluded smoothie drinker who he rescues with Ayurveda in his piece on bitter greens. That’s where I stopped reading, because I saw the structure this was solidifying within my mind, smuggling misogyny over my gates.

Demonizing/victimizing is a moral modus operandi that may that have some use, if only because it lets off steam from the medieval mind in all of us. But right now it is important to describe evil in a way that affirms interconnection and does not increase a charismatic figure’s power. Is evil one man? Discourses in which victims are rescued and perpetrators destroyed obscure the systemic nature of 21st century suffering. This keeps black and white capitalist morality going. These mindsets are addictive until we see them for what they are. If you’re thinking of that Jung line right now, well so am I: “The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others.”

Here is the thing. The more clearly and fully we see life as a complex system, the easier it is to think like the universe, and act as the world.

Phase 2 – SENTIENCE

I don’t know, but this is what seems most useful for me now if I want the collective I’m behind to have space to become increasingly compassionate, creative and intelligent. There are just three practices that I can see for now. Still figuring this out.

FIRST. It matters how much time I spend in meditation, nourishing my intuition and non-reactivity. Looking at how my work flows in relationship with depth or lack thereof in my practice, quiet time apparently matters a lot. Sometimes 30 minutes on a cushion is all the stillness I get in a day. But I’m a stronger background presence for the shala if I get more emptiness (as if you can measure the void, heh!), and if I stay off the internet except in focused spurts of jumpy chaos. There is now a countervailing desire to have my finger on the pulse of rapid political change, so to the degree that I’m reading a lot more than usual online, it seems I must be careful to not let the chaos of this historical moment determine my consciousness.

SECOND. Get out of the way of other people’s interconnections. With a certain set of values guiding them, the collective seems to want to create miniature barter economies, art collectives, spontaneous acts of service. Yes. They need to have unmediated connections with each other where the teacher isn’t in the way. Who knows what will come of that, but so far it’s beautiful.

THIRD. Oh my God, we must learn history from people. So much human intelligence is there.

I remember being ten, my dad saying the words “great depression” and me saying “what?” He could tell me the masculine macro-history but my mind wanted a breathing, feminine, interior account. He helped my call my grandmother and I sat against the wall under the rotary phone and learned about the winter of 1931 in Oskalsoosa, Iowa. At 70 she could bring alive all the feelings, all the earned understanding, and she gave me all she could of the resulting skill. The way she cried to me through the phone, it woke up knowledge already in my cells because of her. This consciousness carries the intelligence of collective care through economic uncertainty; getting her story out in the open while she was alive activated that skill in me.

A generation is leaving us. These are the humans who brought in to the world the ideas and forms of connection we will take forward. We can leave that latent in the backs of our collective mind, or we can stop and get as much of it conscious as possible. Books are important for learning history we cannot contact another way, but the history right here in the beings around us is an extremely promising source of intelligence.

Meditation and inituition exist right now. But in esoteric yoga time, past and future are now too. More and more, my feeling for our collective’s possibility arises from a feeling for history. This is is what makes my understanding of where we are going become most compassionate, most caring, most fearless, most free.

Subscribe if you like.

Pleasure & Pattern Recognition • 8 November 2016

panopticon1

Shame has a scent. Shame has a body hexis. (Soap and slouch, specifically.)

Inside, shame sends bitterness down the back of your throat and coils up the ends of your nerves like little sea creatures that hate to be touched. Shame blocks your life force and your pleasure. It’s a direct hit of worthlessness.

In the world, shame shows up as apologizing. Not taking up space. Having your work and feelings under-valued by self and others.

Shame teaches a person to FEAR pleasure. To experience it as pain. To feel absolutely disgusting – shame tornado – when some of it manifests visibly in our bodies. Shame teaches us to know our place. This inner block on pleasure means that the taste in the food is not for you. The ecstasy in the climax is not for you. Meaning in your work is not for you. No, you exist to enrich others, or to please them. Your worth is conditional.

Shame is what keeps the lower groups in a social order in “their place.” There are many forms of social violence. And much of it produces an emotional tone of shame in the collective, mostly unconscious mind. The exact structures of discrimination are hard to see because they’re a product of history and subconscious belief. Moreover, shame paralyzes. You feel so bad it’s hard to act. That’s why shame works so well for social control. Individually, you can spot an insecure leader because they dominate through shame. Narcissistic parents do the same thing to kids with big spirits. They don’t listen, and they don’t ask questions because your interior doesn’t matter. Shame is a source of social power. Historically, it has been damn effective.

