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2020 21st Street
Boulder, CO, 80302

Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor's home.

MUSINGS

Just a Bunch of Stuff

Mary Taylor

  The extraordinary nature of looking closely and seeing the same thing over and over.

The extraordinary nature of looking closely and seeing the same thing over and over.

We don’t have anything but ordinary things. It’s just a bunch of stuff, you know. Quite ordinary. But the ordinary can seem extraordinary or extraordinarily special all of a sudden because of the ability of mind to make it so. This is the way things become sacred, which is good. But it is also the way things—sometimes even sacred things—become exclusive or symbols and objects of power.

What happens is we identify something as sacred, special, extraordinary and almost instantaneously the ego takes over trying to prove its importance—one’s own importance. It happens easily in the context of yoga and yoga schools, which, like any tradition, are prone to go into battle with other yoga schools to prove how much better their teacher or their teachings are than everyone else’s.

So for a yoga studio this is how it happens. In order to establish the school, we find a room; a separate space that we designate as the shala or the school. We paint the walls mellow colors, maybe some warm orange or pink walls like we saw on buildings in India when we were last there. Maybe a little gold trim here and there. And we decorate it with flowers and statues placed in special niches we’ve constructed in the walls. Yes, we find beautiful statues of Indian gods and install them in our studio. Which is really lovely.

Unless we take it all so seriously that when a brand new, eager student comes in and does an arm balance against the wall, kicking up with feet in the Ganesh niche, we go crazy and ban the student from ever coming back to our studio because they disrespected the stature. How were they to know? They were just enthusiastic and doing a handstand for the first time. Nobody bothered to tell them about the rituals they were supposed to follow in order to show their respects to a statue they didn’t even recognize as anything more than a cute elephant.

We set up our studio carefully to make it special, so we can teach yoga in peace. The secular world or the ordinary world is outside, but in here we are quiet and reflective and very, very special. It’s almost like we have drawn a circle of infinite space around the studio and anything inside the circle is no longer ordinary. We define that which is sacred as being inside the circle, and with flawed logic we conclude that whatever is outside of the circle must not be sacred. At first we say whatever is outside is just not part of the studio, but after a while we forget that we, ourselves, drew the circle defining and separating the “sacred” inside from the “ordinary” outside. And we start to believe that the ratty space we rented and remodeled has some sort of divine sacredness about it that makes everything associated with it—especially us—particularly sacred. That’s where the ego shines and problems begin.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I remember when I was a child, in the ‘50’s. We’d go on family vacations and drive out west from St. Louis. Sometimes we’d drive to Colorado, and that’s actually how I learned about this place. We would camp on the way, before camping was all that popular. Big, heavy canvas tents and felt-lined sleeping bags. Gear back then was cumbersome and not much of it was waterproofed at all. Maybe that’s why camping wasn’t so popular. We would go to Yellowstone in July and there would be maybe two other tents. With my father driving, I’d sit in the back seat and I would just stare out the windows at the mountains and the trees. I’d count telephone poles. To me telephone poles were really cool because they were trees and they had these wires and electricity and I didn’t separate man-made objects from natural objects; they were beautiful. Now I look at telephone poles and I say, “Oh my god! The ecological crisis is just terrible. Human beings are a disaster. I can’t see the forest because of the telephone poles!”

After you do yoga for a while, once again you can occasionally experience things like a child; with that same sense of innocence. You can perceive things with awe for a split second before the mind creates all types of associations with whatever it is you’re perceiving. Most of the time we perceive things by, in a sense, pulling them completely out of their background and context. It’s a tool our mind skillfully uses to sort things out and understand them; to focus exclusively on one thing, which can make it appear separate from it’s background. And that’s where we get stuck sometimes, forgetting that it’s only special and not part of its background because we arbitrarily pulled it out of context in order for our tiny little mind to understand it. But because we do yoga and within the practices we viscerally experience the interconnected nature of everything, when we’ve pulled something (like ourselves) out of context and imagine it to be extraordinary, special, above and beyond everything else, if we’re lucky we see the silliness of it all and realize what we’ve pulled out is actually quite ordinary.

Until all of a sudden when we’ve completely, viscerally understood the interpenetrating nature of all things—that everything is sacred—there is a switchover! Then you can actually start to appreciate whatever it is in its full context, which is everything and what you finally realized was ordinary, becomes extraordinary after all. You experience it as a child might. You have insight into the reality that all you can perceive is what you are capable of perceiving. Yet everything around it—even those things you cannot perceive—flow into it and support it so that it is not something that is separate, yet is extraordinary.

So yoga works paradoxically—you separate things out in order to discover that it is impossible to really separate anything from the rest. When you tear something out of its background and really examine it, it is almost as if there is this magnetic force that pulls it back in, realigning it with everything rather than just the few things that you could originally perceive. So this is what vinyasa means.  I just thought you might like to know.

