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2020 21st Street
Boulder, CO, 80302

Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor's home.


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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.

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!