But wow. Shame burning off smells like the sweet overripe adrenaline. And it looks like new light in the eyes. There’s been a lot of dark violent stuff in the world the last 2 years, but also what has happened is that a lot of shame has started to burn.

For those who have been shamed in a fundamental way, shamed as part of a collective, yoga offers this tool for reorganizing the energy. You’re not going to believe what it is.

Brachmacharya.

Not literal, behavioral celibacy. Not even the sublimated ecstasies of tantra. I mean the most subtle renunciation: of the drivenness we have around pleasure and pain.

Moment by moment, in every more-or-less conscious corner of our being, most humans are fighting with sense experience. The senses are scanning for reasons to do attraction or repulsion, clicking on each input. Dislike. Dislike. Like. Dislike.

That’s what suffering is. The constant, granular, almost imperceptible reacting – reacting to the world, and to the mind. The drivenness.

What I’m saying is that brachmacharya is dropping the drivenness. Getting some equanimity on the pleasure-pain drive train. It’s a habit of mind. You scale beyond the small self and see how the drivenness operates. It starts to chill out. Pain is still there. Pleasure is still there. Ok. You start to accept it.

So there is the brutal brachmacharya – learning to relax the compulsion toward climax, and the flight from discomfort. Important.

But then – for the people who have been conditioned to hate pleasure – there is the sweet brachmacharya. Equanimity with pleasure. Food is not about what it’ll make you look like as an object, it’s about what it feels like to eat. Eroticism is not about meeting expectations, and it’s no longer a consolation to enjoy another’s objectification of you. It’s spontaneous uncensored expression and connection. The joy of good work is emphatically not about your use value to the boss or the machine, nor the fake security you get from your position. Your work is about the intrinsic, present-moment pleasure YOU find in being useful. Dear god, you get to be a species being. More aliveness floods in. The pleasure of taking rest. Of human touch. Being somebody’s neighbor. Rain. Animal consciousness. Trees. The sun. That’s just sense experience. It’s not a problem. So you let it move through, the same as pain.

This is peacemaking for those who have been taught that the meaning in life is to make yourself small. Trained that it matters what it (the it that is your body) looks like, not what it feels like. Trained to recoil from sense pleasure, or apologize for taking it, or to split off the part of the personality that can stay conscious for it. This how domination works inside the dominated. And it’s why equanimity with sense pleasure could destroy an entire social order.

Someone is going to shame me for saying this. Ok, I feel that. Shame me for disrespecting the surface interpretation of the holy books. For my arrogance in imagining I have a right to know the hidden teachings with my body.

But is this arrogance… or is it just a grounded mind?

(P.S. Shame can be healthy. There’s a kind that happens internally when you mess up. Great. That’s moral intelligence. Noticing mistakes and correcting = learning. Trying to banish all shame, a project I’ve seen New Age sects carry out, leads into repression and censoring. This is shame about shame. But remorse for a specific mistake is good. It is the first step in forgiveness, which may be the most intriguing spiritual skill….)

…………………………

Slide brachmarcharya up alongside aparigraha and you’ve got radical acceptance of sensory experience coupled with a recognition that yoga doesn’t work if you are clingy. Experience don’t satisfy; and it don’t last.

The term “take pleasure” says a lot. The thing with equanimity is that you don’t get to take it home. Compulsion and hoarding subtly HURT. On the granular level, they generate suffering. It’s just fear and capitalism that say we can put the good stuff in the bank.

Another weird, weird thing. I learned about pleasure and power from nerds. Book people have this reputation for being disembodied and abstract, but those who really understand power are some of the most alive and embodied people I know. They have worked a commitment to human equality deeply in to their cells. They have worked on the shame. This makes them easy to be around.

I’m a Mysore teacher, so I have no social life. (Reason #458 you don’t want to teach ashtanga.) I go to bed at 7, need hours of quiet time every day, and reserve most inter-personal energy for students. But, this year I’m trying to set apart Friday dinner for friends. Friday dinner is both rare and regular enough that I can see exactly what it does to my emotions and energy: when I eat with a friend who stays awake to and accepts pleasure in their body, who doesn’t worry what the food will make them look like – when I eat with someone walks me home with a happy belly – the whole night is alive. The energy in them is strongly felt as energy in me.

What I’m saying is that radical, non-clinging, acceptance of pleasure makes relationship. Not only in an erotic sense, but in any primal domain. Food, movement, breathing night air. Pleasure’s not so personal.

………………………………

Mystery is the whole mythic function of November. It’s when get to talk about the dead, and your worst nightmares, and generally say the things you otherwise wouldn’t dare put in to words.

The psycho-emotional weather would wrong to talk panopticons at any other time.