Pulling Things Apart

Mary Taylor

 For the past nine months the ashtanga yoga puzzle has been eating away at me. In this piece I write about this. 

For the past nine months the ashtanga yoga puzzle has been eating away at me. In this piece I write about this. 

Some people are natural artists, others athletes or astrophysicists. I’m a natural worrier. One of the very first things I remember my father telling me was, “Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.” I worry until I have done everything I can to unravel and understand the pieces of the misaligned puzzle that is the object of my concern. I then worry until I do whatever I can to reassemble the puzzle in a way that feels right. Then I can stop worrying, until time to take the puzzle apart again. 

For the past 9 months the ashtanga yoga puzzle has been eating away at me. I have been grappling with how to address the sexual, spiritual and physical abuse by Pattabhi Jois. Other pieces within the bigger picture of ashtanga have also become sources for worry: physical injury as a result of adjustments, power struggles and misuse of power, feelings and displays of anger and intolerance, avoidance and confusion in regard to all of the above. Plus there are pieces like splintering within communities, finger pointing, denial, fundamentalism and dismissal of statements and ideas without pause. The picture is made all the more confusing by two pieces specific to my personal experience of ashtanga: the underlying benefits I've experienced through the practice and my own personal relationship with Pattabhi Jois and his family. As I read back over this paragraph, no wonder I’ve been worried!

In December, when I first learned of the extent of the sexual abuse perpetrated by Pattabhi Jois, I was outraged. I was also hurt and angry. Made so as much by my own actions as by his—I had to reckon with the fact that I, among others, had participated in allowing the behaviors to continue and people to be hurt.

In the beginning the impulse to defend the context surrounding my perspectives and actions, as well as denial and confusion arose quickly. Yet I soon saw that until the victims of his abuse felt some foothold of healing, for me to voice my thoughts and process increased their suffering and made it possible for me to avoid facing what all this really meant. There were many days when I just wanted it all to go away.

But then on other days I felt strong. Fears associated with sticking my neck out, with not knowing whether I was doing the right thing now so as not to cause more suffering, and an underlying fear of the unknown would subside. On those days it seemed I was seeing clearly that I needed to first listen and support victims and then offer to participate in a non-defended, open dialogue in the spirit of trust. So that is what I have mostly done with the hope that a genuine, constructive, appropriately timed conversation would unfold and support healing, not only for victims, but for others within and outside the ashtanga community. I'd hoped that once those who'd been injured the most began to feel a sense of support and the possibility of healing, then perhaps the ashtanga lineage itself could organically begin to evolve and heal. 

The hope for true acceptance, healing and change keep me going, and the catalyst for this process seems to be feedback. Recently I’ve gotten feedback that it would be helpful for me to be more specific and clear about what I believe and what I am doing to address the problems. I admit I have hesitated to do so through this medium of the internet because it is here--especially on social media--that I have witnessed and been the object of mean and unfair reactionary responses to attempts to address the issues. These kinds of responses fuel the flames of a different form of abuse. Though they may focus on certain problems for a time, they seem to alienate and, in the end, often cause division, dismissal and intolerance. They make us all become stuck.

I’ve thought that speaking out again might just make things worse. Then I learned just today that in one of his early teaching visits to Boulder Pattabhi Jois "adjusted" at least one female student by putting his finger in her vagina. This is digital rape! I did not know about the incident until today. The person who was assaulted in this way may have tried to tell me and I may have minimized her experience. I don't know. One thing I do know, though is the definition of digital rape. You can Google it. I know as well that had we known what he did we would have acted differently than we did at the time. Richard and I are horrified and apologize for our ignorance and the pain that it caused. 

Clearly, there are some long standing problems within the ashtanga world and the ashtanga system. My experience is that problems can sometimes be addressed, even solved, just as puzzles are, by pulling the various pieces of the problem apart and out of context before reassembling them to revel the full picture.

So in this piece that’s what I’m doing; pulling things apart in an effort to facilitate healing. I speak of real and potential problems within the ashtanga system and how Richard and I address them. We do not have definitive answers or advice that we expect everyone to necessarily follow. We are not offering our context and our thoughts on why we and others have made mistakes in addressing the abuse and other problems over the years. Perhaps another time. But to do so now is likely to cause more harm to the women who recently have come forward to speak up. 

We can only explain what seems right for us as individuals to do at this very moment. I offer this in a spirit of care, non-harming and respect.


THE VALUE OF PRACTICE:

I feel it's important to put it out there that although my world has in some ways been turned upside down with doubts, fears, confusion and dismay, through all this I have continued to practice every day--as has Richard. Not as an avoidance or as a ritualistic act, but because practicing (not only asana) helps me to become embodied and feel grounded. Feeling grounded allows me to feel safe. Feeling safe creates an internal atmosphere for my mind to settle, worrying to subside and more clear perception and thinking to spontaneously occur. Clearer perceptions and thoughts serve as guides; informing me when I’m taking actions more—or less—in line with my core beliefs.

