The Yoga Of Beautiful Living

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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!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzTPcdICPg0&feature=c4-overview&list=UUOpwg-UMqzuHxfcK5SSiZ2A

Sanskrit & Yoga Philosophy Afternoon Workshop in Napa! May 18th, 2013

YS 1-2Dear Friends,

The Sanskrit train keeps on rolling! I’ll be teaching an afternoon of Sanskrit and Yoga Philosophy at Ubuntu Yoga Studio in the beautiful Napa Valley on Saturday, May 18th, 2013 from 12:30pm – 6:30pm. Save the date and come on up!

We will look at essentials of Sanskrit sound, exploring the alphabet as a stepping-stone to be able to accurately pronounce yoga-related words, āsana names, mantra and verses from quintessential yogic texts. We will also explore key Yoga Sūtras which will help to unlock timeless truths of  yoga as a path of freedom, happiness & self-realization.

The workshop will be a lot of fun. It won’t be boring….I promise. NO experience of Sanskrit or chanting or Yoga Philosophy is needed. Less is more – just bring yourself!

For more information and to sign up for the workshop, please contact:

Ubuntu Yoga Studio: 1140 Main St  Napa, CA 94559 (707) 251-5656

http://www.ubuntuyogastudio.com

Sanskrit Workshop In San Francisco! April 27th & 28th

I’ll be teaching a weekend workshop in San Francisco at the very wonderful Laughing Lotus Yoga School on April 27th & 28th. The class will be fun and light-hearted as we dive into the beautiful ocean of Sanskrit sounds and practical, timeless philosophy. Despite the title, no prior experience with Sanskrit or chanting is required…..really….trust me on that one! 🙂

Sanskrit Beyond The Basics –  April 27th & 28th, 2013

Laughing Lotus Yoga Center
3271 16th St  San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 355-1600

email: asklotussf@laughinglotus.com

Dates: Sat. April 27th & Sun. April 28th
Time: 1-6pm
Cost: $199 (20% off for Lotus Grads)

This 10 Hour Sanskrit and Yoga Sutra Intensive is for Yoga Teachers and enthusiasts wanting to deepen their knowledge and experience of Sanskrit as the language of Yoga through the highest of yogic texts , the Yoga Sutras. Since ancient times the practice of yoga has included the study, practice and chanting of yogic texts which are written in Sanskrit and is integral to the heart of yoga for deeper understanding and connection which is experienced through harmonizing and balancing of the mind through sound.

Josh will teach you how to approach the sacred language of Yoga as a practice that is fun, transformative, inspiring and liberating through an educational and experiential learning experience that will give you a deep connection to the beauty, power and energy of Sanskrit as a priceless tool to understand, uncover and feel the meaning of Yoga to experience, celebrate and share . This Intensive is an incredible opportunity to grow as a Yoga Teacher cultivating a more spiritual relationship and reverence in practice and teaching the High Art and Science of Yoga.

Curriculum:
* The ABC’s of the Sanskrit Alphabet
* Intimacy with Location of Sound
* The Breath of Sanskrit
* Pronunciation Perfection
* Chanting the key Yoga Sutras
* Uncovering personal meaning in the Yoga Sutras
* Sharing the Joy of sound in classes

About Josh:
Josh Michaell teaches Sanskrit, Yoga Philosophy & Meditation through workshops and Teacher Trainings throughout the US and abroad. Practicing Ashtanga Yoga since 1993 and studying Sanskrit and Yoga Philosophy with Vyaas Houston since 1997 Josh is a licensed M.A., MFT, with a Transpersonal and Yoga Psychology-inspired counseling practice in San Francisco and Marin County, CA.

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.

Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras —A Definition of Yoga

One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning Sanskrit is the ability to approach traditional texts from the original language – savoring not only the beauty and resonance of the sounds and letters themselves, but also experiencing the meaning of the words and concepts without being entirely beholden to other people’s translations. Translation, while an essential piece towards understanding and reflection of these ancient texts, can also present several potential obstacles and problems. First, even if the translator happens to be a brilliant scholar, the translation itself might be confusing. One word may have multiple meanings and a translator’s choice to use one particular meaning can often eliminate the aspirant from seeking other definitions that shed new meaning on the text. The particular definition that a translator uses can be incorrectly seen as “definitive ” rather than one choice among many. For instance, in the Apte Sanskrit dictionary, the word “yoga” has over 50 different definitions.

Strict reliance on translation without adequate reflection may offer the reader no real understanding of how to apply the verse or the text to daily life. Like a coin from a foreign country, it might be pretty, but we won’t be able to use it to buy anything of value. When this happens, the wisdom of the text tends to remain on the page and the opportunity for personal transformation remains dormant.

When the profundity of a timeless yogic text is united with practical application, wisdom can leap off of the page and move us forward on the path of freedom and liberation. A basic understanding of Sanskrit opens the door to the wisdom of understanding and allows meaning to come alive in an experiential way. For truly, there is no “doing yoga”, there is only the experience of yoga.

One example of how translation can obscure as much as illuminate can be found in the oft-quoted and often misunderstood definition of yoga found in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. (YS 1:2)

The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali is the quintessential yogic text. Comprised of 196 potent aphorisms, the Yoga Sūtras provide a roadmap of freedom and liberation from suffering. Each sūtra “thread” can be seen as a delicious morsel of dehydrated truth that needs to be “chewed on” with heart and mind in order to be understood. Only then can the true flavor and the wisdom within be released.

The second sūtra of the first book (YS 1:2) is “yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ” — Patañjali’s definition of yoga. A common and in my opinion, somewhat dubious translation of this is, “yoga is stopping the mind.” In fact, when I began practicing yoga, this was my understanding of the meaning of this sūtra. I just needed to figure out how I was going to stop my mind. As I began to delve into Sanskrit, I began to realize that the definition, and thus the meaning of yoga itself, was much more subtle and complex. Sanskrit opened the possibility to deeper understanding.

In the wonderful, yet out-of-print book, The Unadorned Thread of Yoga, the author provides no less than a dozen translations of each sūtra from various teachers. This shows just how open the Yoga Sūtras are to interpretation and thus, to potential confusion. Luckily, Sanskrit, the language of Yoga, helps provide a roadmap to greater clarity.

From a grammatical perspective, an important thing to realize is that the Yoga Sūtras is composed almost entirely of nouns, which means that, in essence, the entire text is a series of equations — “this equals this equals this…etc.”

The classic definition of yoga from Patañjali, “yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodahaḥ,” is comprised of four distinct words – “yogaḥ,  citta, vṛtti” and “nirodhaḥ.”

Grammatically, Sanskrit sounds are blended together so that they may be spoken or chanted with fluidity. When the word “yogaḥ” and “citta” are placed next to each other, for ease of pronunciation they blend together to become “yogaś-citta”, but separately they are “yogaḥ” and “citta.” Knowing that the original word is “yogaḥ” has importance in understanding the meaning of the sūtra.

The first thing to notice is that the words “yogaḥ” and “nirodhaḥ” have the same ending of “aḥ” As they have the same noun ending and are placed together as an equation, this can be taken to mean that they are, indeed the same thing. Patañjali is saying that “Yoga IS Nirodha!”

If someone were to ask you to define “yoga”  but said that you must define it with only one word, you could say “nirodha” and be 100% accurate.

Yoga is “nirodha” but it is a specific type of nirodha. There are many potential types of nirodha, but yoga is what is known as “citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ”

Nirodha is made up of the roots “ni” and “rud.” Ni means “under” and “rud” means to restrict or suppress. Taken together however, they can mean “a process of ending, elimination, cessation, dissolution, etc”

In my own studies, I have found that the most practical and important point is in the understanding that nirodha is a process – it is a selective means of cessation, restraint, elimination, etc. There is intelligence to it, a systematic progression of ending certain specific things – like peeling the layers of an onion. It can also be considered a type of vinyāsa (intelligent, sequential movement).