Besides there is so much in the yoga that is hidden. Gupta. It’s hard to make a thing of that which is hidden, and that helps one not get so stuck.

So. Does yoga reveal truth… or conceal it? The same question goes for any initiation, or method, or technique. Does this stuff get you somewhere, or is it just a stopping point for the mind? Posture, for example. What if that’s just bait? Or worse, what if it’s a cover, there to stand in for something else?

These are just the questions the wisdom traditions themselves SAY to ask. Somewhere they all contain the seeds of their own deconstruction and renewal, and that’s why they don’t go out of style.

There is a western writer whose work is like that too. The sweetest, darkest, most bullet-proof modern mind I can find. Michele Foucault. (Crazy image search, right?) He’s a slightly terrifying figure, an irrational one. Yet he’s also vulnerable, and has very little to prove. I often want to stop and offer something about him, but the time is never right. Today it is.

Philosophers don’t often matter– they talk to each other, and then their conversations go out of style. But Foucault talks almost from outside of time, and outside his own context. He sees power, and belief, and fear, and shame, and the ways society is built up from THOSE materials. And how hard it is for a human mind to get free.

Foucault’s stuff is dense but simple. You don’t need to know metaphysics or epistemology to understand it, because he didn’t much bother with his colleagues’ side-conversations about the nature of reality. That said, the stories he tells are so detailed that you have to concentrate hard to get in.

Foucault would admit that he had no big claim on truth. (Implicitly, neither does anyone else.) At the same time he’d easily root out the hidden assumptions of any interlocutor. (His famous TV debate with Chomsky demonstrates. Spoiler: Chomsky loses.) I read him as relentless and tender, in what he cared to write about, in his lack of a need to be Right, in his passion, and the sadness and horror he experienced in his life. Anyway, these are reasons I love Foucault.

I’m not the only person who sees yoga in Foucault. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with Stuart Sovatsky? I mean the subversive old yoga teacher who trolls internet conversations on 20th century yoga. Engage Sovatsky in dialogue, and it will be annoying. He is actively resisting your logic, actively deconstructing your frameworks, for as long as you’ll bother to stay in conversation. Most people check out as soon as he link-dumps his scholarly papers. But here is the secret. Sovatsky is sees right through you, and is just scrambling your mental constructs in the off-chance that the delayed effects might let your mind see a new way. The guy is a long-time initiate in some tantric lineage and an effective teacher in many domains. His devotion? It’s for the ghost of Michele Foucault.

Reasons Foucault matters: he writes “genealogies” of ideas – the history of sexuality, the prison, the state’s control of the life force. The work shows how power gets in people’s heads, how it totally structures and controls the life force. He demonstrates how it’s nearly impossible to get (mentally) free unless you’ve got the viveka to perceive both the internal/ subconscious beliefs and the unspoken agendas of the social institutions that otherwise control you.

Foucualt’s ability to minimize assumptions means he doesn’t have much of an ideology. He doesn’t hold to some comforting liberalism, or humanism, or a belief that ultimately individuals can get free. No. He diagrams somewhat literal structures of power and thinks it’s really, really hard to get free of internalized social order.

Here’s a trick I used in school to test big ideas. It’s not especially generous in the way I was taught to be with others’ ideas, but it helps you feel out the motivations of someone’s work. What you do is scan for the performative contradiction. So, for example, the moral relativist is non-judging of all manner of terrible behaviors, to the point of being absolutistic in her relativism. Cute. The crusading anti-guru extols empowerment of women, specifically by editing the voices of women and becoming a charismatic guru. Hmmm. The “logical” materialist insists that all claims about the way reality works be scientifically verified – a criterion which itself is not verifiable but simply an aesthetic choice. Foucault’s was the first critical mind I found that didn’t rest in a root contradiction of this sort. He doesn’t think he’s solved anything. He thinks his own research is arbitrary and culturally bound.

No wonder people get depressed reading Foucault. By contrast, Sovatsky loves him because they share a shuddering recognition of the life force that’s in the world. Eros. To me, he just feels tender and honest, because he constantly gestures towards emptiness. You read him and feel there is a secretly empty center in every belief structure that posits an absolute truth or a leader to stand in that space. History and culture are human efforts to organize within the emptiness, and not really look at it. This isn’t an argument so much as a way seeing. It is the spacious, weirdly Zen place from which he wrote and made history.

Anyway. Yoga is the study of conditioned mind. For that, we have both old tools and new ones.

For particularly modern kinds of suffering – the inner critic, environmental destruction, the national security state – sometimes it takes a particularly futuristic tool.

