The Yoga Of Beautiful Living


Recently I was interviewed by the inimitable Lilou Mace as part of her series of conversations with transformational teachers. We talked about the Yoga of Beautiful Living — creating balance in a world slanted towards anxiety and the importance of hand-crafting an artisanal life. In a world were we are surrounded by much that is artificial, we are instinctively drawn to what is most real. The conversation also touched on things near and dear to my heart; tea, tattoos, Japan, Sanskrit, meditation, and releasing the folly of trying to be a better version of ourselves in order to accept the magnificent and unrepeatable self that already exists.

You can find the interview here. Enjoy!


The Yoga Of Kindness

Several years ago, I was preparing to teach a week-long immersion on the Yoga Sūtras. I had spent the better part of 6 months going over a hefty selection of essential sūtras with my teacher, Vyaas Houston, as well having bi-weekly conversations with him to deepen my understanding of the overall philosophical and psychological underpinnings of the text. I was chanting the Yoga Sūtras in Sanskrit from memory as well as cultivating a powerful meditation practice drawn from the third pāda (book/chapter) of the text. Everything seemed to be in place….and yet, something felt like it was missing. Students were preparing to come from all over the country to study with me, investing both time and money, and I wanted to give them my very best. I wanted the Yoga Sūtras to leap off of the page and become a transformative force in their lives.

For myself, I was chewing on the“dehydrated truth” of the Yoga Sūtras, but the full flavor  and nutrition was not being released. So, I started asking myself questions — “Did I need to further hone my understanding of the Sanskrit grammar? Was I missing something in the translation that was keeping the text from truly coming to life? Was there some bridge towards practical application that I was not fully exploring?”

With the immersion less than a week away, I decided to consult my close friend, the inimitable Reverend Heng Sure. Rev. Heng Sure has been a Buddhist monk for the past 35 years and has lectured weekly on sūtras for most of that time. I figured that he would be able to help me see what was missing from my preparation.

As I went to our meeting, I was convinced that Heng Sure would mostly give me sage advice on how to structure the classes. Surely, if I presented the material in an orderly and logical fashion, the classes would make sense and the students would get what they came for. However, this was not his advice at all, and it goes a long way to explaining why he is a venerable, senior monk and I am not. After I explained my dilemma, Heng Sure only told me one thing — in fact, he only said one sentence to me.

“The thing to remember” he said, “is that Patañjali was motivated out of kindness.” With that simple, deep, profound truth, a light turned on inside me and the Yoga Sūtras finally made sense. Beyond grammar and philosophy, the text was an offering — a garland of wisdom by a man who saw suffering. Out of kindness, and through the Yoga Sūtras, he offered a way to freedom.

People come to yoga because, on some level, they are suffering – same for teachers. We are no different. As teachers, it is essential that we recognize and acknowledge the nature of suffering, both in our students and in ourselves. Kindness opens the door. Transformation is never in the information, it is in the mystical alchemy where the heart that beats within the information meets the heart of the seeker.

Philosophy has no power when it is devoid of the kindness that seeks to reduce and eliminate suffering.

With kindness towards self, even on a physical level, āsana can elevate to prayer — an offering of the Self to the self. Otherwise, what is the point? Does the world really need one more person who can do a perfect triangle pose but happens to be shallow, egoic, mean-spirited or lacking in integrity and thus consciously hurting others?

I was reading a thread on Facebook the other day and a teacher that I like very much posed the question which basically asked, “as a student, would you feel comfortable studying with a teacher with questionable integrity?” For me, the answer was clear. If the teacher lacks integrity, then they are not teaching yoga, just something that may look like it on the surface. It’s like any Jewish New Yorker who comes out to Northern California and orders a bagel finds out — it may have the same shape, but it is only a BSO (bagel-shaped object.)

Yoga is not found in the externals, it is only pointed to by them. A true teacher reminds us of what lies within ourselves. Lack of integrity never leads to the reduction of suffering, it only increases it. Suffering is never eliminated by adding more suffering to it.

When students and counseling clients come to me, they are bestowing upon me the precious gift of their vulnerability and willingness to be seen beyond social and personal masks. This is a sacred trust. Remembering to act from a place of kindness polishes the mirror of my own heart and offers a space where others may awaken their own internal kindness. From that place, we each can experience the fruits of transformation, self-acceptance and peace.

