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.

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.

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

Back To The Land Of The Gods

Two more days and then I am heading back to Bali! I am thrilled to be going back to this magical place. I’ll be teaching Yoga Philosophy for my dear friends who run the wonderful, intense, and transformative Vibrant Living Teacher Training. You can find out more about this exceptional training at http://www.radiantlyalive.com/training.php

The Art Of The Gourd Banjo

my left-handed fretless cherry wood gourd banjo

I’ve played old-time music for 15+ years. Often, in the late afternoon, I can be found sitting out on my deck, watching the sun disappear beneath the redwoods while playing a tune from West Virginia or the Round Peak area of North Carolina. From the banjo, old sounds of a half-forgotten past filter through the air.

I was introduced to the banjo by my close friend Martin Simpson. He played me a recording of Dock Boggs’ Country Blues. To this day, that song still haunts me in the best way possible. I have also had the good fortune of learning the banjo from one of my dear friends and musical heroes, the inimitable Jody Stecher.

I have always been attracted to the sounds of the gourd banjo, which is exactly what it sounds like – a banjo made from a gourd (think: veggie with a neck!) For years, I have played a banjo made by Bob Thornburg from Bishop, California. It has served me well, but like all organic things, has started to revert back to its more original, compostable state. When I decided that I wanted a replacement, I turned to Jeff Menzies, a wonderful banjo maker (and lovely human being) from Toronto, Canada.

Jeff approaches his art and his craft with boundless energy, love, and precise attention to detail. Having him create a superb gourd banjo for me has been nothing short of a joyous experience. For anyone interested in a banjo built with love and expert skill, I can unreservedly recommend Jeff’ Menzies. Feel free to tell him I sent you…

Jeff’s website: http://www.jeffreymenzies.com/

A short biography on Jeff can be found at:

http://www.dhyatt.com/craft_bio_menzies.html

A very nice history of the gourd banjo can be found here:

http://www.dhyatt.com/history.html

Here is a sound sample of me playing my Jeff Menzies banjo.   Groundhog

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