Yes the Vedas are from the future. So is Michele Foucault.

Foucault mined the panopticon out of Jeremy Bentham’s social treatise of 1789, and he turned it in to a sharp edged tool for cutting through modern conditioned mind. The panopticon is a picture of the conditioning. Cells are arrayed around an empty center, which the residents of the cells imagine is occupied by a watcher they cannot see. But there is no one in the tower. The inner conditioning to see oneself as if through the watcher’s eyes causes the occupants to act as if they are on display. They do what is expected. They think what is expected. They become objects to themselves. This is the prison of modern mind.

One conditioned mind is a prison. Collective conditioned mind is full-on Alcatraz. Samsara halala. The thing with Foucault is that if you can see the conditioned mind clearly, you can start to get a little free. Yes there is an unseen thought/shame/fear structure. Yes it has an empty center. No, most people are not seeing it from the outside. That is why we internalize it and reproduce harmful beliefs. However, if you can see this, you can start to deconstruct the shame and fear the structure uses for glue.

So the panopticon is what is hidden. Until you step back and see it. Then it becomes the knowledge that looks back.

Thoughts are tools, not truths.

If you can see the tool, you don’t have to be it.

(Subscribe)

Caldera • 2 October 2016

Leaving

Landing in Billings Montana, the plane sets down on 10-storey sandstone shelf that forms the north edge of town. Once on the ground, I went to the precipice and looked 10 miles across the valley to the Pryor Mountains, which slope right up out of the Yellowstone River, forming the north boundary of town. Twenty miles off to the west is the corn country where I grew up. Sage and oil shale, our part of it; hard to farm but a strong combination.

Ten miles straight down is literally molten rock. The Yellowstone Caldera. Basically ten volcanoes dumped together upside-down in a massive pot under Montana/Wyoming, simmering for millennia. It could up and melt this place any time. But we don’t think about that.

The sandstone shelf – called the Rims – feels like a jawbone. It’s jagged and harsh, and it cuts the city off abruptly. The valley between the Rims and the river is full of trees, and of 109,000 people who don’t often leave. It’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, because it’s home. Photographs don’t do it justice, and people from here don’t even try.

Rather the capturing goes the other way – I don’t take it, but it overtakes me. Goodbye to cosmopolitan headspace, calm-clear states of mind, and my usual rhythm of getting things done. I stayed up there long enough to feel the landscape start to eat me alive.

The Crow Nation owns most of the Pryors, though growing up I learned to think of it as the place where General Custer got martyred. And that’s how the land is marked – with memorials to the aggressors/losers of the Battle of Little Big Horn. The National Park Service seems to make the decisions about how the dominant culture remembers.

I was up late every night last week re-reading the stories of the Nez Perce, who won the battle of Canyon Creek behind the ranch where I grew up. Chief Looking Glass was trying to get his people to Canada to escape the reservation project of the Americans. They spent a successful night there, fighting off the Seventh Cavalry from the top of the sandstone shelf. Lost 200 horses in the meantime, though, and that may be why they never made it to the border.

On the flight from Minneapolis, the captain interrupted beverage service to tell us we were over Bismarck. I tried to meet eyes around me for shots of recognition and got nothing.

But Standing Rock is everything. One of the Sioux leaders said “this ground is the holiest place on earth right now.” He is in the crux. Right now the secret-not-secret forces of harm are racism and fossil fuel addiction. The big stories are methane in the Arctic, carbon at 400 ppm, and a summer of hundred-degree nights in New Orleans – not the fascist game show. We obsess about the game show because that’s something we might be able to control. But this summer while everyone was distracted, the Earth hit its tipping points. The things we don’t want to think about are going to be coming to the surface. They’re here.

My parents and I drove out to the Boiling River soon after I got home. We soaked for hours while looking up at a mountainside and talking about India. I drilled them for (obscene) stories of an old friend who’s now a fracking boss in the Bakken.

Always my folks have been obsessed with the hot waters of the Caldera, especially at Thermopolis, Chico, Bozeman Hot Springs, and the steaming earth-crust that covers Yellowstone Park. I’m the only one in the family who’s not a speeding fireball; the rest of them need natural tranquilizers and use the hot waters to get peace. We’re always so transcendent at the hot springs, or so I remember.

……………………………………………………

Afterwards, driving around the base of the Crazy Mountains, my mom did the weirdest thing. She brought up the family story about my brother having a meltdown at the place called Custer Battlefield. And the other family story about me getting high on narcotics at the dentist’s office and making a scene in Chemistry class. She wanted to talk about these specific, vivid memories– we’ve come to believe we all witnessed events that are nothing more than stories. We made them up. We retell them and make them real and as we do so we are making things up.