Becoming embodied allows me to remember that I really am part of the interconnected whole that is this world. When I get glimpses of that, it is less likely I’ll drop into the “ignorance” of separateness where I can avoid taking action to uphold the conviction I have that I wish to do the best I can to help alleviate suffering.


PROBLEMS:

1. Within the context of ashtanga yoga Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted some of his students. Students were emotionally, spiritually and mentally injured by his behavior. On occasion students were also physically injured by some manual adjustments he gave. Even since his death and to this day in some ashtanga communities, sexual abuse and injury from adjustments continue.
Sexual and physical abuse and assault are abhorrent and unacceptable under any circumstance—especially in the context of a spiritual path as has occurred in ashtanga. Physical injury from adjustments is avoidable and detrimental to the entire internal methodology of yoga.
2. The ashtanga system can be perceived as linear, hierarchical and/or formulaic in nature. The series are numbered and we “advance” through the postures. This can be mistakenly taken to mean that an advanced practitioner is one who can do “advanced” poses, rather than one who is tuned in to their internal experience and who is genuinely nice to others.
Seeing ashtanga in this linear way holds the door open for rigid thinking and can propagate an atmosphere for competitive rather than contemplative practice.
3. In many studios poses are doled out by the teacher based on external criteria, such as binding in a pose. This may be good if the teacher uses it to keep the student safe or give them insight into their mind and ego. But it also is fertile ground for disaster; establishing a power dynamic between teacher and student that can sour into an abuse of power.  Abuse of power may manifest for students as consciously or unconsciously giving your power away to the teacher. For teachers, who have the upper hand in this power dynamic, it can manifest as fanaticism, narcissism, demands for obedience and loyalty—the stripping of another’s intelligence.
As teachers, students may want to “give us their power,” imagining they were helped, even healed, by us (rather than the process of yoga). They may want to put us on pedestals. If we succumb to these sorts of flattery and temptation, then true abuse of power is inevitable.
4. Manual and verbal adjustments and assists are an inherent, and potentially excellent, part of the ashtanga system. However, as well as establishing an atmosphere for learning, unskillful, rote or ego-driven assists can result in physical, sexual or mental abuse and injury. If the power dynamic of the teacher/student relationship is unhealthy, the stage for abuse, injury, denial, rationalization, minimization and perpetuation of the problems is set.
Creating an atmosphere in which feedback is solicited, welcomed and responded to as skillfully as possible is a means of truncating this pattern of injury, potential abuse and manipulation of power.
5. The seemingly unchangeable ritual that superficially defines ashtanga yoga can lead students and teachers astray. Rather than recognizing the structure as a tool for seeing through the ego, when misperceived it can result in a lack of inquiry and communication, fundamentalism, injury, abuse and a leaning toward cult mentality.
It is very important to continually listen, re-evaluate, drop preconceptions, look more closely at our beliefs and motivations and to adjust accordingly as we act with kind, compassionate intentions. To avoid slipping into a "cult" mentality, it is equally important to allow for differing interpretations, perceptions, doubts, questioning, suggestions and feedback from sources near and far from our closest friends. 


Richard and I both apologize to those who have been hurt by us, Pattabhi Jois, or within the ashtanga practice. We also apologize for the roles we played in allowing the problems within ashtanga—in particular Pattabhi Jois’ sexually abusive behavior—to be glossed over or go unchecked for years.

We have always strived, in our old studio and our classes to create an atmosphere of safety, non-injury and intelligent, non-competitive practice. Nonetheless, recently we got feedback that not all students have felt comfortable telling us of injury or sexual harassment they experienced from some of the teachers at our studio. That they felt we minimized an experience they attempted to describe and therefore could not express the extent of the problem and their suffering. We apologize for this and feel grateful for the feedback.   

In support of victims of Pattabhi Jois’ behaviors, and my own oversights and mistakes, I have reached out and listened to a number of victims. I’ve encouraged others within the ashtanga community to do so too as I think it is the vital first step toward healing. Richard and I have initiated and engaged in public (and private) discussions with students and teachers about the problems and denials, as well as actions that might benefit the victims and the evolution of yoga practice and community. We listen carefully and change our actions and opinions when we feel necessary, based on new information.

Not having a studio any more, the actions Richard and I have taken in an effort to work toward some restorative justice have been on a personal level. We have removed from our website photos and content of Pattabhi Jois that we felt was idolizing him.

We have chosen to leave reference to Pattabhi Jois on the lineage page of our site. Yet we will closely reevaluate what we say about him, the lineage and the teachings in light of all of these topics discussed here. As yet, however, we have not re-written that page. That will come.