As it turned out, the Yoga Sūtra immersion went really well. It was a magical time that gets only sweeter within the folds of memory.

Lessons from the Devil’s Brew

Years ago, I went to an acupuncturist who perscribed me what was the singularly most heinous concoction of herbs to boil into a tea. The brew tasted like a mixture of old mushrooms, sweat socks and human injustice! 🙂 Getting even half a cup of this devil’s brew down was a herculean effort. My body would tense and I would find myself repeating how awful it was; my own personal negative mantra. Then, all of a sudden, I had an epiphany — I realized that I was directing “citta” (consciousness) into the concept of “bad” and I was lumping this noxious concoction with all of the other things that I thought were also “bad” — clubbing baby seals, eating meat (I was strictly vegan at the time) etc. There was no real distinction between these things, they were just all lumped into the notion of “bad”.

Once I saw this, I was able to stop and ask myself “Is this tea really awful?  Or am I just taking a short-cut to avoid experiencing the tea as it is?”  As an experiment, I decided that I would consciously avoid labeling the tea and just experience it. When I did that, the tea just became experience and the drinking of it just became sensation. My body relaxed and I was able to drink the full amount for the rest of the week, letting the concoction do what it was intended to do, which was to aid in healing. I even began to savor it….not the herbs perse, but the experience.

I had a similar experience when I was tattooed for the first time at the beginning of the year. Past the fear of the unknown, the idea of pain or “not-pain” ceased to be the reference point. When I allowed myself to just experience, each touch of the needle became pure sensation. Not only that, but each line of ink was a totally different sensation and, as such, the entire experience became endlessly fascinating, a “sensation meditation”.

Another experience I had highlighted the opposite:

Several years ago, four of us had a birthday celebration for a loved one at a wonderful Japanese restaurant. To celebrate, I bought an outrageous bottle of sake from San Francisco’s premier shop, True Sake. It was utterly mindblowing — tasting like essence of strawberry, melon and cotton candy, feather-light though not sweet.  Like the purest water once swallowed, the taste disappeared as if by magic. Anyway, the synergy of food, sake and conversation made the evening truly memorable.

Fast-forward several months — one of the friends who was at the celebration (remember there were only four of us) had a birthday coming up. When I asked him what he wanted to do to celebrate, he said “I want to go back to the same restaurant and drink the same sake.” As soon as he said it, my first thought was “uh oh…trouble.” I could tell that he wanted to recreate the experience as before. I went to the sake shop, explained the situation to the owner and…bless his heart, he refused to sell me the same sake that I bought before! He knew that it would never live up to the demand that my friend was putting on it, which was basically to recreate the past. So, I bought another great bottle instead, made a reservation at the same restaurant, and invited the same friends. The evening of his birthday, my friend came over before dinner and had such a bad stomach ache that he had to go home! Birthday celebration cancelled. The demand to recreate the beautiful experience from the past returned as anxiety and suffering.

Of course, to prevent the evening from being a total loss, after he went home, we drank the sake. Tasty, tasty karma yoga….!

When we automatically attach our identity to our experience, seeing ourselves AS the experience rather than as the one who is witnessing the experience, we create attachment and suffering. We place the timeless, immortality of Self within the everchanging realm of impermanence, and demand for what is impermanent to be immortal. When that does not happen, our sense of self is shaken. We become anxious, and from that state of anxiety, motivated to repeat pleasurable experiences and avoid painful ones. However, both actions are rooted in avidyā (ignorance). Every experience is unique and unrepeatable. We demand that experience be the same, and thus try to preserve continuity because we falsely believe that we ARE these things. By seeking to avoid painful experience out of fear, we keep past painful experiences alive. We “feed” them through our awareness. Both of these actions, chasing pleasure and avoiding pain, are “flip sides” of the same coin, and both obscure the deeper sense of Self that resides beyond this duality.