This is way more metaphysics than I expect in a red state.

Here I am mucking around the collective forgetting, and my mom’s on the flip-side, making us see at the flat unreality of that which is remembered. Mnemonic anti-matter. A conversation I will honor by remembering, though the deeper truth may be that I’m supposed to forget it.

…………………………………………………….

What you do when you live in the Rocky Mountians, is you drive. Driving is as much a part of the relationship with nature as the backpacking and skiing and soaking. (The Exxon refinery here on the banks of the Yellowstone is one of the dirtiest in North America.)

Sometime yesterday, we drove over the hill west of town where the devil rancher lives. (Long scary story.) That’s rural America by the way – its headspace is not rational like in cities and towns. The unsettled zones are full of spirits and animistic chains of causality, and this makes the scarce humans understandably superstitious. There are psychics and sensitives – real ones – all over rural America. Angels are invoked, demons are cast out. In the shared mind, the future is exactly as God-given as the past (or not given, indeterminate, as it is for my mom). Back in academia, this is finally being re-remembered – the religious studies people are getting interested in the ways rural American religion was always divinatory and mystical. Shamanic, even. There is an etheric world behind the world here. I bent over backwards to get out of that headspace, to not be from here. But it is still in me. You have go behind the gorgeous empty landscape to perceive the dense emotional, spiritual, narrative-historical tissue that people here rely on to hold reality together.

Anyway, three miles over the devil hill is the Ranch where I grew up. This isn’t only a cattle operation now. In the 1950s it became, in addition to a functional ranch, a residential hospital for orphaned and emotionally disturbed children. Starting in the late 1960s, my mom was the institutional cook and later a social worker; my dad the wilderness guide and later the preacher.

The mission of this so-called Ranch was to recover, or reinvent, a happy childhood for those least likely to ever get one. We had 100 beds and 20 horses. A giant waterslide, a bike shop, a summer track and field extravaganza, a swimming hole, the best Halloween party in the world, a bell choir, movie night, endless cross-country skiing, Christmas plays. Food fights, fist fights, runaways, padded rooms, sex scandals, suicides, stampedes, legitimate gang wars among kids sent out from the projects. When my brother and I were born at the end of the 70s, we joined the Ranch as part of the established fictive kinship. We thought that much fun was normal. That much sadness too.

With my parents yesterday, we cruised the perimeter of the Ranch and I asked if we could drive through the grounds, past the 100-year old stucco house where I was born, and the church where my dad preached until three years back.

We laughed about how hard it is to be a girl preacher’s kid – if you show any attitude whatsoever, you might be a devil child. And if you’re born a bit wild, it’s your functional role to provide the community with some of the scandal every society needs to affirm its ideas of normal.

Out there I realized it’s not the Montana landscape that eats me alive, so much as it’s just the Ranch. I’m not supposed to speak or write about that history, except obliquely. Everyone who has ever lived there has absorbed strong feelings of protection for, and confidentiality around, the children’s healing. They’ve seen too much that fees inexplicable. So when we are there, we protect their healing, and when we leave we protect their memories. But the place feels like it’s burning with unspoken stories, with an epic timeline that I’m well placed to tell yet probably will never reassemble.

As soon as I left the Ranch, I started writing. It’s the practice I loved before I loved practice. It’s absorbing like little else was until ashtanga. To get the absorption experience, I have to not care about results. Personally, the minute looking good matters, it’s not play. Consciousness gets sticky and feels a little gross. As sticky things do. Free writing is what showed me this thing about the relationship of play, clarity and joy. But now as I look at the history of my writing practice I get that there has been another energy behind it that’s actually a little dark. I started to write because it defused the psychic pressure that went with carrying around a secret history. At the time I still had this whole world of wonderful, hilarious, heart-breaking, untellable stories. Just the act of writing, on any topic at all, made that feel a little easier.

The Ranch became the thing I didn’t write about, so that I could write about anything else. For many people who make stuff, having one thing that’s off limits creates creative momentum; the energy of repression is effective, if wild. And it is basically unconscious.

In the art world, it’s normal to a favorite neurosis one refuses to heal, because one imagine this darkness is the source of the best products. Use your neuroses, they say.

Cultures have this too. Racism. Fossil fuels.

So, enough. This is me letting more pressure out of the cooker. I don’t even know what’s left in there. Maybe nothing. There are a thousand different ways to try remember back into the Ranch, and all of these can still protect the vulnerable ones and their memories. But right now looking down into it I wonder if most of what was there for so many years has burned off on its own. I may have been carrying around a basically empty pot for quite some time, like some lucky charm. How superstitious.