This is much different than just stopping the mind.

So, yoga is a “ process of selective elimination”, but of what? Here is where the two other words come into play.

Vṛtti comes from the Sanskrit root “vṛt” which means “to turn.” Think of a merry-go round, turning and turning, following the same pattern over and over again. In the case of yoga philosophy, what “turns” repeatedly are thoughts, patterns and identifications of self. Vṛtti speaks to the habituated thoughts and patterns that repeat perpetually and that we, through ignorance, identify as self. It is these vṛttis, starting with the ones that actively cause pain, that are selectively eliminated (nirodha). That process is called Yoga.

Citta comes from the root “cit” which means “to perceive.” Citta means “perceived” and refers to “all that can be perceived.” The space or the “field” which holds all that can be perceived is also known as “consciousness.”

Taken from the Sanskrit roots, one definition of Yoga can be seen as —

 “Yoga is the process of selectively eliminating habituated thoughts, patterns, identifications (occurring) within the field of all that can be perceived.”

To me, this seems radically different in flavor, practicality and potential application from common translations such as “yoga is stopping the mind” or “yoga is restraining the mind-stuff from taking various forms.”

As I allowed myself to chew on this particular definition of yoga, I noticed that my relationship with yoga itself began to change. Instead of trying to stop my mind, I began to relax into the understanding that yoga is a process that unfolds sequentially. I became more compassionate with myself and more honoring of my own process. I began to see that yoga does not demand stripping the mind of all thoughts but is instead a path where limiting, habituated patterns are replaced with lighter, more expansive patterns — like ripples in a pond expanding towards the Self.

One Family

One of the most beloved books in India is Hitopadeśa, “friendly counsel”, a collection of animal fables used for teaching young people the path of righteous living. At the end of each of the stories is a Sanskrit verse that encapsulates the lesson of the tale. One of my favorite verses deals with the nature of attachment and how it causes suffering and sorrow.

The verse is this:

अयं निज: परो वेति गणना लघुचेतसाम् ।
उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् ॥

ayaṁ nijaḥ paro’veti

gaṇanā laghu cetasām

udāra caritānāṁ tu

vasu dhaiva kuṭumbakaṃ

The translation is:

This is mine, but that belongs to someone else” – this type of “counting” is of small-minded people. For those with generous minds, the entire earth is one family.”

This verse got me thinking — How much suffering is caused by the false belief that we actually “own” anything, especially other people? How much time do we spend trying to protect what we feel is ours? Is it this sense of ownership that lies at the root of jealousy, control and aggression?

In the Yoga Sutras, asmitā, the sense of “i-am-ness” is seen as one of the root causes of suffering, and one of the primary beliefs that the process of yoga seeks to diminish and ultimately release. While we may need some sense of asmitā to function in mundane, daily life, as we begin play with the idea that asmitā is neither the deepest truth of self, nor an unshakable law, we can begin to cultivate an awareness of a self beyond individuality and dualism.

Even love, the strongest force for change and awakening in the universe, can be polluted by the smallness of the grasping ego that seeks to own both people and things. As we demand to “own”, we attach our identity to those very things. In attaching our identity, we attach our sense of happiness. Happiness based on external, fluctuating objects cannot be true happiness. Believing impermanant happiness to be true happiness is a core definition of avidyā (ignorance), and avidyā, according to yoga philosophy, is the root of all suffering.

This verse from hitopadeśa reminds me that, beyond ideas of ownership, there is a sense of interconnectedness that permeates humanity. At the core, we are one family, engaged in the wild, sacred, full-spectrum adventure of life.

Here is the verse from hitopadeśa chanted by the wonderful, inimitable Dr. Ram Karan Sharma. Dr Sharma, past president of the International Institute For Sanskrit Studies (IASS) is an ocean of knowledge and humility, and a man that I feel deeply honored to call both a teacher and a friend.

Dr. Ram Karan Sharma

Listen Here: Vasudaiva Kutumbakam

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