In my last post, I mentioned two essential, dymanic practices and principles of yoga. The first is Abhyāsa, the effort and practice of placing one’s attention fully at a chosen point of focus. Abhyāsa creates the power of harnessing and directing the mind and its thoughts. But, just like wings on a bird or a plane, there needs to be a counterbalance. One is not enough. With just effort, there can come attachment to the fruits of that effort and the lure of defining self through past experiences. In the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gītā, the counterbalance is Vairāgya.

more on Vairāgya in the next post…

Abhyāsa & The Yoga of Action

The central theme in the Bhagavad Gītā is action; yoga being the willingness to act fully and completely without attachment to the results. For this to happen, two essential, dynamic, and highly practical principles of yoga, described both in the Gītā and in the Yoga Sutras, need to be cultivated.

The first of these principles is abhyāsa. Abhyāsa is the effort of placing one’s attention at a chosen point of focus. This effort (not to be confused with “struggle”) is something that becomes a practice by allowing it to blossom over a long period of time; to be refined through continual application, and to be brought alive through an attitude of devotion. Abhyāsa is one of the fundamental keys to living a life rich with committment — committment to fully be in the moment and to let it go as it passes.

In my counseling practice, one of the most common issues that clients face is the fear of committment. This often comes from the fear that choosing one thing fully will eliminate the ability to choose other things, and results in the feeling of being trapped. In the attempt to keep free, we refrain from action. However, refusing to act is actually what traps us. When we are afraid to act, we try to hold ourselves in place — treading water as the current of life flows by. As we do this, suffering occurs.

Also, we fear committment in action because we have been trained to think that we need to know what the results of our actions are going to be before we act. We want a guarantee that everything will turn out exactly as our egos think it should. From this place of control (which is the anthesis to growth), comes the demand that says “I want to grow and change….but I need it to look exactly as I think it should be.” This becomes the very thing that stands in the way of growth.

Another reason that we fear committment is that, both culturally and personally, we deeply fear making mistakes. This comes from the false preception that says that we ARE our choices, rather than the empowered realization that we MAKE our choices. We are afraid that if we make a mistake, we ARE that mistake. This misperception, born from shame, keeps us paralyzed and afraid to act.

From the perspective of the Bhagavad Gītā, yoga is equanimity in both success and failure. The willingness to learn from both our successes and our mistakes and to use them equally as vehicles for growth and self-realization, is the essence of yoga in action.

Committment only looks frightening from the outside in. Once there is committment to action, the very willingness to act brings with it a deep sense of peace and freedom.

As an exercise, take a moment to think about abhyāsa – the willingness to place your full attention at a chosen point of focus. What is one thing that you want to place your attention on? It can be anything that you choose. For one week, take some time in your day, it can be 5 minutes, and fully commit to placing your attention on this thing. As you do that, practice consciously releasing any attachment to the result from your action. Act simply for the sake of acting.

Beyond the Need to Fix – First Steps To Freedom

In my therapy practice, one pattern that shows up with frequency, and has the impact of limiting clients from being able to experience the unbounded freedom of the present moment, is the habituated need to “fix” the past. If only they could fix what went wrong, life would be happy and fulfilling.

When the need to fix the past enters, the present moment, the only place where the power of choice exists, becomes weighed down by the unrealistic demand that it vindicate all that has happened before. This cruel and often self-punishing demand produces subtle and not-so subtle feelings of failure; pushing happiness and contentment away to an amorphous date in the future. The space between where we are now and that uncertain future becomes filled with anxiety. We postpone the present moment and wait for “someday,” that fictional day “between Sunday and Monday” that never truly shows up

There is a Zen saying that says “if you try to catch two birds, you catch none.” The power of change exists in the present moment, rooted in the cultivation of new choices and the humility to let each moment and each day become new.

In the Yoga Sutras, the quintessential yogic text, Patanjali says that yoga is the selective elimination of specific (painful) habituated patterns that we repeat over and over and then falsely identify with as ourselves. We become confused and believe our patterns to be us. The process of yoga, and of therapy from a yogic perspective, is to illuminate these habituated tendencies and to begin to polish them away to reveal the splendor of what is beneath. That splendor is the Self, abiding in its own true nature as all things arise and fall. From this perspective, all patterns can become the vehicle to experience the Self, like puppets in a show all leading to the one who guides the strings.

Beyond the need to fix there is the countless opportunity to change and to let go of what stands in the way of the contentment that is already there and waiting….