Last night on the drive home from the Ranch, my parents started re-remembering the ways the kids ran away from that place. There’s the story of the stolen tractor. The kids who got a school bus all the way to Big Timber and barricaded themselves inside in a snowstorm when it ran out of gas. The many who lit out on horseback. And the time years before I was born that they screened The Great Escape against the racketball court wall, and a dozen boys didn’t just run away. They broke out on tip toe. In cover of night, they sawed through a fence they could have jumped right over with no drama.

When I escaped at 18, I did the most scandalous thing I could. Became hyper-analytical. A scholarship to study philosophy far away, and beyond that another decade in higher education, were acts of defiance against a mystical, wild reality where facts were hard to find. A reality filled with the most vulnerable, most hurt, people we could find. At 18 I was not comfortable with this place – nor it with me. It pushed me out of itself with force. In the world I learned a lot out of a desire to distance myself from the original reality.

That was effective fuel for years. But in general the momentum of neurosis does not feel right for these times.

If we had a little respect for the animism of rural people, we might get a little woo-woo, but also we would have knowledge of the sacred. Useful when capitalism has actually become insane. If we got less good at milking neuroses, maybe individually and collectively we’d want to study their histories. Know them. And end them. If the really sad stories got their own rightful space… I don’t know. I actually don’t know what would happen if I completely integrated the realities of unconscious racism and unconscious relationships with fossil fuels. Those are the untold stories with the power.

The Count • 2 September 2016

TheStreets_Number7_web
The primary series is a limbic lullaby, if you get the rhythm right. It has re-patterned my breath. It probably coordinates my blood circulation, nerve impulses, body awareness and heart rate in some sort of healing rhythm. It has helped shift my center of gravity from physical to energetic space . In the empty space before ekadasa catvari jump back, it has taught me the diaphragm movement chain that leads to bandha. It’s the means by which I merge into large student bodies from time to time, and it’s facilitated the bond with my teacher. And, in the long run, it seems to be relaxing my relationship to time.

The count is a just a script, but it’s also a speech act and initiation. There’s sort of nothing there, but it contains a huge amount of information in the simplest possible form. (Good call, Chris.) We don’t know where it comes from: it could be part rishi revelation, but it feels a lot like ritual play. Both ancient, and emergent. In any case, it is potent.

There are a thousand ways to mess up the count – some mentioned below. If you’ve had a weird (authoritarian, dangerous, spacey, confusing) experience with it, there’s a good chance the teacher was out of their depth.

Without wondering why, I loved the count from the start. Didn’t know what it WAS: just did it, loved it, left it alone. Still now it feels wrong to try to pin it down. It’s so esoteric. With a person who moves you to the soul; the way to cultivate the capacity to be moved is to let them have their mystery. Don’t try to control them, and never think you have them figured out. Jungle medicine is not so different. You come into relationship with the medicine. In its structure it contains an intelligence, and the way to be changed by that is to approach with inner quiet, respect, openness.

But it was inevitable. A summer of study with a bunch of Ashtanga teachers was going to get in to the liturgy, and so now I know how a bunch of colleagues relate with the count. And this would be the day to write about it. It’s the end of a long trip to Mysore that has crossed four months, from late June to the second of September. This morning Gokulam emptied of foreigners; in evening the locals rolled out the stages for Ganesh’s birthday. I’m still in town, to have time alone with the city, and to reflect on this experience. There is so much to digest that it could take months.

But by tomorrow, Ganesha Chaturthi will take over here and next day I’ll be teaching three classes on the other side of the world. So everything is shifting. Meanwhile the count as always is stable, and uncrazy, and it takes care of things. Elusive and intriguing YES; confusing and destabilizing NO. Jungle medicine for a mind on the move.

………………………………………………………………….

I can’t explain the count, but here are some aspects of it that I love.

The count is a tool to shift your reality, and to bring on a variety of consciousness states wherein different types of tension (emotional, psychic, maybe physical) are released. For new practitioners this is so effective that there can be a temptation to just let it flow through you and be done with it, but I’m writing this now because there’s another level of ownership of your practice that comes when you learn the language, and start to research the systematic effects of vinyasa.

The counted primary series is a kind of life span, from ekam to gestation to death, rocking the nervous system through a catharsis I’ve NEVER regretted I undertook after hundreds of trips through. On a pedagogical level, the count cues a shift from narrative to rhythmic instruction. Less explanatory, more metronomic. This marks a move towards subtlety.