CULTIVATING TOLERANCE:

Richard has been less proactive than me on this front. I’ve heard from some that they are disappointed by his lack of participation in the online dialogue and in reaching out directly to those who've been hurt. I also know that some of his statements on podcasts came across as if he doesn't care and is in denial. Unfortunately, the statements hurt, rather than helped victims.

Richard moves at his own pace and in his own time--as do we all. I live and work with him and see him every day gradually coming to grips with the situation. We talk about it a lot. From the beginning he has been deeply troubled by it. He has expressed to me and some others that he has been struggling to find the most truthful, authentic and supportive ways to express his sadness, disappointment and disgust at the needless harm and suffering that has occurred due to Pattabhi Jois’s behavior, while the true insight and depth of the yoga tradition was being ignored. He also deeply regrets any role he played in the perpetuation of the problems.

I assume he is not alone in reckoning with all of this. I think one thing that will help victims heal and ashtanga to redefine itself is to allow one another to process this complex and painful situation without immediately pouncing upon each other with accusations and disdain. I hope our community will cultivate tolerance for individual differences. I hope those who need time to process this will be give some time and that we each cradling one another in our hearts while continuing to hold each other's feet to the fire of intelligence and discernment so that in a lasting and caring way we can support an environment of change.


Richard and I are making a renewed effort to re-establish guidelines for all of our classes, workshops and intensives, underscoring our intention to have transparency, to listen deeply and to respond appropriately. We hope we make it clear that we welcome an ongoing, open invitation for feedback. We give a list of teaching principles to students who work with us. These last 9 months have inspired us to add to that list.

ADDITIONAL TEACHING PRINCIPLES:

  1. At the beginning of all teaching we will ask students to let us know if they have an injury, if they do not want to be assisted or if they become uncomfortable during an assist.
  2. We will never offer nor will we tolerate sexually ambiguous or abusive adjustments, comments or behaviors. They are off limits. This applies across the board; from us to students and our assistants, from assistants to students, and between students.
  3. We will consider assists carefully before offering them and will be clear in our intentions as we assist.
  4. We will work with students as individuals in terms of how we suggest details for practice, poses, and study in an effort to keep them safe while encouraging them to deepen in their learning.
  5. We will work to teach students how to customize and individualize their practices in ways that are appropriate to their circumstances.
  6. We will not present Pattabhi Jois, or anyone else, on a pedestal.
  7. We will be open to discussing publicly and in the spirit of truthfulness, integrity and owning our own mistakes, the problems and benefits we see within the ashtanga lineage and system of practice.
  8. We will encourage students to think for themselves, to read original texts, to study, practice and question.
  9. We will listen deeply to what and how students give us feedback in an effort to curtail minimizing stories and information shared.
  10. We will do our best to help students avoid injury.
  11. We will work to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust with students, teachers and others.
  12. Knowing that physical or sexual abuse, mental or physical injury that occurs within the context of one’s practice can be difficult to address with teachers, we will strive to create an environment in which students feel safe communicating with us.
  13. Although there will always be the teacher/student roles within classrooms, we will respect students as individuals and will encourage students to relate to us as fellow human beings rather than putting us on pedestals.
  14. We will listen with open minds to feedback. When receiving feedback will pause to consider it and check in with the one giving the feedback to make sure they feel heard.
  15. We aim to keep lines of communication open between those who’s opinions concur as well as with those who’s views differ from our own. In this way we intend to curtail misuse of power, slipping into fundamentalist perspectives and truncating the powerful learning process which can occur when practicing yoga., 
  16. We believe that the function of a community of teachers and students is that we keep each other in check. We will do our part.
  17. We aspire to be genuinely helpful and to keep alive within ourselves and those who study with us a spirit of inquisitiveness, kindness and honesty.

Having pulled things apart, I am in no rush to piece this puzzle back together. Perhaps it will be useful to some, perhaps not. It is certainly not my intention to cause more harm. Instead, my intention is to no longer allow fear and vulnerability to prevent me from being transparent as a step toward helping others to feel safe doing the same. 

When Tragedy Strikes

Mary Taylor

There are no words to express the grief one feels in the face of the death of another we love dearly. Nor are there accurate or appropriate words and sentiments to pass along to a friend who undergoes the unexpected death of a spouse. Yet try we do when tragedy strikes.

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Step by Step

Mary Taylor

Thank you to Karen Rain for taking the courageous step of speaking up and talking openly about the sexual and spiritual abuse you experienced while studying with Pattabhi Jois. I know it has been very taxing and at times re-traumatizing for you to have done so.

Read More

The Field of Ignorance

Mary Taylor

Mala beads 2.jpg

In some form or another, obstacles seem to be what’s up for most of us. As we find out early on from practicing, it’s when obstacles arise--when things don’t go quite according to plan or according to our desires--that it actually becomes very interesting. It turns out that this kind of difficulty is often actually where the enlightenment or the awakening is. The mind of course has other plans. The imagination would like to have smooth practices, always have great health and ever increasing pleasure, happiness, security, power, fame, glory, money; forever and ever into eternity. Yet somehow, that never quite works out.

