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!


Some Thoughts on Sanskrit

My dear friend, Dana Flynn of the very wonderful Laughing Lotus Yoga Center, interviewed me for the school’s latest e-newsletter, and I thought that I would also post my responses here. Thanks, as always, to Dana for being a shining light of  expanding possibilities…

Q: What was going on in your life, when you found Sanskrit?

JM: I have always been drawn to discovering the roots of things. When I discovered Sanskrit, I was already a practicing psychotherapist. I was engaged in a regular āsana practice, but I wasn’t fully content with āsana alone. I wanted to understand the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of yoga. Studying Sanskrit gave me the keys to deepen my understanding and my love of yoga exponentially.

Q: What are some favorite stand out moments memories with your Teacher?

JM: My teacher Vyaas Houston taught me a yogic model of learning that gave me the opportunity to consciously free myself from long-standing habituated patterns. Every time I teach, I remember the joy that I felt from the initial experience of freedom through that model of learning and the cascade of “AH-HAH” moments that followed. It thrills me to no end when I see my students discover some of these for themselves. As I think about it, the simple things stand out the most. When I am back on the East Coast, I usually go and visit Vyaas at his home in New Jersey. There are enchanted woods and a beautiful, sacred pond behind his house. Some of my fondest memories are of walking with him through the woods or sitting by the pond, watching the dappled afternoon light dance on the water. Just being in each other’s company is a blessing. During these walks, he has told me many stories of his experiences with his own teacher and how his own studies and teaching have evolved, but strangely, it is the silent moments that stand out the most as I think about it now. Silence teaches beyond where all words can go.

With my other teacher, the inimitable Dr. Ram Karan Sharma, my favorite thing to do is to sit at the table and drink tea with him and talk about life. Just to be in his presence evokes a state of deep peace and joy for me. Dr Sharma is an ocean of both knowledge and humility. Through him I get to repeatedly experience the truth of the ancient Sanskrit saying that states “the purpose of (gaining) knowledge is to learn humility.” Plus, his wife makes a serious cup of chai! Caffeine-o-Rama! 🙂

Q: How does an ancient language change your life, and how has it changed yours?

JM: Just like raw food has within it the enzymes necessary to digest the food, Sanskrit has within it the “sonic enzymes” necessary to digest the subtle and profound truths of Yoga Philosophy. Through the study of Sanskrit, yoga philosophy begins to make a lot more sense. The sounds of Sanskrit also naturally draw the mind inward towards a meditative state. When the mind is filled with beautiful, organized thought, there is very little room for anything else. Sanskrit gives the opportunity for old limiting thoughts and identifications of self to slip away or lose their potency. Plus, it is a lot of fun to be able to chant and pronounce yoga-related words, āsana names, sūtras and timeless verses with accuracy and fluidity.

Studying Sanskrit has allowed yoga to come alive for me in a way that I did not know was possible. Teaching Sanskrit and Yoga Philosophy has allowed me to travel the world and to meet thousands of extraordinary people. I  am getting to directly experience how the world is connected through yoga. Also, whenever I teach, I also learn, and Sanskrit has given me the beautiful opportunity to be constantly learning

Q: What surprised you most about learning/studying Sanskrit?

JM: The most surprising thing that I learned about studying Sanskrit is that it is EASY! There is a huge misperception that Sanskrit is difficult to learn. This is completely false! When Sanskrit is approached with an attitude of humility and experienced through a “yogic model of learning” the language unfolds naturally, easily and joyously. Learning Sanskrit can be a lot of fun. I certainly would not be doing it if it wasn’t…

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.

Yoga & The Cultivation Of Freedom

A couple of years ago, I was in Shizuoka, Japan visiting my favorite Japanese tea farm, Yamanien. It was a blissful experience, sitting in their beautiful, ancient tearoom and speaking with Goto-san, the farmer and tea master. Yamanien teas consistently win gold medals in Japan and their top-level sencha is the tea favored by the royal family.

On my visit, I noticed that the tea plants were left to grow wild. This is very unusual, especially in Japan. Almost all the tea bushes that I have seen in Japan are highly manicured and tended. When I asked Goto-san about it, he nonchalantly gave me a giant pearl of wisdom. He said “If the plant is healthy, the tea will be good.” For over 400 years, his family has been putting that understanding into practice. Through free cultivation, the result is a world-class tea that brings bliss.

This has me thinking about the deeper meaning of cultivation and of impact —the manifestation of our choices. What is it that we are really trying to cultivate through yoga and through life? Is it compassion and a vision of hope and peace and joy and love for all living beings, grounded in a sense of moral and ethical principals, or do we just want to get our ya-yas out? And, how about impact? Do we truly care about our impact or do we choose to be oblivious to our impact on those around us and the world at large? Are we rooted on the path of yoga, or tumbling down the path of bhoga (pursuit of sense enjoyment that brings suffering?)

Bhartrihari, one of the greatest Sanskrit poets writes about the dangers of a life wrapped in the confusion of yoga and bhoga. He writes:

We did not enjoy pleasures, instead we ourselves were consumed by them. We did not practice austerities, but only underwent suffering. Time did not pass, only we are passing away. Our desires did not decay, only we are growing old.

When we cultivate with a foundation of skilled principles that are rooted in experience – either our own or the wise who have gone before us, our actions become healthy. When our actions are healthy, the impact that we have, not only on ourselves, but on those around us can also be positive. As the saying goes, “When the tide comes in, all boats rise.

Yoga is the path of action. This is the central message of the Bhagavad Gītā. When we allow ourselves to act, while at the same time detaching from identifying ourselves AS that action (ie, I AM my job, etc), there can be freedom from ignorance. Like tea plants, we can let ourselves grow in our natural state. Freeing ourselves from negative, limited, habituated patterns, allows health to flourish on all levels. When health flourishes, all those around us can be uplifted.  This is true freedom.

Seeing our impact on others is vital as accurate feedback to avoid self-delusion. Yoga is a path that constantly moves towards the relief of suffering. If one sees freedom as simply being able to do whatever one wants and yet other people in proximity are suffering because of those actions, this is avidyā (ignorance) disguised in freedom’s clothes. True freedom does not leave a body count behind. Is there really a greater gift then helping to uplift those around us – those close to us and even those who we don’t  know? Why be here at all if not to add the fruit of our cultivation as an offering to the world?

Sometimes, wrapped in the middle of our lives, it is easy to lose perspective and we can veer off course without realizing it, creating suffering. It is challenging to have the courage to recognize this. Cornel West says “It takes courage to interrogate yourself.” However, seeing the impact on others is a instant reality check. My mom read me a great quote from Jack Kornfield the other day that says “If the bird and the book on birds disagree, always trust the bird.” The negative ego lies. It tells us that we are living free and spiritually when our actions are producing suffering. Do we have the courage to face the impact of our actions, take inventory, and change if we don’t like what we see?

Tea, at it’s essence, is very direct – the interplay of water and leaves. In a way, yoga is the same, the interplay of human and divine. Yoga is not meant to make us more spiritual —we already are more spiritual. It is a path to make us more human.