The count is an historical incantation. Like any good constitution, its origins are fuzzy, it makes a people what they are, it is alive and evolving. In American jurisprudence there are the strict constructionists – the conservatives obsessed with honoring the intentions of the so-called “founding fathers.” And there are the case law people, who slowly evolve the codes as a mirror to the society it holds together. These interpretive poles give rise to, and support, each other any time a constitution is in play. The story of emergence and evolution of the count is a book someone else should write, while there is still time to interview the people in SKPJ’s first led classes on the road (What on earth is he saying?), and while there’s a still a youtube archive of RSJ’s experiments to update the Virabhadrasanas. The count doesn’t change, and is changing all the time. Constitutions are operating systems.

And it’s ART. How brilliant is it that the count has been syncretic as long as we’ve known it – English (or Chinese, Russian, Spanish) embedded in Sanskrit? Add to the syncretism a synchrony of body movement. Bookend that with beautiful sounds. Then make that whole protocol leave you luminescent and a little changed. God.

And it’s BAIT. Same as the postures are bait, but the count is even more tempting. You want to make a thing of Marichy D, and nail it? Sorry, no. This is Jedi mind training, where thinking there is a game to win is what makes you lose the game. The postures are process. They don’t go somewhere. We eventually figure this out and learn to swim figure-8s around that line of hooks dangling in the water. But then, being two-dimensional, the count seems even more easy to objectify and get exactly right. Yes the teacher has to know the count cold, forward and backwards, insofar as it can even be known; but making others enact it exactly right is not actually the method. The method is grounded in your context. Here’s the thing. Extreme attachment to rites and rituals is a granthi. That knot loops around the heart. It keeps the mind comfortably right. The way to cut through this constriction is to be in relationship, which brings in bodies, randomness and loss of control. A secret from studying my teacher over time: if you accidentally pitch the perfect class, throw in a joke towards the end. No need to be witty about it. Most of humor is timing, and all of the count is timing. In that context, intentially missing a beat is the most hilarious thing. It’s the devotees and the system-lovers who know the count to perfection, and this has made a lot of them secret comedians.

Beyond just bait, the count is a neuro-linguistic coup. NLP sculpts samskaras on command by modulating voice, breath, language, number, and inter-personal rapport. These principles are age-old and esoteric, and extremely effective in the power of car salesmen and cult leaders. Again, if a teacher is out of his depth with the count, it’s trouble. When it comes to the internal programming aspect, the count starts with a potential to establish profound rapport between two people – teacher and student – as they give themselves over to attending to each other, without interruption, through continuous breathing and action.

In addition to two-person rapport, the count done well constitutes entire student bodies as coordinated organisms. Collective effervescence. Moreover, the use of numbers within numbers has a clarifying, AMPLIFYING effect on the mind and nervous system. To see just how strong that is, try this: some evening (you’ll be tired after), have a very close friend count you through practice, but count the breaths backwards. Five four three two one. Counting down is hypnotic if the counter has some ability to transmit mental states. Counting up, especially with nested English and Sanskrit counts, can still be pacifying if the teacher can channel a certain meditative vibe. But it doesn’t feature the same down-regulation and loss of conscious control that you get approaching zero. When the teacher actually embodies the count, the rhythmic-numeric pattern can strengthen the mind. It’s part of why Ashtanga practitioners get so powerful. Not necessarily a good thing. We are playing with fire, especially as the actions become more streamlined and concentrated. This power gets destructive if it’s not grounded and contained. The count takes the fire in the belly and the nervous system, evens out the breathing and movement, and then brightens the fire in the mind.

For those who share this weird fascination, I see that the count creates a unified field of awareness, across bodies and cultures and time. Say you were to eat, sleep and breathe this practice… say you grew up in this practice… how deeply would its spare language be lodged in your consciousness? If there are times you dwell in the count, you’re not the first or only one. There are people around this practice who, in an idle moment, might find their minds running the names of the postures the way someone else would sing a childhood song or recite scripture or relive/invent conversations. It’s mantra – it takes on a life of its own. Any sound, you rehearse it silently for long enough and it’ll become self-intelligent. It’ll be in your cells. It’ll animate you back. There are so many of us now who have crossed that line. It’s an uncanny connection, to share this spirit with someone even when there is no possibility of conversation.

…………………………………….

So how do you embody it?

If knowing the count were a matter memorization, everyone would have it. Write out the script, recite it nightly for a week or a month until you have it.

But that’s not what this is. It’s an induction into subtle states of consciousness. If the person counting does not fully inhabit the language rhythm, it comes out brittle or phony. If one tries to teach with the mind set on doing it exactly right, she won’t perceive group, and the magic will not happen.