Classical obstacles to yoga (and liberation) taught in the Yoga Sutra come in two forms. The first are the practical obstacles like laziness, illness, lust, etc. In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra, the Sadhana Pada, we find what might be considered the psychology of all obstacles, called the klesas. Klesa means torment, misery or suffering and though that’s what they appear to be when we first encounter them, we find out later that not only is there a path out of the suffering, but that, for many of, us without the klesas we’d not have the incentive to begin waking up. 

You probably are familiar with the five klesas, but to review, the klesas or roots of suffering begin with avidya, or ignorance; the proverbial trap we slip into of seeing ourselves as separate from everything else; the inability to experience interconnectedness. Avidya leads to asmita or I am-ness, what we might call ego. When asmita arises raga (wanting, grasping, attachment) and dvesa (rejecting, pushing away, denying) automatically arise. Abhinivesa, the final klesa, is classically thought of as fear of death, and is said to be a klesa that even the wise encounter. You might also think of abhinivesa as fear of yoga—an aversion to seeing the union of things and the principle of interpenetration. For beginning students, reading the Yoga Sutra can be disarming; we find out how many obstacles to freedom and enlightenment there are and if we stop there it's really depressing. But then if we read on we are shown that there is a path out of suffering called kriya yoga.

Kriya yoga is the yoga of action. It is defined partly as tapas, which means to burn or to shine. That’s what you do in any practice; you create a closed container for the mind in which you stop projecting out onto the world so that more or less you eat your own projections. This causes heat, or tapas. If you practice well you start to shine although at first it may feel like you’re starting to burn!

Tapas, then, is the first form of kriya yoga and that burning or shining—experiencing the fire and heat of direct experience—leads naturally to svadhyaya. In the traditional sense, svadhyaya means to chant the Vedas—which of course would be bad news for most of us since unless you grew up chanting the Vedas, it’s unlikely you’ll get to it in this lifetime. Chanting the Vedas is a tremendously powerful practice that takes years to perfect, though if you’re inclined to try it, don’t let the impracticality of starting later in life stop you. Fortunately for the rest of us, we can look to the literal meaning of svadhyaya, which is self-contemplation or self-study. Since through our human nature we have the propensity to be self-absorbed, we might be able to trick ourselves into self-inquiry; what better subject to think about after all? Soon enough, however, we realize that svadhyaya isn’t exactly sitting around congratulating ourselves for being talented, unique and good looking, but instead it means to no longer project our shadows onto the world and onto the things of the world. Practicing svadhyaya means we must face the emotions, sensations and thoughts or theories that arise from our projections. It means peeling away the blinding layers of preconception, ego, self-deceit and avoidance in order to deeply reflect on ourselves in context of others and the world. It is then that glimmers of insight arise. “Sva” means self and so “svadhyaya” actually means meditation on oneself, on “Who am I really if I’m not this body, if I’m not this mind, not this intellect, if I’m not these five elements?”

Studying and thinking deeply about these teachings and applying them to one’s own circumstances will initiate the process of svadhyaya enough to get us rolling in an effort for obstacles to dissolve. Svadhyaya, like most aspects of a yoga practice, is something we continue to work on indefinitely because it is a constant reminder to see the silliness of our concept of “me” as the center of the universe, as something separate from everything else. When we practice svadhyaya well, even though we are ostensibly studying our “self,” we begin to perceive ourselves in context. We’re pulled out of our shell of isolation and self-absorption and become able to reframe inaccurate conclusions and perceptions that support this kind of separateness. So svadhyaya naturally leads on to Isvara pranidhana, which is the third aspect of kriya yoga.


A trusted teacher disappears, steers others away from themselves toward the mysteries of the embodied experience, to the vast, interconnecting web of pure consciousness that inexplicably supports yet supersedes the individual.

Isvara pranidhana means, surrender to Isvara. Which presents a two pronged problem--and equally a two pronged solution--to finding freedom from suffering. The first potentially problematic prong is our definition of Isvara, which is usually translated as God although it could be translated as any being that is completely free. The danger with this interpretation of Isvara as God or another person—a guru, for example—is that we run the immediate risk of confusing pure intelligence with beliefs. For example, the embodied teacher, even if they are a wonderful teacher, will still have beliefs and formulas that must be questioned in order to be understood (and must be allowed to be questioned both by the teacher and the students). If as a yoga teacher we become so enthralled with our own insights or succumb to the attention or adoration of students, if we cease to remember that what we are doing as teachers is pointing outside of ourselves in service of our students, then we fail. A trusted teacher disappears, steers others away from themselves toward the mysteries of the embodied experience, to the vast, interconnecting web of pure consciousness that inexplicably supports yet supersedes the individual. If our teachings or our actions are harmful to our students, then, no matter how relevant or important we believe our teachings to be, we must take a step back and reconsider—find a different way to pass along the teachings. Sometimes we see our mistakes, sometimes we must allow input from others to provide insight for change.

The second prong of Isvara pranidhana that can be either helpful or limiting is our definition of surrender and, though it does apply to the teacher in terms of unquestioning surrender to scriptures or the teachings, it is highly relevant to those of us who are students (which, of course is all of us). Surrender does not mean to blindly accept doctrine or dogma or a superficial formulation about reality, but instead to place on the alter of pure awareness the background assumptions that those formulas, beliefs or doctrines are made out of. The surrender isn’t blind unquestioning faith and following of the teacher or teachings, rather it is exposing the wonder of a deep understanding of the open structure of all experience. It’s the awakening of intelligence.

In practicing Isvara pranidhana if we do not listen closely to our perception of our own experience, to others and to circumstances, but instead place unquestioning power in ourselves (as teachers), or another (as students), then our ego function causes us to grasp at superficial dogma and schemes for self preservation and profit and we can never be free. If we do not keep an open mind and question, then we are no longer at the subtle level of watching the mind as it creates thoughts and formulas and we are thereby entrapped by our beliefs and illusions, having relinquished the ability to surrender thoughts and formulas as an offering to pure consciousness—which is what Isvara actually is.

Perhaps a path around the two-pronged dilemma we may fall into when defining Isvara pranidhana is to understand Isvara as “the nature of things.” And to remember that surrender is not submission, checking out, turning our power of observation, reason and integrity over to another, but rather an active process of interacting intelligently within context to another. With this in mind, we see that Isvara pranidhana or surrender to the nature of things transforms our surrender to the particular (guru or other) into insight into the reality of things.  As such, Isvara pranidhana is the end stage of kriya yoga, the beginning of the path to freedom from suffering, and ultimately can lead into samadhi and to realization.

 

The Magic of Teaching Yoga

Mary Taylor

  Johnny Fox performing in one of his magic shows; he taught us a lot!

Johnny Fox performing in one of his magic shows; he taught us a lot!

Johnny Fox’s drishti was always steady, calm, clear and vivid when he carefully lowered the sword down his throat or hammered a nail up his nose. Those same eyes offered a quintessential twinkle when he’d present you with your watch after inviting you to help in his magic show. Johnny was one of a kind—a magician extraordinaire, a devoted yoga student and a warm-hearted dear friend. He had tattoos, boa constrictors, and an unwavering spiritual path long before those things were popular.

One striking memory of Johnny was his story of a trip he took to India. While there he performed his magic tricks—he was truly a master. Everything from simple disappearing (and reappearing) coin tricks to rope tricks and more—each of which he performed with unparalleled sleight of hand. He found that in particular in villages and small-town temples people would crowd around thinking his "supernatural powers" made him in some way divine. 

But he never took the bait. He'd play the part to the hilt until the act was over and then he'd grin and drop it. He'd back out of the superhuman role people were all too eager to put him in, and he’d make sure they saw him as who he really was—just a regular guy having fun.

Johnny could have played on other’s projections and made a lot of money as a “guru” who could give Shakti Pat and produce watches and other trinkets for his followers in order to keep them coming back. But he knew the extreme danger and karmic harm that would have been done by agreeing to sit upon a pedestal others placed beneath him. Johnny took extraordinary delight in just being humble, caring and open rather than in accumulating any kind of power. He knew it is so much more fun and compassionate to be normal rather than to take advantage of naïve projections and gullibility.

This teaching of Johnny’s is vital for any of us who are yoga teachers. People will always try to put you on a pedestal, to simplify their path into one that avoids the necessity of not knowing. All of us as students go through phases where we want the shortcut; someone to do the work for us, a path that doesn’t require courage, patience and insight. So as teachers we need to carefully hold space for our students—providing enough support for them to stay grounded without imposing our own ego-driven agenda onto them. This means that as teachers we need to stay awake so that we don’t identify with other’s projections. And as students we need to stay awake too—to be able to laugh when the teacher hands us our wristwatch on our way out the door after class.

  Johnny Fox died on December 17, 2017, after facing a terminal illness, in the same way he did so many other things in life: facing it head on. We will miss him dearly. We love you Johnny!

Johnny Fox died on December 17, 2017, after facing a terminal illness, in the same way he did so many other things in life: facing it head on. We will miss him dearly. We love you Johnny!

Signs of Progress

Mary Taylor

  Supermoon as seen in Thailand

Supermoon as seen in Thailand

This Sunday’s full moon is being touted as another “supermoon,” one of three that will occur by the end of January. The full moon is such an invitation to experience a sense of tuning into the earth. So on moon days I enjoy the luxury of the extra two hours I have--since I’m not doing an asana practice--and I sit longer those days to meditate. . . .