I’ve found a few colleagues who transmit VERY well. It seems most have learned the same way. The foundation is a decade or more of daily practice, and with that oodles of led. Add to this that a fascination with the ritual of led practice. They’ve all got the count in their bones; they study its history and the path of its evolution. They know the books are wrong. That’s the sweet thing about yoga books. Their ROLE to be partial or wrong in little ways, to point back to the tacit and relational nature of the practice.

Those I’ve met who transmit well all have another thing in common, and this is where I fall short. They’ve figured out how to stay conscious of the count while practicing – they have trained their minds to keep some analytical tracking online even while they are in the subtle states brought on by led class. This means they can internalize verbal facts while taking class, and compare different led classes over time.

I started trying to do this in 2010, when I realized that a decade in to practice I didn’t know the number of vinyasas in Surya Namaskara B. Crazy. When I first started trying to track the count during practice, I couldn’t get past the suryas before slipping into the usual place where it doesn’t matter whether head up is sapta, ashtau or nava. I don’t actually feel this is a problem. There was a strong pull into a non-verbal state of flow, and having habituated to it I couldn’t go more than a few minutes before giving in. By gritting my teeth and popping my eyes out, the furthest I’ve ever gotten is through the standing postures before awareness of a sequential number-chain collapses. Then it’s just binary rhythim – inhale up, exhale down, inhale up, exhale down – with some variation in the shapes that hang off it. This is a sweet state of consciousness, but one can’t really teach from it. Eventually I stopped fighting it. (This raises the question of how a practitioner in a state of deep concentration on the breath would respond to the sort of teacher who stops her in marichyasana and demands to know which vinyasa she is on. As if she should be verbally counting herself trough the practice, and loss of the numerical address of her posture signals that she has lost consciousness. How odd. Tristhana isn’t about numbers, it’s about energy.)

Given the limits I encountered in my own mind, I learned the count through impractical and sentimental means. It has been inefficient, but I think it’s also greatly increased my love for this part of the method. In 2010 I was learning the Yoga Sutras through oral transmission. I didn’t know what they meant, but just sat and chanted them call and response style because this made my mind feel amazing all day. I seemed obvious to approach the count in a similar way, so I started sitting on the shala steps for one or two led classes per week. I’d put on headphones and pretend to be listening to them, but really that was a social barrier to set my attention on the count. As interesting as memorizing the exact vinyasas was the variation between every class – every class was subtly adapted to a different group on a different day. There was use of timing to make things more serious, or more humorous. Eventually I got that there were little changes in the count from week to week, and from year to year. Every class had an internal consistency that blew my mind, but across time every one had a slightly unique pacing and emotional tone.

Over the next six years, this experience set me up to make one kind of teaching mistake, but not another. On an off day I might say ekadasa when I mean nava, or count to 11 breaths when I mean to stop at 10. But what I don’t do is stop interacting receptively with any given group. Broadly, it seems that the hazards in counting fall into two categories – those of having too little rigidity, and those of having too much.

How else can one mess up the count? Teach it when you’re not ready or you’re not entirely interested in it. Try to make the situation be something it’s not. Try to be someone you’re not. Come to the role with negativity that will infuse the room (because in teaching, in many ways we are made transparent). Here’s Helen Luke’s description of her Los Angeles priest in 1950s:

“As a man, he was full of fire and often outrageous! As a priest, he brought the fire of the spirit to life. One who is identified with his priesthood says the Mass in a personal way which is most disturbing. One who is clearly conscious of the distinction [between ego and the function of saying Mass] will say it in a unique way, which is an entirely different thing. Such a one always has a very strong personality and a dark shadow of which he and others are fully aware, but it never intrudes upon the mystery; the rites are then celebrated with power.” (Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On, p 62.)

Incantation is potent in any tradition. Our form of it may be elusive in certain ways but it’s also accessible, largely predictable, and available to anyone who takes an interest. Nobody owns it, but it’s possible to be inhabited by it to a greater or lesser degree.

There are three threads of study in this yoga – did you know? Vinyasa, tristhana, and the six poisons that cover the spiritual heart. Let’s say led class is where you study vinyasa, and Mysore practice is development of trishthana, and then everyday life is where you face down the limits of the heart. So ashtanga people get to do all kinds of Mysore style practice in groups or by ourselves, and daily life is always there. Meantime the led class thing isn’t trivial. There’s a lot there. A lot.

*Image above used by permission from the artist, Thomas Pastrano, and available here.

*Something on Led Intermediate, which is sort of a different thing.

*Subscribe.