Arrange the body. Heavy sitting bones, strong, easy spine, heart floating, palate released and the sensation of breath. Settle in. When you notice thoughts arise, citta vritis running rampant, smile and come back to the breath.

The full moon always makes me feel really grounded. Or giddy sometimes. Often, I’m melancholy. This time, probably also partly due to a strong case of jet lag, I’m feeling pretty giddy.

Oops, back to the breath. The full moon. Sitting.

A supermoon! This is just another demonstration of progress that goes unnoted. When I was growing up back in the 1950s there were no supermoons. There was just the man in the moon. Of course, that was hotly debated by divergent camps of disbelievers, some of whom argued for there being a rabbit up there, with others (probably the gastronomes among us) convinced the face of the moon clearly revealed the fact that the moon was made of cheese.

Back to the breath.

But then the mystery and the invitation for deep contemplation, and all of our speculations about the moon, were doused when on that hot summer’s night in late July of 1969 Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon. There wasn’t a man there, and even though the astronauts only had really bad dehydrated food and Tang to eat, they couldn’t find any cheese at all!

Who names their kid Buzz?

Smile; attention on the breath.

They brought back “moon rocks,” material collected while they were poking around up there that day. Moon rocks were all the rage for a while. A friend of mine even got one, which her parents wouldn’t allow any of us to touch.

Oops, breath.

Another sign of progress is that you can Google “moon rocks” these days. Which I did to find on Wikipedia that the true meaning of the words is, “Nuggets of the marijuana strain Girl Scout Cookies, dipped in hash oil and then sprinkled with kief.” Who knew? I was a Girl Scout back in the day and I didn’t even know this. I don’t even know what kief is, but I’m not going to Google that in case my Google searches are being monitored. And, no, my train of consciousness thought here in writing isn’t because I ordered and indulged in moon rocks when researching the topic. My mind just always churns up citta vritis, so I meditate to train it as best I can. How embarrassing. I’m always thankful there aren’t thought balloons above my head when I practice or sit. I’m sure everyone else’s mind is still while my mind races around like a monkey. Or rat. Sometimes I feel more like a rat. And then . . .

Come back to the breath again. No judgments.

Which brings me to yet another sign of progress—that we can dispel or create modern myths so easily due to all the hard facts (or fake news, take your pick) available through Google itself, or better yet, through social media. For instance, on the topic of the moon, there’s a theory that the moon landing is a myth; that there never was a moon landing—check it out.

I sat in the capsule that landed on the moon when we were visiting the Smithsonian. But, come to think of it, it did seem pretty normal and it wasn’t that beaten up. We have a twenty-year-old truck. Its paint is looking pretty weathered and the seats are losing their spring, and it’s just been tooling around here on earth. Imagine if I’d driven to the moon and back! You’re trying to convince me that it would look this good still?

Of course, it would take a lot to coordinate a huge conspiracy like staging a moon landing—even though some of the shadows in the films from the moon landing weren’t quite right. The evidence of poor lighting shows clearly that the whole thing was staged or at least underfunded. Certainly it wasn’t because shadow angles and lighting are actually different on the moon than they are on earth due to some weird relationship of moon-earth-sun. Given that during last summer’s full eclipse the shadows were really wacky, there’s an outside chance lighting was different up there on the moon. Who knows?

Soften the palate. Breath.

The thing is, to coordinate a long-lasting conspiracy about landing on the moon would mean to get agreement between and coordinate stories with so many people! If you’ve ever tried to organize a group project of any sort, you know how hard it is to get people to agree on and stick with anything. Plus, given that Doodle, email, Internet, FB and other ways of actually communicating didn’t even exist in 1969, how could there have been such an airtight, coordinated conspiracy? I don’t know. I try to see all sides of these tough arguments.

But back to the breath . . . and the original point . . .

There’s going to be a supermoon on Sunday, which means that the full moon will occur at or near the Moon’s closest point on its elliptic path around the Earth. A supermoon looks bigger and brighter than usual because it’s a little closer than usual. That’s cool.

Makes me feel like sitting. And then I remember that for us Ashtangis, any full moon is pretty cool. It offers a time to stop. To drop in and let the mind, body and spirit resynchronize, realign so our true nature can bubble back up. The moon days give us the opportunity to remember the contemplative aspects of our practice and how profoundly important they are. And that’s not a myth. That’s for real.

 

Michael Stone

Mary Taylor

It is with deep sorrow that we join so many others around the globe in mourning the loss of our friend and fellow teacher, Michael Stone, who passed away peacefully on July 16th after slipping into a coma a few days earlier. Michael was a well-loved teacher of the Buddha Dharma as related to western psychology, and a yoga instructor. The author of numerous books and articles, he was able to put into words that resonated with modern times some of the subtle classical teachings.

      We will miss him.

      Richard and Mary

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Fake It Till You Make It. . . . Really?

Mary Taylor

  What's in a Pause?

What's in a Pause?

 

It's a sinking feeling; a thick wave of sludge-filled despair sweeping through your gut. The uneasy sense that maybe you've been duped; or worse yet, that you're fooling yourself. And you ask: Did enthusiasm, laziness, greed or maybe that extra cup of espresso cloud my thinking and carry me away into believing--and immediately posting--my reaction to the online gossip? Should I have been more mindful of the context and asked myself how I really knew what I thought to be true before hitting "post?" Did I check my motivation and scrutinize the story's sources? And what might the repercussions be? In this age of type now and think later, these are the kinds of questions that poke up their messy heads when we power down for the day.

The fast and furious online world is remarkably vast, open and beneficial, yet it is also an invitation to isolation, augmentations and distortions of mind, and inflation of the ego. It's a medium that feeds on the unsteadiness of mind and thrives on us keeping our citta vrittis alive, active and--worse yet--shared with any unsuspecting soul who happens to absentmindedly click on our latest musing. (Like this one.) Patanjali would roll over in his grave!

As if it weren't strange enough to find fragments of thought being pulled out of the sky to masquerade as relevant content, there is intentional misuse and deception that surfaces through this technology as well; online bullying, cruel pranks that prey on recipients' weaknesses and endless hackings designed to create chaos. 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing uses of the internet is what is now commonly accepted (if not venerated by some as fair play) as "fake news"--hoaxes, propaganda or disinformation used to deliberately fool others and drive traffic in one direction or another. It was, after all, President Trump's adviser, Kellyanne Conway who introduced the euphemism "alternative facts" to describe some of the fake news (like the Bowling Green Massacre) tossed out for the public to chew on--and get distracted by--just after the election so that stories of fake news impacting the election became less of a front page issue. The age-old magician's trick of drawing your attention to their right lapel pocket while slipping a coin down the sleeve of the left arm was the training ground for this kind of manipulative use of the internet. 

On one hand we could become enraged or bitter about the use and misuse of the medium and swear off the internet. But realistically that wouldn't do much except to isolate us in our own limited point of view. On the other hand, it is a really interesting time to develop our critical-thinking skills and to remember the value of satyam or truth--which might be just enough to pull us back into Patanjali's graces. It is, indeed, an age of immediacy where veneer can be valued more than the truth, where sensationalism, cynicism and daring sound bites take a front seat to reflection and dialogue. Yet that doesn't mean we all need to buy into that value system.

 

A deliberate, momentary pause is all it takes to consider the impact we might have and our interconnectedness.

 

Savoring the truth, which is enriched by the messiness and dirt that sometimes lies beneath the veneer, exposes the beauty and vividness of life. It brings us down to earth, and all it takes is a single out breath to sense into the unending support of the ground beneath us! From there we might imagine that if we had the time and inclination to run our palms along that very surface of the earth we stand on that we could connect with every other sentient being on this planet. Not as quickly as sending a Tweet but with a lot more feeling. A deliberate, momentary pause is all it takes to consider our intention, our motivation, our choice of language, the impact we might have and our interconnectedness. One breath cycle can point us in the direction of what’s right while a missed breath and an ignored sense of connection may lead us to create “fake news, fake fear, fake us.”

Truth resides in the subtle layers of our body, mind and being as part of the foundational structure of who we really are. Relying solely on our mind and its reactions, conclusions and constructs (which is what social media promotes) to offer to the world our ideas and facade of who we are can throw us into realms of confusion for lifetimes. 

Any idea leaves a residue and is part of the chain of being or of karma. Residue exists not only in our own experience but in the experience of others who come across what we've tossed out with care or carelessly as a matter of ego or deception. Encountering an abundance of unchecked "news" and ideas, your mind searches for connections and starts building a web of understanding to make sense of it all in order to steer you in a perceived correct direction. But when we don't take time to pause for reflection into the idea and to examine the deeper layers of mind or, better yet, drop into the sensation of mind merging with the body, then the web constructed by mind is likely to become tangled--one of torment, anxiety, confusion or complete imagination and delusion.

As yoga students and teachers, maybe we really can be flexible after all. Perhaps we can resist the pressure to put it out there quickly and in a form that is flashy, fun, daring or strategic simply to up our ratings. Rather than searching our endless stash of citta vrittis for a quip to make them all laugh, or flipping through photos to find the extreme posture we did that one time before we blew out our shoulder--secretly thinking this one time it might go viral--rather than that, perhaps we can just pause for a moment, feel our feet firmly planted on this sweet earth and smile. At the very least, if we're sincere and see the silliness of this medium maybe we can catch a good selfie of our serenity and fleeting subtle smile. Though of course we don't care.